Grantee Partner Spotlight: Watershed Cairns

Tethys Panorama

By Mark Hallett, Director of Grants Programs

Read Time 4 minutes
April 1, 2022

Watershed Cairns received an Illinois Humanities Action Grant to look at how the 1900 reversal of the Chicago River created ecological and community challenges along the Illinois River. Led by sculptor Libby Reuter and photographer Joshua Rowan, the project involved the creation of temporary sculptures, or cairns, using found glass objects. The cairns were photographed in select locations near the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

A Q&A with Watershed Cairns

Featuring Libby Reuter, project director

Q: How do you see the arts, culture, and the humanities as being essential?

Libby Reuter: Cognitive flexibility. To create a unified composition, an artist will work on a part (For example; a musical phrase, a line in a poem, an argument in an essay, the color of a shirt), then refocus the effect that it has on the entire work, then go back to correct the detail. Arts practice develops brains that can think about complex systems. Another contribution is that the humanities preserve diverse cultural wisdom and imagine new ways of being in the world. 

They broaden the possibilities for the people we can become and societies we will build.

Libby Reuter

Libby Reuter on the Missouri River | photo by Joshua Rowan

Q: What is the most important thing that people should know about your work?

Libby Reuter: Watershed Cairns: Water Marked with Art aims to inform and inspire people to preserve and protect our freshwater resources. For ten years, photographer Joshua Rowan and I have traveled along rivers of the Mississippi/ Ohio/ Missouri Watershed temporarily placing and making 400 photographs of stacked glass sculptures-cairns. We collaborate with environmental organizations to learn and share information about the issues facing fresh water. The photos, with information about their location and the watershed, and glass cairns have been exhibited in Midwestern museums and on

Watershed Cairns 1

A fountain-like cairn marks this boat landing in DeSoto County’s only public access to the Mississippi River | photo by Joshua Rowan

Watershed Cairns 2

The Blue Cairn at Tide Water Road, Boothville-Venice, Louisiana | photo by Joshua Rowan

Q: How did you arrive at doing what you do?

Libby Reuter: Before the 1993 Mississippi River Flood, I hadn’t paid much attention to the rivers, they were just a thin blue line on the map or a minute of travel over a bridge, now they were creating havoc. At the time I was creating sculptures and working on Millennium Journey, a community project. Artist-friends and I bottled 1000 tiny bottles of “Flood Mud” to sell for flood relief. We didn’t sell many, but it started me thinking about rivers with watercolors based on old maps. My glass sculptures at the time were inspired by religious reliquaries. In 2010, I saw Joshua Rowan’s photographic exhibit and asked him to work with me on an idea that became Watershed Cairns.

Q: Who makes your work possible?

Libby Reuter: Our work has been supported by grants from the St. Louis Metropolitan Sewer District, Missouri American Water, and Mississippi River Network. Partnerships with the Illinois Sierra Club and Missouri Coalition for the Environment, and exhibits at the Missouri History Museum, St. Louis; Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Winona; Cedarhurst Center for the Arts, Mt. Vernon, Illinois; National Great Rivers Museum and the Jacoby Art Center, Alton, Illinois, and the Audubon Centre at Riverlands, West Alton, Missouri; and St. Louis Galleries have provided income. The photographic prints and Watershed Cairns: Mississippi River North, are available for sale through our website. 

Thanks to our environmental and river-rat friends for sharing their knowledge and to friends and family who gave us glass, helped load and unload the van, and encouraged our foolishness.

Libby Reuter's Suggested Readings:

About Watershed Cairns

Watershed Cairns
The collaboration between Reuter and Rowan is intended to underscore the distinctiveness of the riverine ecosystems and their environmental and cultural significance.

Since 2011 artists Libby Reuter and Joshua Rowan have collaborated on defining what a watershed looks like and how people use them. They have traveled to over 400 locations across the Mississippi-Missouri basin placing Reuter’s glass cairns in local watersheds photographed by Rowan. Every glass cairn is strategically placed in specifically scouted scenes of some of the most beautiful and unexpected sites along the upper Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio Rivers. The cairns are handmade sculptures assembled from household or antique glass. The cairns mark the watersheds metaphorically as fragile, beautiful, and deeply connected to everyday life. The large-scale, color photographs vividly bring to life the locale and intimately reveal the connections of the people and communities to their local watershed. 

The Illinois Humanities grant is being managed by Alton Forward, a not-for-profit collaboration of AltonWorks; its focus is to inspire stakeholders to become champions, ambassadors, leaders, volunteers, investors, partners, and active around the future of Alton.

Watershed Cairns logo scaled

About the Grantee Partner Spotlight Series

Illinois Humanities highlights the work of our Grants partners through our monthly Grantee Partner Spotlight. It shines a light on our grantee partners' work and allows readers to get to know them better through a Q&A with members of the organization. Read more by browsing the "Grantee Partner Spotlight" series here.