The Story of “When Water Moves”


Editor’s note: This article served as a preview for FLOW’s live-streamed premier of the film “When Water Moves” on Sunday, September 12, at 5:00 p.m. EDT. Photo by Tyler Franz.

By Anne-Marie Oomen

Ari Mokdad (left) and Anne-Marie Oomen (right) read from Seiche Ways aboard the Nauti-Cat in 2018.

It begins for me with the question that haunts my days: How can I use my art, my words, my one small gift which brings me joy, to make a difference in those causes I consider most critical to supporting eco-vigor? In recent years, that attempt to “make a difference” has been focused on water. Thank goodness for FLOW, because through their Art Meets Water program, that impulse found a home. Their program seeks to connect their mission with artistic resources to “develop this natural creative synergy into an intentional and inspiring outreach platform that motivates action and change.” In other words, they welcome and support interaction with artists who are thinking about water.

In 2018, FLOW had graciously supported the book launch of The Lake Michigan Mermaid: A Tale in Poems (written with Linda Nemec Foster, illustrated by Meridith Ridl). Then too through the publication (with Ari Mokdad) of a pocket anthology, Seiche Ways, a gentle fundraiser in which Ari and I collected water poems from our regional poets as a gratitude gift for FLOW donors. Ari is a poet, dancer and choreographer. She also happens to be married to the captain of the Nauti-Cat, and though her roots are in Detroit, she had also enthusiastically fallen in love with these more northern waters. I enjoyed our interaction immensely, and in August of 2019, one of her beautifully choreographed dances, “Water Studies” was accepted in the Detroit Dance City Festival, incorporating my poem “Water Gratitude” into the work. Inspired by the pleasure of those collaborations, we looked at each other and asked, “What’s next?”

With FLOW, we began to build a program for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, in March 2020, to address the ongoing water crisis in the state. We hoped to celebrate and heighten the water spirit permeating the work of water activists, including the water protectors of the tribal communities. We planned a multi-dimensional project that would include dance, poetry, community, and water. All was canceled due to COVID-19. For a while we floundered, but then like so many artists, we became inspired by the “creative synergy” of the challenge and  refocused the grant on video presentation—motivated by a more precise question: How could we communicate both the aesthetic and spiritual narrative of our beloved lakes, and simultaneously heighten the sense of urgency for water issues?

We extended the original concept of “When Water Moves,” to a dance/text/image/performance video centered on an original water parable that incorporates water issues. In the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA) grant application, we wrote: “As Michigan-born artists with deep ties to water culturally, our work coalesces around both the movement of water, represented through traditional Anishinaabe dance and new contemporary choreography, and through text (poetry and storytelling) that uses water themes. We believe that water activism can successfully build from arts-based collaborations centered on the Great Lakes and current water issues.” We also hoped that this water-art collaboration might initiate deeper thinking about how we belong to the lakes instead of the other way around. We hoped that the aesthetics of story, of poetry and dance, and the imagery of video might move viewers to think about a more comprehensive and heartfelt water protection and preservation ethic.  

“When Water Moves” evolved as a video performance poem about a water woman who becomes a lake being, embodying in spirit the love of water and assuring its longevity. The story also describes how a water woman faces what happens when we fail to respect this ultimately life-giving resource. I had the pleasure of writing and narrating the poem, but the real pleasures were the contributing voices from the Northern Michigan and greater community. The story is inspired by both Sierra Clark’s Anishinaabe stories and tales from Ari Mokdad’s Lebanese heritage. Joe VanderMeulen stepped in to bring it all together—videotaping Ari’s lovely choreography, incorporating the voices of water protectors and the Anishinaabe jingle dress dance for healing.

Thanks to Joe’s skilled work, friends who view the short film will have the pleasure of watching a narration that holds both threads: aesthetically beautiful rendering of the concept and reflections on water work. The video offers hope for healing the relationships of humans to water. And also, just perhaps, offers a model for how artistic collaboration can build water consciousness, both for the artists and for the audiences who participate in open follow-up discussions. 

In addition, Ari and I are grateful that MCAC and the Northwest Michigan Arts and Culture Network were comfortable awarding support for this project to a grant-seeker (FLOW) that is not categorized as an arts organization. FLOW’s history of meaningful relationships with artists gave the project a solid track-record to stand on. To that end, Ari and I wrote the following with heartfelt conviction, “As artists we strive to foster conversations… and shift our perspective towards a culture that values, honors, and celebrates water and water equity. This conversation and development of art provides a starting point to create a healthier water culture and a more joyful participation in water consciousness and preservation. That said, we do this work because we share an ethos with FLOW as artists to preserve our greatest resource in Michigan and continue to advocate for sustainable changes for water equity and justice. This work is integral to our beings as water is a part of what makes our culture and very psyches whole.”

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