The trash littering Baltimore's harbor might not seem like art to many. But for local artist Eileen Wold, it's an obvious sign of the damaged health of the waterways that define this region.
The Inner Harbor and Middle Branch of the Patapsco River — debris and all — are featured subjects of a new multimedia exhibition by Wold that opened this week at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. The aim of "Empty Waters," she explained, is to get people to think hard about their role in degrading the Chesapeake Bay, and especially the harbor.
Wold, 32, said she was struck by how centuries of neglect and abuse have rendered the harbor unsafe for swimming. The city health department warns against swimming, saying that people could become sick or get an infection from contact with disease-causing bacteria in the water, which are especially abundant after heavy rains. Then there's the ubiquitous trash floating in and under the water, and lining the shore.
From just outside her home in Federal Hill, Wold said, "I can see the water. It sort of surrounds me, and I can't touch it."
In each video, photograph and drawing of water and shoreline scenes in her exhibit , Wold has inserted one or more brightly colored inner tubes. They're there to highlight the irony that for most people, water recreation can only happen safely in artificial, man-made settings because natural waters are often regarded as too polluted or risky.
Wold, a New York native, earned her bachelor's degree in visual art from Loyola University Maryland and a master's in fine arts last year from the Maryland Institute College of Art. She also studied in Belgium.
"I trained as a landscape painter," she said, but added that she has found it increasingly difficult to find unmarred natural landscapes to portray.
Energy themes dominate her recent work, as she attempts to prompt people to question the economic, social and environmental impacts of producing electricity. Brandon Shores, Calvert Cliffs and other Maryland power plants show up in the industrial structures depicted on the shores of her pictures in "Empty Waters," too.
"It's a difficult political problem, because you need industry and you need jobs," she said. But, she added, "we need to be more responsible."
Though she dislikes labels, Wold said some people describe the work she's doing as "eco-art."
"I research and then respond through art-making," she said.
Wold said she was inspired to focus on the health of the bay and harbor after talking with Flavius Lilly, assistant vice president for academic and student affairs at the UBM campus. The school has a "Wellness Hub" that offers programs, workshops and other activities aimed at promoting social, personal and environmental health among its graduate and professional students.
"We wanted to incorporate different elements that a lot of students don't necessarily have access to outside the university setting," said Hillary Edwards, assistant director of the Hub. Wold's artwork helps get people thinking about the interaction of people with the environment, or as Edwards put it, "our nature with nature."
Wold said she's not done yet making art inspired by harbor. She's looking to collect trash from the shore of the Patapsco River near Harbor Hospital — one of the scenes photographed in her exhibit — and build a wall out of it.
Wold's artwork will be on display through April 15 on the second floor of the campus center at 621 W. Lombard St. There will be an opening reception Friday from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. She'll also give a talk from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. April 14.