Residents of Alexandria, Virginia have accidentally—and perhaps unwittingly—joined the modern art world thanks to an exhibit titled Renewal at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Northern Virginia displaying the work of artist-in-residence sTo Len. And all they had to do was flush their toilets.

The display consists of a collection of photographs, prints and found objects all related to the local AlexRenew Wastewater Treatment Facility. AlexRenew is a special-purpose wastewater authority that serves more than 300,000 people in the City of Alexandria and parts of Fairfax County. The treatment facility services an average of 35 million gallons of wastewater per day, which provides the “raw” material for Len’s work. Among the collection are multiple prints of swirling shapes created by applying paper to the surface of a settling tank. This is the first artist-in-residence exhibit at a wastewater treatment plant and its purpose as explained by the artist is to “endear people to their own waste”. 

The Alexandria wastewater treatment facility is designed to treat a combination of sewage and storm water by running the wastewater through a number of settling tanks to remove nutrients before the wastewater is deposited into the nearby Potomac River. Len’s media of choice was “crowdsourced” from the flushed toilets of thousands of area residents. Then, through the incorporation of several techniques such as suminagashi marbling, block printing, gyotaku fish printing, and cyanotype printmaking, Len captured the impressions left from the pollution, bacteria, and other waste found in the area wastewater and local waterways. The swirling and abstract patterns that remain in the tanks help to create the art while bringing attention to the environmental impact humans have on the local watershed. 

Len was inspired by how water—regardless of how it is sourced and what it might contain—always makes things beautiful. He enjoys the reactions of those who visit the exhibit and remark on how gorgeous the images are yet have no idea what they’re actually seeing. Once the process and origins are explained, the beauty of the work becomes educational. Among the lessons learned are how Alexandria is working to reduce sewage overflow into waterways by building enormous subterranean tunnels that function to hold contaminated water until it is able to be treated. The project isn’t cheap, and making it happen requires community residents to pay more in utility bills. This fact provides a little insight as to why the city supported the in-residence exhibit in the hopes that it would engage and foster appreciation in those who would be helping to foot the bill. 

Also shown at the water treatment plant exhibit are various objects found by the artist in the water in and around the facility. Arranged artfully, their presence further punctuated the importance of spotlighting the issue of local water system sustainability. Len did his homework, working with scientists and engineers to shed a positive light on the water recovery process at AlexRenew while bringing the local residents into the process through a related public participation project called SEEWATER. The project will invite Alexandrians to participate in a photo scavenger hunt with the purpose of bringing awareness to the smallest details of water in their lives, from the Alexandria sewer system to the connected waterfront habitats. 

The AlexRenew project has evolved into a rare confluence of art and utilities, but there have been similar projects that also sought to highlight water sustainability issues. In 2016, artist Suzan Shutan drew inspiration from the shapes of the major rivers of Nebraska and placed more than 600 pom-poms into them. With water testing in wells around the state showing pollutant levels higher than the federal guidelines, she color-coded the pom-poms to represent the presence of the various contaminants. The resulting images made a dramatic—and frightening—impression. 

For more information on the AlexRenew Wastewater Treatment Facility, please visit alexrenew.com. Then explore Graver’s high-quality wastewater treatment products with superior filtration characteristics.