Wading into the cold waters of Frankford Creek in the middle of October wasn’t pleasant, but Alison Evans was determined to get a water sample for her thesis project about pollution in Philadelphia’s waterways.
“I took a Saturday and a Sunday when I didn’t have class, and I basically drove around the city all day for both of those days, finding different locations to test,” said Evans, a 2021 visual studies alumna. “I felt kind of strange because I was just a girl with her bucket testing water, but it was pretty cool.”
Evans developed her thesis project, “Water Works,” during the Fall 2021 semester, which displays how human activity has altered Philadelphia’s waterways. The project shows a glass map of the city’s modern waterways over an 1876 map of Philadelphia with bowls of water from the rivers she sampled demonstrating how polluted they are.
On March 14, Evans’ project won an honorable mention — including a $1,000 prize — for the climate change nonprofit Honoring the Future’s Fellowship and Award Program for Emerging Craft Artists Advancing Sustainability.
Evans submitted pictures of her work, a statement about how it relates to sustainability and her plans to use the $10,000 cash prize to fund future art projects if she won.
As a recent college graduate, Evans has been looking for work and is unsure about her future, but receiving the award gave her confidence that she can build a successful career as an artist.
“It’s confirming that it’s all gonna work out, and the future is playing out how you want it to,” Evans said.
She started taking ceramics and glass-working classes for fun during her freshman year at Springfield Township High School in Oreland, Pennsylvania, but had no idea it would turn into a career path.
“When I was in high school and even at the beginning of college, I think I was like ‘Oh I just like doing this, this is something I’m doing for reasons unknown,’” Evans said. “But now, as an artist, I’m taking myself a little bit more seriously, and I have been able to grow a lot of the skills that I had before and then apply them.”
Leah Modigliani, an associate visual studies professor and head of the visual studies program, nominated Evans for the award.
Coming into Modigilani’s visual studies thesis seminar, Evans knew she wanted to create a project about the environment, and chose to focus on water quality after seeing the flooding that Hurricane Ida caused last September.
To collect data for her thesis, Evans sampled water from waterways like the Delaware River and the Schuylkill River and unfiltered tap water from Presser Hall because she thought it would be fitting to have a sample from where her project was displayed.
She measured bacteria levels using test strips she purchased online and tested the water for chemicals like phosphate, lead and copper. She also read research papers about laws affecting water and agricultural runoff.
Modigliani liked how Evans combined art and science in her project, especially how she created glazes that matched the color on the test strips indicating the level of pollution in the water.
“You can’t often see the pollutants or the minerals or natural stuff in the water,” Modigliani said. “And yet, she tried to visualize it through these forms and through these colors, which I thought was pretty interesting.”
Modigliani was also impressed with the amount of time Evans put into her project, spending hundreds of hours creating the ceramic bowls and glazes, as well as collecting and testing water samples.
Fran Dubrowski, the director and co-founder of Honoring the Future, loved that the project shed light on how people have changed waterways in Philadelphia over time.
Durbrowski was also drawn to the ceramic bowls and feels calling attention to water pollution is an important part of sustainability.
“A lot of people don’t realize that the waterways that run through the city have been altered by humans over time, and also what our activities are doing to impact the quality of that water,” Dubrowski said.
A third of all waterways in Pennsylvania are considered harmful to wildlife and unsafe to drink, with most of the polluted waterways concentrated in Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Evans wants to continue making her own art and inspire other people to do the same.
“I see how it has positively impacted my life and has become something I am very passionate about and enthusiastic about,” Evans said. “I think it’s important everyone has that same experience, or the opportunity for that same experience.”