May 13, 2024

Note: This post was originally published on the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s blog on May 13, 2024. 

Since the beginning of time, art has been used to teach and spark conversations about the world around us. Visually representing sometimes complex concepts through illustration, performance or sculpture can help people better understand an environmental issue and encourage action. Hello, River is a perfect example of how this is coming to life in Downtown Des Moines.

Hello, River

Hello, River, conceived by the duo behind Minneapolis-based creative studio +/&, Emily Stover and Amanda Lovelee, is nearly finished and its installation is scheduled for early this summer along the Des Moines River near the Lauridsen Skate Park off of 2nd Avenue in downtown.

+/& (pronounced, plus/and) is a design studio built on the belief that “stronger relationships make better cities.” Stover and Lovelee use public art and experiential design to create tools and spaces that help people connect with each other and with their environment. Their projects are location-specific and are consistently joyful, intentional, and engaging.

Hello, River is delightfully interactive. An 8’ tall opalescent archway, painted to resemble the inside of Iowa-native mussel shells, welcomes visitors to the water. Embedded in the sculpture are speakers, amplifying the babbling, gurgling sounds of a river. These recordings emulate the behavior of the water and provide valuable context for conversations about water safety or environmental conservation.

The Arts Make Everything Better

The riverways are an integral piece of the DSM region with the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers at the center. Sprouting from these water trails are 150 miles of rivers and creeks, building a network of opportunities to swim, boat, play, educate, and conserve. Iowa Confluence — ICON — Water Trails, works to (re)connect Iowans to the river. They know that conserving Central Iowa’s waterways does more than just provide people with recreation; thoughtfully and intentionally managing the region’s rivers and creeks protects local ecosystems and wildlife and urges discussion and action around water quality and environmental conservation.

Art can be for pure enjoyment, but it can also be a problem solver, a conversation starter, and an anchor for the community. Understanding how the river behaves, and the rules of water safety can feel daunting, so creating an accessible solution that is likely more interesting than a plaque or long-winded sign was key. With this in mind, Bravo worked with Polk County to apply for a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Our Town grant for creative placemaking, to fund a future public art project for an ICON Water Trails access point. Our Town funded projects integrate arts, culture, and design into efforts that strengthen communities over the long term. This opportunity for public art felt like a meaningful fit for Bravo to engage with and collaborate with community partners. As the region’s arts council, Bravo works to make sure that arts and culture are connected to all of the region’s priorities and efforts. The granted Our Town funds were used to ideate, create, and install Hello, River (soon!).

Anecdotal research has shown that using the arts to illustrate a complicated issue, like water safety or conservation, can inspire people to act, people who otherwise would not have participated had the art not been there. Eighty-six percent of people who participate in the arts want to be more involved in local issues and projects. The health of Iowa’s waterways, natural resources, and water safety are all issues that affect our community. By using art as a means to communicate, educate, and inspire more people can be impacted than when art is absent.

Soon people will begin gravitating towards the cool water, and with summer temperatures just around the corner, Hello, River will have two functions:

  1. A beacon, drawing visitors to the water’s edge.
  2. A tool, teaching visitors how to pay attention to the river’s sounds and levels to gauge their comfort when accessing the waterways.

As a welcoming beacon, Hello, River will have an obvious, immediate impact along the river bank. But, its significance as a tool, educating visitors about the river, a resource that many likely take for granted and pass by every day, is discrete. Visitors must be curious and willing to interact with the art to utilize its full potential. Hello, River could encourage someone to learn more about water conservation habits, how to engage with the water safely, or have a better understanding of how art can impact the environment. After all, the arts make everything better.

Where to Learn More

You can learn more about how the arts impact environmental and conservation work or how the arts and science or infrastructure benefit each other by using the Arts Impact Explorer from Americans for the Arts. And, make sure to follow ICON (@iconwatertrails) and Bravo Greater Des Moines (@bravogreaterdsm) and updates on Hello, River.

About the Author: Sally Dix is the Executive Director of Bravo Greater Des Moines, an organization that provides funding and leadership to the Greater Des Moines arts, culture, and heritage community.