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Our Blue Planet to showcase local and global perspectives on water at SAM

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Sea Bear, 1990, Sherry Markovitz, wood, beads, shells, fabric, paint, papier mache, 25 x 17 x 29 in., Gift of Terry Hunziker, 90.3, © Sherry Markovitz
Sea Bear, 1990, Sherry Markovitz, wood, beads, shells, fabric, paint, papier mache, 25 x 17 x 29 in., Gift of Terry Hunziker, 90.3, © Sherry Markovitz

Seattle is well loved for its access to water. Green Lake, Lake Union, Lake Washington, the Skykomish River, the Sammamish River, and the Puget Sound make up a large portion of the region. We are close to temperate rainforests and alpine lakes galore, separated from the drier eastern side of the state by the Cascades. Water shapes our natural and cultural landscapes inseparably.

Though it is incredibly visible here, water (or lack thereof) also defines life in all other regions of the States and the world. It determines commerce, agriculture, livelihoods, and the general ability to sustain life.

Starting March 18, the Seattle Art Museum is showcasing an exciting new exhibit focusing on the role water has played in human existence through various artistic representations spanning scientific data, aesthetics, environmental change, cultural histories, and spirituality.

Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water will be as much of a contemporary experience as it is a trip across time. As SAM's website explains, it will feature "artworks created in 618 AD... alongside contemporary works so new, they were finished in preparation for this exhibition."

The exhibit will consist of "more than 80 paintings, sculptures, films, photographs, and textiles" from an intriguing variety of 74 artists from 17 countries and seven Native American tribes, according to SAM's website.

Also, the advisory committee for this exhibition comprised Seattle Aquarium employees, a Superfund manager, artists, and conservation specialists. SAM obviously aspired to a nuanced perspective on water when planning Our Blue Planet.

In conjunction with the exhibit, local artist Sherry Markovitz's sculpture Sea Bear will be moved from SAM's main gallery to Our Blue Planet.

On SAM's blog, Markovitz explained a bit of what went into constructing the polar bear head: "Emotionally, Sea Bear is circular, all the stuff on it is traceable to significant walks. Walks with my mother in Florida, walks in Port Townsend with Peter... walks alone to find the 'root' pieces at Discovery Park. Walking on the beach is such a drifting and wonderful activity."

Strolling through a gallery and seeing materials from our backyard will position the guest locally, before shifting gears and displaying art from overseas, connecting the world via water and its various meanings geographically.

Utagawa Hiroshige's woodblock prints will be featured prominently in the exhibit, a testament to the power of Japanese representations of water via ukiyo-e-style art across time. When you think of art centering on water, The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai likely comes to mind first, as it is one of the most ubiquitous prints in art history. It has shaped how outsiders view Japan, tsunamis (though it is not supposed to represent one), and oceanic art in general.

Our Blue Planet would not be a contemporary exhibition if it didn't also tackle the trickier histories of water. Plenty of artworks showcasing pollution and toxic waters, along with water's fraught future, will be on display as well.

All of this is to say: water has a large place in art, locally and globally, and Our Blue Planet is a timely collection of pieces that will take a stab at localizing the viewer in myriad cultural and artistic understandings of it. It is an appealing addition to SAM's collections and a fitting exhibit for the region.

Our Blue Planet will run from March 18 to May 30. SAM is open Wednesdays to Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; tickets can be purchased for specific time slots at the door or at https://www.seattleartmuseum.org/. Masks are required.