Watered Silk

Don Tuttle

Only a seam separates the salmon from their spawning grounds in Linda Gass's stitched painting, San Joaquin Merced Revival. In reality—which Gass has researched in topographical maps, aerial photos and site visits—the fish have been forced from their habitats by diversions of water caused by the Friant Dam, constructed in 1942. (There's some artistic license at play in Revival, but see where that winding trail of brown moves in alongside a sinuous ribbon of turquoise? That's the confluence of the frequently dry San Joaquin River with the Merced River.)

Don Tuttle
Refined?, 30 by 30 inches ©2008 Linda Gass

Gass, '81, MS '83, turns serious California water issues into art. Her strategy is to "use the lure of beauty." A landscape—usually one scarred by human enterprise—is painted in bright dye on white silk, then machine-quilted with colored thread. Environmental damage gets idealized—the better to convert viewers to concern for what's at stake. People drawn to Refined?, for example, may think those oil storage tanks look sweet as cinnamon rolls, but there's also no denying the harsh reality of Chevron's refinery, built in Richmond at the edge of San Francisco Bay.

Gass, formerly a software engineer for 10 years at Adobe, began to concentrate on water issues after taking two Stanford Continuing Studies classes on land art. She loved the classes' "truly interdisciplinary" approach, blending geography, anthropology, history and politics. Excellent preparation, it would seem, for appreciating how—after more than two decades of legal action, negotiation and study—water is now released at intervals from the Friant Dam and channels are being restored, with the goal of bringing Chinook salmon back to the San Joaquin.