Prospect Park installation addresses city’s drinking watershed

Artist Mary Mattingly standing in front of her sculpture.
Photo by Manuel Molina Martagon, courtesy of More Art

The subject of Brooklyn-based artist Mary Mattingly’s latest sculpture, “Public Water,” currently on view at the Grand Army Plaza entrance to Prospect Park, has long been a topic of interest and source of inspiration in her work.

“Due to heavy use of agricultural chemicals like DDT well into the 1980s, I grew up without clean drinking water in a rural community not far from New York City and some of the first sculptures I made were systems that cleaned water,” Mattingly said in an email about her interest in issues around water access and clean water scarcity.

When she moved to Brooklyn in 2001, she became interested in the city’s drinking watershed, which eventually led to her latest work.

Public Water” — presented by public art nonprofit More Art in conjunction with Prospect Park Alliance, New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the Brooklyn Public Library — consists of a 10-foot tall geodesic dome that is filled with native plants that filter water in ways that mimic the city’s watershed (a version of the sculpture was first presented at the Brooklyn Public Library in early 2020).

The project follows More Art’s “A Year of Public Water,” a website that details the history of New York City’s drinking watershed.

Photo by Manuel Molina Martagon, courtesy of More Art

“Fresh water scarcity is affecting people across the country, and access to clean drinking water is increasingly challenging,” Mattingly said. “New York City’s drinking water history is enormous: it’s geologic, political and immensely tragic. It’s currently the largest unfiltered water supply in the United States.”

Mattingly, who has exhibited at Storm King, the International Center of Photography, the Seoul Art Center and the Brooklyn Museum (where she was an artist in residence), among many other venues, often focuses her work on ecological issues. In 2016 she created “Swale,” a floating garden that docks at piers around the city and allows visitors to forge for free fresh food.

When Mattingly discovered that Prospect Park is now connected to the city’s public water infrastructure (it used to use groundwater pumped from a well), it became a natural setting for the project.

“Prospect Park’s watercourse is a microcosm of New York City’s drinking watershed,” she said. “From streams to ponds and waterfalls, the park’s water infrastructure was designed to mimic natural ecosystem functions of a watershed.”

Photo by Manuel Molina Martagon, courtesy of More Art

Mattingly has also created a self-guided walking tour to go along with the sculpture that coincides with the launch of ecoWEIR, a natural filtration pilot project in the park.

Ultimately, Mattingly hopes the project will inspire further action on the part of the visitor — not just the problem but how we can become part of the solution.

“I’m eager to share the strengths of a water system that almost nine million people depend on everyday, what steps it has taken to begin to be more equitable and what we can do to help steward it,” she said.

This story first appeared on Brownstoner.com.