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Year of the River Seeks To Rehabilitate Wabash's Image

crayon drawing of river and autumn trees

On a recent Wednesday, Mary Kramer and Steve Letsinger worked their way through an icy parking lot to a walking path along the Wabash, the focus of their work for all of 2013.

Letsinger is the Art Curator at Rose Hulman Institute of Technology, and Kramer is the Executive Director of Wabash Valley Art Spaces. They've been working together, along with the regional arts group Arts Illiana, to launch the yearlong celebration of the Wabash called 2013 Year of the River.

Throughout 2013, there will be river-themed concerts, prayer circles, and art exhibits. The Year of the River project could be called a public image campaign for the Wabash.

Fairbanks Park is a good example of what they hope this year will accomplish. It's the only park along the Wabash in Terre Haute, but it's a nice one-it's got a playground, an amphitheater, and a walking path. Kramer and Letsinger would like to see the park get more use than it does now.

"From here of course you can see the bridges of the highways that traverse this area," Letsinger says while standing on the riverfront path. "And I think years ago people came down here before there was air conditioning, they had a nice summer day and had family get-togethers and cookouts. A lot of that stuff still goes on."

On The Banks Of The Wabash

Once Terre Haute's commercial and cultural hub-even inspiring Indiana's state song, "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away"-the Wabash River has in recent years been pushed to the margins of civic life.

The city's transportation and businesses moved away from the river, and meanwhile the city's sewer overflows were emptying directly into it.

One of the goals of 2013 Year of the River is to integrate the Wabash back into the fabric of city life.

"Because you don't see it from downtown, there's a lot of disconnect between the river and downtown and one of the things we're working on is trying to reduce that disconnect," Kramer says.

Making A Place

As environmentalists and city engineers make progress on rehabilitating the water, Year of the River organizers saw an opportunity to get artists involved in the river's revitalization.

"Art adds meaning to place," Kramer says. "It can help you to interpret your environment, and visualize things in the environment."

With this in mind, Kramer is working throughout the year with eco-artists, so-called because their work draws attention to how people are interacting with their environments.

For example, artists in other cities have created a stone patio that shows the watershed, or a creative water filtration system.

It's this type of artistic problem-solving she hopes will have an impact on the community's perceptions of the river.

"The whole rebirth of the river itself is a tremendous thing for this community. I think for so many years people have ignored the river, it's been neglected," Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett said, speaking at the Year of the River launch, held in early January.

"I'm completely convinced of the impact of the arts on our community," Bennett added.

Bennett affirmed the city's commitment to build a trail that will run south from Fairbanks Park along the river. The city is also installing a camera that will show the river in real-time.

Revitalization Revived

Terre Haute's chief planner, Pat Martin, has been working on riverfront revitalization for about a decade. He says the Year of the River has helped quicken the pace of city development, like the development of a "Bark Park."

"It was sitting there, we were stalled in negotiation," Martin says." But with the year of the river celebration what it does is it moves it dead center. So the year of the river celebration actually is helping us move projects forward in a more rapid fashion."

The city is working on brownfield restoration along the river, which it will combine with the recreation trails and art installations in the service of their larger revitalization plan.

And it's not just nonprofits and officials who are participating. A group of artists calling themselves Watermark came together because they were inspired to do a project for Year of the River.

Watermark will be installing a terrace of handmade stepping stones, all with a river or water theme, in Fairbanks Park

"As individual visual artists we hashed out what we wanted to do," says Watermark member JoAnne Perigo Fiscus. "We wanted to do something that was lasting, that had some educational value, some historical value, and that we could have after year of the river."

While Watermark's installation will be permanent, there are many one-off special events and exhibitions: concerts by Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra, art exhibits at the Swope, and even prayer circles-all with a river theme.

"This is the longest un-dammed river east of the Mississippi; almost 500 miles of natural possibilities here," Letsinger says. "City after city down this river is starting to realize that. It's something to take care of and preserve, to enjoy and respect, and to learn from."

None of the organizers or participating organizations knows what the lasting effects of Year of the River will be. And that's how it was designed, with no particular goal in mind other than to get residents of the Wabash Valley to turn towards their river.

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