Through the Lens of Art: Water=Life Project Celebrates our Relationship with Water

October 31, 2019

As with many artistic processes, the preparation and development of the work are just as important as the finished product; it’s the learning and discovery along the way that brings the piece to fruition. With this work of art, in particular, the process has been intentional, collaborative, and generative. As the culminating art installation nears, the hope of the artists and planning partners is for an engaging work of art in which thousands of visitors can feel the contributions not only of the lead creatives but those of every hand and voice in the community that helped or shared in its creation.

To that end, all are invited to attend and experience Mesa’s Water=Life, a unique blend of public art, storytelling, inspiring demonstrations, hoop dancing, and many other engaging performances that will allow participants to explore the history and future of water in the Valley.

The Water=Life Art Installation and Opening Celebration

Tony Duncan performing Hoop Dancing at Mesa Arts Center event.
Tony Duncan, the lead artist is a five-time World Champion Hoop Dancer and Native American flute player.

This, free to attend, opening celebration by Mesa Arts Center will take place on Saturday, November 16 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Mesa’s Riverview Park. Some of the many features of the celebration include live painting by artist TaLisa; mobile screen-printing (bring a blank t-shirt or tote bag to create your own Water=Life custom screen print created by Thomas “Breeze” Marcus and facilitated by Jared Yazzie); and storytelling and performances by the lead artists involved in the project.

Water=Life will encourage visitors to travel a walkable “stream” that guides them to an inner circle where a soundscape and story walk highlight the relationship we have with water in all stages of our lives, as well as the legacy of the ancient canal system that is the foundation for the modern system in use today. In fact, Mesa’s Riverview Park is an appropriate location for the exhibit as it is the site where multiple canals once existed to nourish the indigenous people who built them.

“The project installation is intended to be symbolic of collaboration, with people coming together to share stories and memories of water,” said Tony Duncan, the lead artist for the project. Duncan has helped counsel and guide the Water=Life core team artists including Violet Duncan (storyteller and author), Rich Littlefield (visual artist), Katharine Simpson (performer and multidisciplinary artist), Danielle Wood (visual artist), and several other participating artists who were up to the challenge.

Gathering the Community’s Personal Reflections about Water

Community members painting ceramic disks for the project.
Rich Littlefield leads a ceramics program at the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community Garden.

The core Water=Life artist team set out to source community ideas, dreams, concerns and stories to create a shared, immersive art experience that aimed to both draw participants into a poignant message and remind them of the preciousness of water as a life force. They enlisted the community to help mastermind the creation of the work through a series of workshops, demonstrations, storytelling, story gathering, and artmaking. At each event participants engaged in making a piece of the artwork and/or sharing a personal story that will influence the final project. Through the workshops, more than 200 community members collaborated on the project and another 600 participated during community events.

Examples of art made by community members
L-R: Katharine Simpson, textile artist had community members cut out images in recycled fabric (leftovers after punching sequins). Ron Carlos leads a pottery class teaching his unique paddle and anvil technique. Pottery disks representing water images were painted by community members with the guidance of Rich Littlefield.

Project Partners and Critical Support

The project was inspired and funded by The New Arizona Prize: Water Public Art Challenge, an Arizona Community Foundation program intended to raise public awareness about water. As one of five winners, the prize offered Mesa $50,000 to create a temporary art project honoring the legacy of the ancestral Sonoran Desert people. The Mesa Arts Center also secured grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to support the project.

Riverview Park aerial photo
Location of the Water=Life will be near the spiral walkway in Riverview Park.

The planning, facilitation, and culmination of this project are thanks to the efforts of a unique and diverse citywide task force, made up of representatives from City of Mesa Arts & Culture Department (Mesa Arts Center, i.d.e.a. Museum, and Arizona Museum of Natural History), and the Departments of Environmental Management and Sustainability, Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, and Water Resources.

Following the opening celebration, the public art at the heart of Water=Life will be on display for nine days and will be taken down on Sunday, November 24. It is hoped that the installation will prompt visitors to think about the many roles water plays in their lives, the choices they make, and their impact on our future.


The Mesa Arts Center is the largest multidisciplinary arts center in the southwest. Their mission is to invite all people to create and discover entertaining, challenging, and diverse art and arts experiences within joyous, dynamic, and welcoming environments. Learn more at Water=Life.