Art of Water at Reservoir Studio

Artistic Activism Addressing Clean Water Issues

Toni Wynn

Stephen Carpenter at 2012 Collaborative Creative Resistance performance.This article is one in a series linking art and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math).

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.  – Loren Eiseley

We have to make parts for the machine we’re using. – B. Stephen Carpenter IICarpenter inspecting completed filter.

“Cause trouble by…”

At Penn State, Reservoir Studio’s potter/ceramicists create filters and pots for water. Water is the subject, art is the means, science is the connector. B. Stephen Carpenter II, professor of art education at Penn State’s School of Visual Arts, stops short of calling his work “activist,” although others take that liberty. Both awestruck and pragmatic, Carpenter finds the idea of making the filters “magical.” 

The pragmatic aspect is the response to the global water crisis —the condition that, as of 2012, 11% of the world’s people do not have ready access to potable water.   It's an artistically pramatic response of performing acts of resistance with likeminded collaborators.

Most of us don’t willingly set our everyday selves down and forge a new community. Carpenter’s Collaborative Creative Resistance at Penn State has introduced the public to reservoir studio, a “transdisciplinary, underground collective” of students, educators, artists and community members who contribute their know-how (and learn-how) to actively address the water crisis.

“It’s inexpensive,” he says. “Clay is everywhere. The filters stop people from getting diarrhea. That’s different than activism.” That’s action.

Students at 2012 Collaborative Resistence Performance.In April 2013, Penn State’s Art Education program presented Sympathetic Vessels: The Water Receptacles of Dynamic Flow, an exhibit of ceramic vessels for point of use water filters. This showcase of the work of undergraduate and graduate visual arts students posed questions about artistic media, and artists’ and educators’ societal roles.  Sympathetic Vessels also encouraged viewers to reflect upon their own, personal responsibilities to address local and global clean water issues.

The art of water is an everyday performance that goes deep into West African tradition. Poet Phillis Wheatley’s only memory of her Gambian homeland was that her mother’s custom was to “pour water before the rising sun.”  Today, access to clean water is a life or death factor for tens of thousands of people in developing African nations.

Carpenter and members of reservoir studio made point of use water filtration pots in the daylong demonstration. Since then, the collective has participated the College of Arts and Architecture’s 50th anniversary celebration by producing water filters in a similar performance/demo.

With the filters, function comes before form. Then the process becomes cyclical. “We need a way to filter bacteria-laden water. Let’s use this pot form,” Carpenter explains. “But now that we have it, we see that that form is not quite doing it—it’s not quite working the way we want it to. We have to change the form in the second iteration,” a natural outgrowth of the function it’s created to perform.

His water filter work has its roots in Texas A&M University’s (TAMU) Water Project that got underway in Carpenter’s garage during his tenure as associate professor of art education and visual culture at Texas A&M. Carpenter learned about the production and use of ceramic water filters from his undergraduate professor and mentor Richard Wukich and colleagueWater filter receptacle created by ceramic artist David Macdonald, a 1968 alumnus of Hampton University. Manny Hernandez.

Reservoir studio and the TAMU Water Project form a culture that is in its own way defiant. Carpenter says when people gather at the studio, “there are no labels. We may not know people’s backgrounds and interests. We don’t try to label it; it’s not meaningful to. We’re in this new space of action and respect.” One purpose of the collective is to transcend or eliminate disciplinary boundaries. Colleagues send teams of students down to explore, critique, produce. Some studio members are not affiliated with a course; they come because of what they hear about the studio. “Some don’t stay around,” Carpenter says. “Those who stay get the thirdness of it, the conceptual spirit in which this space operates.” 

At Texas A&M, Carpenter connected with two likeminded friends: Brian Boulanger, a civil engineer, and Oscar Muñoz, director of the Colonias Program in TAMU’s College  of Architecture’s Center for Housing and Urban Development. Muñoz is a specialist in communities and social services in border villages where basic resources are scarce. The three launched the collective that “worked with communities, not on communities.” They shared meals, talked specifics with residents of the colonias. The multigenerational, multiethnic TAMU water project members came together to help solve a problem. Third- and fourth-year undergraduate engineering students departed the classroom and got the feel of torque and tension by picking up a wrench. The colonias communities continue to engage over health, social and political issues that arise around a lack of clean water.

Nearly all of the world’s cultures have a history of ceramics. Ceramic water pots and filters go back centuries. A coalition of artists, engineers, citizens and educators who create water filters taps into global consciousness. Carpenter, with Muñoz and Boulanger, presented the TAMU water project at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2012, created a ceramic water filter public pedagogy performance at the University of Georgia in early 2013, and is on program at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, in September 2013. Public pedagogy moves Carpenter’s call and art-based responses into the public square.

Potters for Peace (PfP) holds the brand name for its water filter. Other organizations such as Potters Water Action Group and Filter Pure produce and distribute their own versions of the water filters. Professor Fernando Mazariegos at PfP was instrumental in the rebirth of ceramic water filter production after Hurricane Mitch devastated the coast of Honduras in 1998. Reservoir studio experiments with ways to make it. It’s like free verse poetry, Carpenter says. “Lots of people trying to spin it.”

To make the filter, artists put fine sawdust in dried clay—50/50. They mix in water, make the pot, then place it in a kiln at 900C. The sawdust burns out, leaving a porous pot half its original weight. The filter traps 90 – 95% of disease-causing microorganisms. Adding colloidal silver to the water mixed into the clay body boosts the filter’s effectiveness to 99%. (Silver is a natural antimicrobial.) The students test the filtered water to determine if any contaminants remain. The filter doesn’t take care of pharmaceuticals—“the Tylenol dumped in the toilet.” Chemicals introduced into the water supply through fracking are also proving tough to filter out.

The U.N.’s WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply and Sanitation monitors development goals for potable water and sanitation. The goal is to halve, “by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking-water and basic sanitation.” A 2013 report from the program does contain some good news. Over the last 21 years, more than 2 billion people gained access to improved sources of drinking water. Although progress is steady, the report states that 768 million people drew water from an unimproved source in 2011. 

Carpenter' 2013 “I Love You Once a YearReservoir studio attracts engineering students and art education students, but Carpenter expects that to change. He’s setting up the project for perpetuity, “until I become so disruptive they want to get rid of me.” The collective will expand to other access issues—food, information, art education. Whatever those propositions might be, they will be art-informed and primed for action.

Toni Wynn is IRAAA contributing writer on the art-STEM connection.


WHO/Unicef Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation:

Colonias program:

Potters for Peace:

 Reservoir Studio:


Potters Water Action Group: 

Henry Giroux’s “Cultural Studies, Public Pedagogy, and the Responsibility of Intellectuals”

B. Stephen Carpenter II bio/cv: