WSU professor turns world travel into art, education, research, service

Malaysia to Morocco, New Mexico to the Netherlands—WSU fine arts professor Dennis DeHart is globetrotting with a purpose, weaving his world travels into art, education, research and community service.

An interdisciplinary artist and photographer, DeHart is on one-year sabbatical from teaching at WSU to work on three distinct projects, including an innovative, arts-based examination of water rights issues in the U.S. and abroad. Discrete aspects of place and time figure prominently into each project.

“My goal is to connect with diverse audiences through transdisciplinary works while I innovate and educate myself and others,” DeHart said.

“We live in a highly complex and interconnected global society, and the United States is composed of a rich tapestry of cultures from around the world. Traveling teaches patience, adaptability, tolerance, curiosity, open mindedness — all skills that I will bring back to the classroom. Travel also helps me, as a teacher, to have a context for our students from other countries and to better navigate cultural differences.”

Since August, DeHart has visited more than a dozen countries on four continents, stopping at universities, museums, cultural sites and artist retreats to teach, study, explore and make art.

Water: A force that transcends boundaries

Sewage overflow warning on the Spokane River, by Dennis DeHart, 2014.

In his work focused on water, particularly rivers, DeHart explores the interconnections of water and culture and ponders the role of water as a force that transcends social constructs and boundaries. It is part of his ongoing research and creative project “Confluences: Circumnavigating the Territory.” 

As population grows worldwide and climate change alters critical ecosystems, society’s demand on water resources will only intensify, DeHart said. “Designing solutions to alleviate pressure on this precious natural resource will require collaboration across disciplines, cultures and institutions. This particular research is oriented towards collaboration, social practice, joint authorship, experimental media and publication,” he said.

“Art is often at the locus of providing a nuanced perspective on being a human and all the consequences of our choices,” said WSU interim fine arts chair Squeak Meisel. “Dennis’s creative research demonstrates what the arts can remind us through means beyond words. I greatly anticipate the outcomes of his sabbatical research and the impact it will bring to his family, our community, the department, college, university and world at large.”

Now global in scope, “Confluences  initially focused on water issues in the Columbia River Basin of Washington and Oregon, where the artist grew up and wandered widely.

Through images of lakes, rivers, dams and both pristine and human-impacted waterways, the broader work, which includes some narrative, examines various stories and mythologies associated with water and its social, cultural and economic significance. Informed by his recent far-flung travels, it explores, for example, the universal understanding of water in terms of survival: Can we drink the water? Where does it come from? Where do I get it?

Blending art, travel, intercultural experience

Foot Steps in the Sahara Desert, Morocco, near the border of Algeria, digital capture by Dennis DeHart, 2017.

This fall, DeHart will return to his position as an associate professor and photography area coordinator at WSU.

Before returning stateside, he will have collected several new stamps in his passport along with many teachable insights from firsthand views of critical infrastructure and important historic and cultural sites, including storm-water systems in Seattle, aqueducts in Portugal, water temples in Bali, desalination plants in Dubai, the Mekong River in Cambodia, water gardens in Marrakesh, and the canals of Amsterdam.

His wife, Jesica, and two young sons joined in the journey and play a significant role in the second of his current projects, a photo journal called “Errare (Wandertime).”

Still lives created in collaboration with Jesica DeHart, archival pigment prints, by Dennis DeHart, 2017.

The work “blends the boundaries of art, travel and intercultural experience in a post-studio, hyper-locality context,” DeHart said. From a vibrant Cambodian wharf scene to a monochrome vista of Sahara sands, the images capture vivid moments ranging whimsical to sublime.

Meanwhile, his third project combines temporal sculptures and still lives constructed from bits of flora and other natural materials, and produced in collaboration with Jesica during artist residencies in Malaysia and Thailand.

Designed for a fine art gallery context, they reflect a synthesis of long-simmering creative ideas about connections, conflicts and intersections of nature and culture. Native plants, architectural spaces, quality of light and some distinctly Asian influences inform the works.

In May, DeHart completed an artist residency focused on water issues held near the Rhine River in the Netherlands. In July, he’ll wrap up his sabbatical with a monthlong residency at Santa Fe Art Institute, whose yearlong theme centers on water rights. His sights also are set on presenting his art and research at River Arts, a symposium for artists, writers, geographers, biologists, community members and others interested in water issues, at Selkirk College, Canada, next year.

This month, he is working with his family on an organic farm in rural England near the River Arrow and the Welsh border, making art and connecting with nature and people from diverse cultures and communities.

DeHart’s scholarly and creative work focused on water issues aligns with WSU’s Grand Challenges, a suite of research initiatives aimed at resolving large societal issues, including resource sustainability.


— By Adrian Aumen, College of Arts and Sciences