The feel of water: Artists work to rethink mental health and waterways

A pair of Juneau-based artists and water management specialists are seeking to reimagine how interaction with urban waterways works as it pertains to mental health.

“Whether you like it or not, you have an emotional effect from being in or around water,” said Kevin Jeffery, co-founder of Blue Index, an organization created to quantify that effect. “Blue Index asks people, ‘do you have an emotional response near water?’ ”

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jeffery and co-founder Sarah Davidson founded the organization in 2016 in Austin, Texas, as Jeffery was finishing up a master’s degree in landscape architecture at the University of Texas. A two-year pilot project in Austin netted more than 1,000 responses to signs posted up around the city’s rivers, creeks and lakes with a QR code for an online assessment of how the water made them feel, according to its website.

“We all kind of understand that we have these emotional responses,” Davidson said. “But there hasn’t been a robust methodology to collect data from how it impacts emotional health.”

The effects of being near water are apparent, Davidson said; with better tools to quantify that, it could be an asset to people like city managers or park designers as they seek to better understand how the spaces they’re managing affect visitors.

“Why do we pay a million dollars for a waterfront house?” Davidson said. “Why do we prefer to eat at waterfront restaurants?”

The project is still in its infancy here, Davidson said, as the pair seek partnering organizations to get it off the ground in Juneau. In the meantime, they’re not letting the grass grow beneath their feet — or the waves lap around their ankles — with both of them being named as featured artists at Annie Kaill’s for First Friday this March.

For more information about the project, check out the website at blueindex.org.

Michael S. Lockett / Capital City Weekly Sarah Davidson, one of Annie Kaill’s featured artists for the March First Friday event, holds shots from her photography series “Moving Waters,” shot across Southeast Alaska using long-exposure photography.

Michael S. Lockett / Capital City Weekly
Sarah Davidson, one of Annie Kaill’s featured artists for the March First Friday event, holds shots from her photography series “Moving Waters,” shot across Southeast Alaska using long-exposure photography.

Featured artists

In a perhaps unsurprising turn of events, Davidson’s work as an artist is also focused on the water.

“My photo series is called ‘Moving Waters.’ It highlights the many ways we’re moved by waters in various forms,” Davidson said. “It explores our relationship with water and explores the way we benefit from water and think about how we can give back and return.”

Davidson’s photos, shot using a variety of long-exposure techniques, cover three types of bodies of water — flowing creeks and rivers, oscillating waves on coastlines, seemingly still waters — from Yakutat to Prince of Wales, Davidson said.

“It’s an ode to the beautiful magnificent waterways of the region. I’m really grateful to be here to witness them,” Davidson said. “This is really trying to think about our personal relationship with waterways and how valuable they are to us and really trying to encourage people to think about that.”

Kevin Jeffrey, one of Annie Kaill’s featured artists for the March First Friday event, holds a shot from his photography series “New Perspectives,” shot in Juneau using a drone. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Kevin Jeffrey, one of Annie Kaill’s featured artists for the March First Friday event, holds a shot from his photography series “New Perspectives,” shot in Juneau using a drone. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Davidson’s photography is from a fairly regular vantage shot in an unusual way, while jeffery reverses that equation, employing drone photography to show Juneau in a way rarely seen.

“They’re all drone shots. The theme is everything looks different when viewed from above; exploring some of Juneau’s most beloved spaces from above,” jeffery said. “They’re all new perspectives of the same space.”

From ethereal shots of the fog drifting down the Gastineau Channel on Halloween night, to a tight shot of the Juneau Eye with a mountain goat looking beadily at the camera, the drone offers a new way of seeing a town that many Juneau residents know at ground level from long experience, jeffery said.

Getting his professional drone operator license last year, jeffery said he’s learned a lot about operating it safely and effectively in a region of vast bodies of water and periodic high winds.

“There’s a lot of rules for drone photography,” jeffery said. “You want it to look pretty but you also want it to be safe.”

The pair’s work will be on display at Annie Kaill’s on Friday from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Davidson said. Davidson will be in attendance for the whole show; jeffery will be there for some of the time, Davidson said.

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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