Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

Color Studies, Orange by David Andree

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. David Andree was in residence on Governors Island from June 25-July 8, 2018.


Dimensions: Photograph dimensions variable & 10 x 10 inches aluminum on panel
Materials: Aluminum on panel

Artist Statement: Originating from the desire to explore the effects of water on color, this project begins by creating a color-field painting which is then submerged under water in order to observe the color change that the given body of water produces. While the painting is submerged, the resulting color that is observed from the surface is mixed to produce a new color-field painting. This process is then continued with the newly mixed color to create a series of color gradations until the color no longer changes or the painting disappears when submerged. At each step the submerged painting is photographically documented and reproduced as a photographic print to be displayed alongside the original physical painting as a completed piece.

David Andree is an artist whose work spans painting, drawing, sculpture and sound. David holds a Master of Fine Arts from the State University of New York (SUNY), received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), and currently holds the position of Assistant Professor at the School of Art in Fayetteville, AR. He has had work exhibited at Gallery MC and BWAC Gallery in New York City, Rochester Contemporary Art Center, Hallwalls, the Big Orbit Gallery, Exhibit-A and the Burchfield Nature and Art Center in upstate New York, The Masur Museum of Art, and at numerous venues around Minneapolis, Minnesota, including SooVac and the Rochester Art Center. He is the recipient of a 2014 Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. His work is collected by Target Corporation and included in private collections in Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, and the United Kingdom.

The Lonely Hearted Living by Rena Priest

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Rena Priest was in residence on Governors Island in 2018.

When the outbreak started, I was alarmed enough to start taking action.  Although I hated to think of myself as a doomsday prepper, I bought a canoe and outfitted it with survival gear, then motored to a lonely island cove where I used to picnic with my family every Memorial Day as a child. The cove had been my great-grandmother’s sanctuary, where she brought her children when the Indian agent came to take them away to boarding schools. They stayed on the island through the fall season and returned to the village when the weather turned bitter. Soon after, the agent returned and took the children away to educate the Indian out of them. Kill the Indian to save the man. The youngest didn’t survive. We returned to the cove every spring to remember.

My grandmother would grieve, saying, “They insisted we learn how to stitch prayers into cloth instead of letting our mother teach us how to make baskets. They insisted we learn cursive, while they refused to learn our language with all the words for how to live a beautiful life.”


As the weeks passed, the news brought reports about people going cannibal. Then came reports of the National Guard being deployed in urban neighborhoods. Stories about towns on lockdown. The whole time, I had been stashing food and supplies on the island. I bought it all on credit cards, not planning to ever pay it back. Less than three months after the first reports, there was a grizzly account of a mother eating her screaming baby in a mall parking lot. I closed my laptop, drove to the harbor, motored to my cove, set up camp, and waited. From the island, I could see the lights of my city. I was there three nights before they went dark.

People like to believe we are beyond the reach of dangers sensationalized in headlines. Those horrors are happening to other people, in other places. There’s no real news anymore, though we have outposts where people leave old clippings about the outbreak. It’s nothing we don’t know. Keep your distance from people. Don’t eat food from industrial farms. Don’t use electricity or motors of any kind… Someone left a bunch of handwritten copies of the Chief Seattle speech. It resonates:

“At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them.”

Now here I am, waiting for someone to find a cure; waiting for the lights of my city to flick back on, waiting for the pulse of helicopter blades; pushing my canoe away from the shore every night. The nights are quiet except for the loneliness that howls inside me, and sometimes the overplayed songs of my youth play in my mind. Sometimes I forget myself and sing. It’s easy to get careless, to think I’m alone.

“In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude.”

Sleeping in my canoe, anchored past the drop-off, is the only way I get a good night’s rest. The GMOs don’t like the water. At night, I sometimes hear people speaking up in the hills. Their voices find me in my lonely canoe, but I can’t understand what they’re saying. Sometimes I wonder if they’re real. They’re not like the voices of my memories.

My dad had a fisherman’s dialect. I can hear his voice as clear and bright as day. It feels so close that I want to talk back; tell him I’m sorry that I drifted away. When I grow tired of my circumstances, I think of a story he told while we were mending net, he and his crew and I, standing in a line and pulling the web, arm length by arm length in search of holes to mend. He didn’t like the crew cursing and telling their raunchy stories around me, so he’d either forgotten I was there, or at that moment, just didn’t care.

Some of those fishing grounds up there are so lonesome and remote, he told us, they make you feel like ain’t nobody else on earth. It gets spooky. Our first go up, we didn’t even have our sea legs yet. It was me and Joe on with Skip Walker’s crew. It was stormy, and all the way up, Joe was drunk on cheap wine and sea-sick as hell. He puked all over one side of my bunk, turned it over and then later puked on the other side. I couldn’t have slept anyway. It was too rough a ride.

By a few days in, the booze was gone, and we were in a calm patch. I felt like I could hold down food, so I went into the galley and saw that all the jelly jars and canned food had fallen to the floor, from the boat being tossed sideways and back. We were trying to put things right when old Skip came in and said, Don’t bother. It’s rough up ahead. So we left it, and sure enough it started to storm again.

When we finally got up to the fishing ground, it was calm as glass, which means no fish, but the damn season wasn’t open yet anyway, and it didn’t open. We dropped anchor in an empty cove and waited for the go ahead to come over the radio, but all we ever heard was talk of radio fish in the straights; jumpers—thick schools swimming right past us. It got everyone edgy.

Finally, the guys elected me spokesman because they were all too scared. They said, Go tell Skip that we’re going to leave if it don’t open by the end of next week. I went and told him and he said, Okay. And during that week, we’s waiting it out there in the middle of nowhere, and there’s nothing to do but sit around starin’ at the four walls, and just when everyone starts getting cabin fever, a big beautiful fiberglass seiner called The Rejoice comes cruising in and ties up. That boat had whiskey, whores, pot, cocaine. It was a big old party boat. I think the net was just for show. I think it was a floating whorehouse.

At the end of the week, we’d spent all the money we’d brought up, and our season still wasn’t open, so we hitched a ride to the next port with The Rejoice and flew home.

Then sure as shit—soon as we got home, word came that the season opened, and here we were: broke, hung-over, and catching hell for bringing our wives the clap instead of a paycheck. Had to learn the hard way, I guess. Don’t get distracted. Be patient and keep about your business and don’t quit until your season opens. Most of the time you’ll do okay, or it used to be that way.


I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fanaticize about The Rejoice. In my daydreams, it’s not a floating whorehouse. It’s the U.S. Coast Guard with a handsome crew come to take me to safety, but I guess a floating whorehouse would be just fine. Survival’s got me tired.

Some days I think of motoring my canoe back to town, walking up the dock to the harbor store, and just ripping open a bag of contaminated corn chips, singing loudly as I wash it down with whiskey and cola and let come what may—just fling arms wide to the GMO fate. Some days, I walk along the shoreline looking at the stones, thinking about putting them into my pockets and walking into the waves. But I don’t.

Rena Priest is a writer and Lummi tribal member.  Her debut book, Patriarchy Blues, was released on MoonPath Press and garnered an American Book Award. Her most recent collection, Sublime Subliminal, was published in 2018. She has attended residencies at Mineral School, Underwater New York/Works on Water on Governors Island, and Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers. She is the recipient of a 2018 National Geographic Explorers Grant, and has taught various topics in writing, storytelling, and literature.

Sunk Shore by Tryst, Carolyn Hall and Clarinda Mac Low

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Carolyn Hall and Clarinda Mac Low were in residence on Governors Island in 2018.

Clarinda Mac Low and Carolyn Hall in conversation about Sunk Shore, speculative futures, contextual events and politics, and climate change education using a localized sense-based approach. Conversation has been edited for clarity.

How does the future get shaped and by whom?

Carolyn Hall: In “Sunk Shore” we were investigating practical versions of realistic, utopian, and dystopian futures. We included a lot of data around the physical aspects of climate change, and only touched briefly on the social and political worlds that affect how we manage those changes.

CML: What’s the most effective, or fair, or kind way of organizing society? Does it work better to have many different localities responsible for their own place, and then form a network? Or is centralized government more efficient? A question I have is, if there is more collective decision, will it lead to better decisions?

CH: If the people in power, or the people making those decisions, are those who care less about or are less influenced by the fact of climate change—this will create our hypothetical dystopian future. These are the people with resources, who don’t feel that they are affected by climate change--they can buy themselves out of the problems.

CML: Well, but there are people with fewer resources in Florida, for example, or North Carolina who still say, “it’s not climate change.”

CH: Although [Hurricane] Florence is actually convincing some Republicans to talk about climate change being real. A journalist interviewed people in the Wilmington, North Carolina area and there were still people who said it’s malarkey or that God will take care of it, and that’s still really a strong portion of the population. But she also interviewed a variety of people of different work status and from different classes, and found that more people were saying that we have to confront this as a real thing, including people who have been fishing their whole lives who have started saying “yeah, the waters are warming.”

CML: The way our attention as a culture works now—people know a lot more and also don’t know the same things as each other. So—is believing in climate change actually related to knowledge? Are the decisions to believe and act on climate change related to what people know? Or is that decision related to something else. Like we talked about what people feel...

CH: It probably is related somewhat to what people know, and what kids are being taught. Education systems are localized, and states or counties can decide what they teach in the public schools, so information is different from region to region. We are not, as a country, getting the same education. And as news-hungry people, we can choose our news and so we’re not getting the same news either. So there’s no neutral service of education or information. I mean, I don’t know what neutral is and I think we would have a very interesting time trying to define neutral.

CML: How knowledge is distributed and how it affects people's sense of urgency leads to the different decisions that people make to determine their the 1970s something happened where people were just like fuck...

CH: ...we will not take this anymore...

CML: ...locally, anyway. Globally, it’s complicated, of course, and that affects us. But because we’re the largest consumers on the planet, what we do as a country, as a nation state, affects everybody else.

CH: I think it’s us and China.

CML: How does this work socio-politically? Because if you have a benevolent dictator, or even a non-benevolent dictator, that decides, “I’m going to address climate change,” it could be quite effective. It’s fucked up! But it could be quite effective.

How does climate change work, and how can we best explain it to a broad audience?

CH: We accept data as fact. I think the issue is that even straightforward factual data can be willfully misinterpreted.

CML: Who are the people interpreting it? That’s always going to be the question.

CH: And what are they looking for?

CH: One of the magazines that I brought into the house [5B on Governors Island, WoW/UNY residency house] was all about the history of talking about climate change. And from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, the politicians were mostly on board, they knew we needed to talk about this. It changed during the Reagan years. In 1987, James Hansen, a scientist with NASA was invited to testify at a Senate hearing about climate change, but someone in the administration didn’t like his scientific predictions and demanded he change his testimony. He refused to change and since he was a government employee, they could refuse to let him speak. The way around this was for him to present as a private citizen because they couldn’t censor him that way. So he had to come as a private citizen “Atmospheric Scientist.” And he presented, introducing himself with his NASA credentials, but because he was supposed to be there as a private citizen, he couldn’t be listed as a NASA government scientist...they were trying to silence and discredit him.

CML: Um hmm. Well, that’s what I mean, there was a possibility before...because if Rachel Carson had lived, people were listening to her. Like why is DDT outlawed? Because of Rachel Carson. There are all these really smart decisions that were made at that point...

CH: Right! Like in the ‘70s, the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency and Endangered Species. But now it’s so difficult to get the government to take action - that’s the urgency now. And it’s difficult because the effects of climate change aren’t as immediate. It’s not affecting people in their homes unless there’s a natural disaster. But it isn’t affecting them on a daily basis, like acid rain or polluted fish or a “hole” in the ozone’s easier to ignore.

CML: Yeah, but now rivers are flooding!

CH: Right, but that’s natural. Because it rained. Or there was a storm.

CML: Right, it’s hard to prove a storm is unnatural.

CH: Right. And so the people who are getting sick from extreme pollution, now, they’re all in rural and poor areas...

CML: ...they have no power...

So what I’m saying is that when the crisis hit in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was affecting even the people who had money. Coastal properties stank. And they stank for the rich and they stank for the poor.

CH: But today - we’re getting more storms. Well, I guess we’ll build a storm wall or we’ll put embankments around our house, or we’ll raise our foundation a few feet. That’s short term, not long term.

CML: And that’s it, the interesting thing to me is that we’re talking about coastal problems not just along oceans but anywhere there is a waterway, which is everywhere...

CH: ...lakes, rivers, glaciers...

CML: Yes. Everywhere there is a waterway, any kind of water as a body will be affected by climate change and that affects you. This happened with [Hurricanes] Florence and Michael where they were felt much farther inland with terrible consequences than anyone expected - and it had happened before.

CH: That was the case with [Storm] Irene. Remember the whole warning about Irene up here? Not much happened in New York City...

CML: But upstate...

CH: dumped so much rain that the flooding in Vermont, New Hampshire, upstate New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey...

CML: They’re still recovering from it.

CH: They’ve had to rebuild.

CML: This is why waterways are so key to awareness because every waterway is subject to climate change. Maybe that’s the way we can find a way to the Great Awakening if there was a dispersal of knowledge around people’s specific waterways...

CH: Um hmmmmm....

CML: ...if educators went around and said “So how’s your waterway been lately? Well this is what’s happened and this is what’s happened. Oh that’s because...that would be climate change.” I don’t know if it would work but if we are discussing how to reach more positive futures when climate change is so intractable or impossible to sense, the education campaign would have to be one where people could absorb without having to think politically in that way. Just, okay let’s observe what’s in our backyard.

CH: Right. You have to talk about what people can hear, see, and feel. So that it’s tangible.

CH: Maybe this is why “Sunk Shore” as a tour is effective, because it is so site-based. Think if we could get access to more shorelines...

CML: Yeah, that’s the plan.

Carolyn Hall is a Brooklyn, NY based historical marine ecologist, Bessie award winning dancer/performer, and scientific communication instructor. She has worked with numerous choreographers and companies both nationally and internationally and is currently involved in projects with Carrie Ahern, Third Rail Projects, and Clarinda Mac Low/TRYST. As a freelance ecologist she has worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Environmental Defense Fund, and is the research assistant and fact checker for the best selling author Paul Greenberg. She also teaches with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Interdisciplinary public engagement projects that combine her artist and scientist halves increasingly intrigue her, which has happily led to becoming a part of the Works on Water and Underwater New York communities.

Clarinda Mac Low started out working in dance and molecular biology and now creates participatory installations and events that investigate social constructs and corporeal experience, with a recent concentration on climate change. She is also Executive Director of Culture Push, an experimental organization that links artistic practice, social justice, and civic engagement, a co-founder of Works on Water, an organization that supports artists working with water as site and material, and a medical journalist specializing in HIV/AIDS. Mac Low has recently “performed” dramaturgy for Katy Pyle’s Ballez, David Thomson’s he his own mythical beast, and Gender/Power (Maya Ciarrocchi and Kris Grey), among others. Grants and honors include a BAX Award in 2004, a Foundation for Contemporary Arts grant, and a 2007 and 2010 Franklin Furnace Fund for Performance Art grant. Mac Low holds a BA, double major in Dance and Molecular Biology, from Wesleyan University and an MFA in Digital and Interdisciplinary Arts Practice from CCNY-CUNY. She currently teaches at NYU (ITP). 

Undulation by Elizabeth Velazquez

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Elizabeth Velazquez was in residence on Governors Island from July 9-August 5, 2018.

Dimensions: 180 x 30 inches
Materials: Vellum, graphite, plastic, fabric, mica, shell, chalk, and acrylic

Artist Statement: The project Bodies, Water & Spirit Realm centers water—its beauty, sacredness, and the injustice held by the bodies of water around New York City. There was devastating loss of human and ecological life in the waters as settler colonialism began, including the waters surrounding the area of Pagganuck (Governors Island). Remembering those lives reverently and contemplating how these bodies of water connect with a historical past are essential to Bodies, Water & Spirit Realm.

Many stories can be told of the past from the way that events and people are memorialized or not memorialized. The placards located on Governors Island are examples of how stories of native presence remain under-recognized and dishonored. The piece titled Undulation includes rubbings from the only placard on Governors Island that references the Lenape.

Elizabeth Velazquez creates mixed media/sculptural works, installation and rituals. She currently lives in Queens, NY. Her process centers on destruction and reconstruction, and connecting with a desire to transform physical, psychological, and social injustices. Elizabeth is a founding member of SEQAA (Southeast Queens Artist Alliance) and is also a core member of NYCORE (New York Collective of Radical Educators). In 2018, she participated in the SEQ Biennial through which she received a commission for new work from No Longer Empty Curatorial Lab. Ms. Velazquez earned a mini-grant from the 2018 Reimagine End of Life festival for the completion of a ritual at Washington Square Park, NY. During the summer of 2018, she created new work at a residency with WoW(Works on Water) /Underwater New York at Governors Island. Elizabeth currently holds a residency at Cigar Factory located in LIC, Queens, and is a recipient of the 2019 apexart International Fellowship.

A Stack of Water by Micki Watanabe Spiller

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Micki Watanabe Spiller was in residence on Governors Island from May 21-June 24, 2018.

a stack of water.jpg

Summer Memories Retrieved by Novels, as well as the Sights, Sounds, and Smells of a Site

My mother—a Christian in a sea of Japanese Buddhists—lifted my name from the Judeo-Christian Bible. Everyone knows Psalm 23, even if you are Hindu or Muslim. It’s the one recited at memorials or spoken by the British minister in the movies:

The LORD is my Shepherd I shall not want.
He maketh me lie down in green pastures
He leadeth me beside still waters.

My birth name Migiwa is a literal translation from Japanese of the phrase “beside still waters.” I was always uncomfortable growing up in the Midwest, where my name gave me an outsider status. As an agnostic teenager, I spent summers in Japan with my evangelical mother. Those sweltering Augusts were both painful, as I played the returning prodigal child, and rejuvenating, as I learned the culture of my seaside homeland through more mature eyes.

Both memories reappeared last summer during my residency on Governors Island. My artistic practice has focused on reading, writing, and sewing, where literature influences the structures and garments I create. My task on Governors Island was to read novels with the word water in the title, looking for themes and quotes to embroider into a new body of studio works.   

Every day, as I rode my bike along the East River to the Governors Island ferry terminal, I would come to a section of the path under construction, and the smell of the brackish water would signal that I was nearing the terminal. At the same moment, an image of a little girl with her grandmother sitting in the undercarriage of a ferry would appear in my mind. In Japan, I grew up riding a ferry with my grandmother from Oshima to the mainland to shop and visit cousins and friends. Though the body of water may be different, the Governors Island ferry felt like home. The ride across the slip of water surrounding New York City is shorter than my childhood ferry ride, but I walked upon the same uneven surface of the boat, smelled the same diesel fumes, and felt the same wind whip-tangle my hair.

On my first morning commute, I met a city kid on his way to the high school on Governors Island. I thought of that slow island life in Japan. I would have commuted to the mainland for high school had I stayed. He told me about his plans to graduate and get the hell out of New York City, to work as a tanker mechanic and sail to Japan. He will traverse my route in reverse, and I am certain he will see the world as I have.

As I walked from the ferry landing to the old paint-peeling officer’s house in Nolan Park, I thought about Marcel Proust. There are two routes from the ferry landing. Just as the narrator of In Search of Lost Time had a “front way” and a “back way” on his Sunday strolls, each of my routes to the house evoked different memories. The front way took me along a historical, Wharton-esque, tree-lined, brick road to Nolan Park 5B, where I climbed the wooden steps, passed the porch swing stirred by a slight breeze, and finally entered the front library foyer. The back way took me past the Billion Oyster Project, through wafting smells of shellfish and decomposing organic matter, past the port-a-potty, to enter the house by the back kitchen, where I suspect the servants used to come and go.

There is a lot of water imagery in the Christian Bible: baptisms, renewal, rebirth, cleansing away the wrongs of humanity. Trying to be open-minded about my mother’s religion, I hoped to encounter these themes in the chosen stack of books while sitting at my window in Nolan Park, looking out across the watery expanse toward Brooklyn. But as I read novels such as The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro and Daniel Kraus, At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen, and Dead Water by Ann Cleeves, I found distinct and varied stories, from sappy romances to mysteries. Most were macabre, as water became an ominous and sinister place for hiding, dumping, or punishing.

These are some of the places I traveled while sitting still: Baltimore, South Carolina, Houston bayous, the reservoirs of Wyoming, El Salvador, Brazil, Scotland, London, the Shetland Islands, Istanbul, Sicily, France, and the waters surrounding the islands that make up Japan. The resulting piece, currently in-progress, combines narratives I lifted out of the novels along with recollections of my Japanese island, which are embroidered on fabrics that will be made into a book jacket. This work now sits in a cold studio in Long Island City, weaving together old and new memories while histories of a place are overlaid through titles and fabrics—the flotsam and jetsam of a narrative life.

Find more about Micki Watanabe Spiller at

Waterhouse Works Series by Sto Len and Maggie Haslam

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Sto Len and Maggie Haslam were in residence on Governors Island from July 23-August 5, 2018.

Dimensions: 11 x 14 inches
Materials: Oil paint, debris, buttermilk channel water, watercolor, on paper

Artist Statement, Sto Len: When I first arrived on the island, I began walking the perimeter in an attempt to be as close to the water as possible. I collected things I found along the way: sticks, leaves, fish bones, rocks, sea shells, and a bucket of water from the Buttermilk Channel. I brought all of this back to the house and filled my inflatable swimming pool with the water, which would be my canvas for the duration of the residency. My daily art practice is a kind of meditational printmaking on the surface of water. I paint with oil and enamel floating on the water, along with other natural debris that creates a colorful stew. Patterns emerge over time, and then I lay paper down to capture the moment with a monoprint. I noticed my studio neighbor, Maggie Haslam, was using water on paper too. She formed puddles on her works and was allowing time to have its way, eventually drying into colorful organic forms. She saw the similarities in my work, too, and we began trading paper back and forth, printing and puddling on them until the pieces seemed finished. We continue to collaborate following our residency, trading work through the mail.

Artist Statement, Maggie Haslam: While working on Governors Island, I used collected water from the river and from rain water in my paintings. I wanted to give the water a voice, and so I allowed it to be a tool, limiting my use of a paint brush. Instead, I used methods of pouring and dripping, allowing the paint to settle onto the paper to create an image. Sto worked in the studio next to mine, and we realized right away that we both used water's natural flowing characteristics as a primary method to create imagery with our paint. The outcome of each of our processes is a moment of the water's movement that is captured on paper.

Sto Len: My current body of work transforms the traditional printmaking art of Suminagashi (floating ink) into an experimental collaboration with nature and a site of discourse on environmentalism and art activism. Working en plein air (often from a boat), I use my own marbling-like process to print directly off of the surface of urban waterways with paper. The end results are ghostly imprints that contain both the natural and anthropogenic residue of the site’s history. During these urban explorations, I document my journeys with photographs, video, collections and field recordings that give visibility to a city’s unseen and neglected watershed areas. These trips have also recently include memory walks open to the public, site-specific interventions, impromptu bbqs, water rituals, and solar-powered noise concerts.

Recent work in New York, Rhode Island, Colombia, and Vietnam has enabled my studio to be as large as a river and a practice that is becoming increasingly nomadic and global. In between travels, I maintain an ongoing studio practice using controlled bodies of water in inflatable swimming pools with combinations of oil paint, dirt, spray paint, and extended periods of time, to create colorful, patterned compositions on paper, maps, found materials, and wood that celebrate the materiality of water and the immateriality of memory.

Maggie Haslam (born 1988) grew up in Washington D.C. and received her BFA in studio art from BYU in 2013. After graduation, Maggie moved to New York City, and continued her art education at Pratt Institute, receiving her MFA in painting in 2016.

Maggie primarily works in water based paints on paper. She designs situations where she relinquishes total control over the medium, allowing the flowing characteristics of the paint and water to act naturally on paper. The end result is often simply the process caught in the act.

Since 2017, Maggie has collaborated with a fellow artist in a residency program located in Beginning with Children Charter School in Brooklyn, New York. They have worked together with the help of the middle school students on a project relating to immigration and displacement. In the summer of 2018, Maggie received a residency on Governors Island, New York with Underwater New York/Works On Water where she used only collected and recycled water to make art with. Maggie has been teaching children in Upper Manhattan/Westchester with Scribble Art Workshop since 2017.

Maggie lives and works in Manhattan, New York.

Synthetic Tides by Tessa Grundon

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island residency. Tessa Grundon was in residence on Governors Island in 2018.

Artist Statement: The walls of my September studio seep the residue of passing storms and rising tides, and perhaps even now, the damp evidence of Hurricane Sandy. The peeling paint already map-like in its distribution leaves forms of flooded landscapes and archipelagosislands of plaster, primer, lead, and latex. Holding my breath behind my mask, I excavate further, causing new erosions. Seas rise up and swallow land masses as more paint loses its hold and falls to the floor revealing new coastlines in old layers, strata of decades not millennia. New rivers course along old cracks, fracturing in familiar branching patterns. On another wall, fissures become tributaries, waterborne diseases growing out of the rising and polluted tidesdrinking water delivering old threats to new places; countries at war for this increasingly scarce commodity. I push the large pile of unsound scrapings into a corner, a small mountain of evidence that what we throw away will always be here.

Outside, cut off from the shore by a chain-link fence, I photograph the debris in situ. Garbage from across the globe that has passed unimpeded through time zones, borders, and security checks is caught now in the rocks of the reconstructed coastline of this Paggank, this Noten Eylandt. Stranded are ship ropes, the soles of shoes, plastic fencing, and fishing lines; a “No Crossing” barrier and a mass of assorted styrofoam; door panels, a still-rolled and broken sail, a five-gallon bucket and plastic sheeting; liquor bottles, water bottles, mini-bar bottles, and soda bottles; a giant, stuffed and sodden, once-white carnival bear; a car bumper, the sheafing remains of a cardboard box that once held Slow & Low rye whiskey 84 proof; wave-churned, smooth-polished tree limbs; beams from broken buildings jutting with rusty nails; fishing nets and landscape matting; a golf ball, footballs, soccer balls, soft balls, and a child’s nubby, plastic, bouncy ball that used to light up; furniture parts; free-flying, green plastic pallet strapping; three helium balloonsone bright pink; assorted seaweeds, and a walnut worn smooth by its journey back to this Nut Island. I find a way to reach past the high fence and grab some pieces to work with and haul my stash back to my light-filled, damp-filled, paint-shedding studio accompanied by a chorus of kinglets and helicopters.  

Working with images of the seaweed and materials from the rocky strand-line, I experiment with photographic mono-prints. I let the inks flow and bleed across their natural borderlines, breaking through the surface tension, abstracting the original image almost beyond recognition. I notice changes in the viscosity of the ink as the humidity changes from day to day. I make collections of found objects and study the seaweeds I have foundmainly Fucus vesiculosus (Bladderwrack) and Ulva (Sea lettuce) that thrive in the surrounding waters of New York Harbor. The vibrant green Ulva flourishes in nitrogen-rich, polluted watersa signifier, the canary in the coalmine. Bladderwrack has many names, including rockweed, black tang, cut weed, sea oak and dyers fucus. I copy and cut its dendritic forms from oil-sleek black, plastic garbage bags and suspend them together in water. They sway entwined, almost indistinguishable as one leaches pollutants and the other absorbs, one releasing, the other containing.

With grateful thanks to Mauricio Gonzalez, head of Marine Biology and Science Research at New York Harbor School and his 11th grade class, for all their help and instruction collecting and analyzing harbor mud and seaweed. 

Find more about Tessa Grundon at

Untitled, Clam/Lens by Alex Branch and Amina Cain

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Alex Branch was in residence on Governors Island from October 15-31, 2018.

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And if I had lived differently, in a different part of the ocean? If I had lived in a different ocean altogether, would I too be different? If I was burrowing in warm water at the base of a coral reef instead of in cold water burrowing only into sand. I would miss the snow and ice that turns the ocean colder. I too like seasons, though you might not think it of me. It’s part of what makes me feel alive. I don’t need to go to exotic places, but I do need change. It’s the way I understand time, and even if it wounds me, I respect it a great deal. I see myself among other clams. We look so similar, yet we’re so various inside. One of us enjoys the full moon, another, eels. You wouldn’t think of a clam liking an eel, but why shouldn’t we be excited by other beings in the ocean? We’re not alone here; we know that well. Yet, in a way we are. Sometimes I feel very lonesome even when others are around me. 

Dimensions: 4.5 x 3 inches
Materials: Clam, lens, internal written piece by Amina Cain

Artist Statement: For my residency on Governors Island I planned to work on building models of the boat I'll be making in St. Louis this winter but I couldn't stop working with clams. I had found a clam shell on a trip to Dead Horse Bay earlier in the summer and kept wondering if I could somehow make that clam into a book. While I was on the island I did many experiments with the clam form. This piece was a collaboration between me and the LA based writer Amina Cain who wrote this piece especially for the inside of this clamshell.

Find more about Alex Branch at

Aquapolis 2100 by /rive collective

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. /rive collective was in residence on Governors Island in 2018.

Aquapolis 2100  [6 minutes, HD video]
/rive Collective [ Laura Chipley, Samara Smith, A.E. Souzis]

Aquapolis 2100 is a collaborative project by the art collective /rive exploring New York City's rising sea levels, which could rise up to as much as 6 feet higher by 2100. Each weekend of the WoW/UNY residency in summer 2018, /rive invited Governors Island visitors to draw what they imagine New York might look like in 2100 and sketch up their ideas—both practical and fantastical—about what they could do to deal with this crisis. This video piece features animations of these drawings set in the backdrop of an increasingly watery New York.

/rive is a Brooklyn-based artist collective focused on site-specific, locative projects that meet at the intersection of psychogeography, locative media and documentary narrative. Most projects are set in, and explore, urban public spaces. Inspired by social practice, /rive embraces collaborative and participatory methodologies, blurring the boundaries between maker, subject and audience. Members Laura Grace Chipley, Samara Smith and A.E. Souzis have exhibited at the Queens Museum, Hammer Museum, Bronx Museum, New York Hall of Science, Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, Art in Odd Places and beyond.

Next Time on Earth by Rejin Leys

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Rejin Leys was in residence on Governors Island from May 21-June 24, 2018.

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Dimensions: Variable
Materials: Pencil, collage, relief prints and gouache on handmade paper, tracing paper and printed

Artist Statement: Next Time on Earth is a speculative drawing project, created during my residency on Governors Island, that imagines a possible future where the sea has covered the land.

Rejin Leys is a mixed media artist and paper maker based in New York, whose work has been exhibited at such venues as Centro Cultural de España, Santo Domingo, DR; Kentler International Drawing Space, NY; Queens Museum, NY; and Les Ateliers J.R. Jerome, PaP, Haiti. Her work is in the collections of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Yale University, and Rutgers University Caribbean Studies Department, and she is a recipient of a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Clam Book by Alex Branch

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Alex Branch was in residence on Governors Island from October 15-31, 2018.


Dimensions: 4.5 x 3 inches
Materials: Clam shell, leather, paper and thread

Artist Statement: For my residency on Governors Island I planned to work on building models of the boat I'll be making in St. Louis this winter but I couldn't stop working with clams. I had found a clam shell on a trip to Dead Horse Bay earlier in the summer and kept wondering if I could somehow make that clam into a book. While I was on the island I did many experiments with the clam form.

Find more about Alex Branch at

Floating Garden by Lily Consuela Saporta-Tagiuri

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Lily Consuela Saporta-Tagiuri was in residence on Governors Island from August 20-September 16, 2018.

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Materials: Plants, soil, water proofing fabric, canvas, rope, rubber tube

Artist Statement: Floating Garden is a garden plot designed to withstand flood and allow for food security. It is an open source design that is simple and inexpensive to construct. 

Lily Consuela Saporta-Tagiuri is an industrial designer and creative director based in Brooklyn, NY. Her work addresses emerging climates and conditions of the contemporary metropolis through design interventions. Using video, food, material exploration, products, and installation, she aims to draw attention to underlying social, political, and environmental systems in our modern cities and to explore alternatives.

Eating Water by Lily Consuela Saporta-Tagiuri with Ayasha Guerin

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Lily Consuela Saporta-Tagiuri was in residence on Governors Island from August 20-September 16, 2018. Ayasha Guerin was in residence on Governors Island from October 15-31, 2018.

Duration: One month/ongoing
Materials: Food, ocean, and rain water

Artist Statement:
Lily Consuela Saporta-Tagiuri:
Eating Water is an exploration of how to modify our lifestyles to live in the environments that are emerging as a result of climate change. Using food as a tool to discuss sea-level rise, flood, and drought, the plate becomes an intimate frame through which to serve new recipes and strategies for survival. Made while in residence on Governors Island, this collection includes plates made of ocean and rain water, a pantry of water from around the world, a floating vegetable and herb garden, and 15 recipes using ingredients that are flood-tolerant, drought resistant, or salt-water tolerant. Eating Water is an ongoing project culminating in a series of feasts.

Ayasha Guerin, Photographer: Lily Tagiuri’s Eating Water invited guests to “a tasting and discussion of emerging landscapes and the future of food.” To attend, we would have to catch the ferry from the Brooklyn or Lower Manhattan waterfronts, on a Sunday in late August, to Governors Island. The ferries - which only ran once an hour - departed strictly on time. As a fellow Works on Water resident, I knew the stress of dashing to the pier after a late start or poor train service. It can be an emotional commute to the island, between the pressure of making the ferry on time and the beautiful, moving view of the densely built Metropolis from the open sea. For a city of islanders, our harbor mobility is more limited than many of us water-artists desire.

That Sunday, a crew of fifteen hungry navigators arrived to experience the waterfront-spread. On the Brooklyn-facing side of the island, by the designated grilling fields on Barry Road, the picnic looked out onto the industrial yards of Red Hook. But this would be no barbecue. Guests mingled around a table where plate after plate slowly arrived, a parade of fifteen carefully arranged dishes from the back steps of Nolan Park 5B, the Works on Water residency house. Nearby, families looked on curiously from picnic tables hosting feasts of their own.

LT explained, we would be eating ingredients that can withstand extreme climates, from floods to droughts. Her richly layered food scene resembled a strange landscape of wet and dry patches where fungi, plants, nuts, spilled over a bed of powdery, golden sand, made from blended cookies (vegan, like everything else strewn across a dark blue tarp). Soon, excited human limbs became part of the strange ecology, as we reached, dipped, and stabbed at each delicious dish. Cacti were used as a platter to serve prickly-pear jellies, while other food was plated on ceramics that LT had cast during her residency from rain- and harbor-water. The latter plates hid under large rice cakes that propped seaweed-wrapped taro balls.

As we tasted, LT told us facts about the crops that grow best in flood regions: rice, mushrooms, lotus, and taro. And about those which do particularly well by saltwater: palm, coconut and seaweeds. We discussed the local and foreign landscapes that inspired the meal. We toasted with Mezcal-aloe cocktails as ice melted onto the benches in the sweltering heat. The Mezcal, kept cool in a special block cast to hold its shape, encouraged a conversation about the journey that the agave-spirit, produced on a small farm in Mexico, made to reach New York. After the meal, we took a walk, errantly exploring miles of newly developed park space on the island’s landfill. We pondered the future of the once-water site. At the center of the New York harbor, facing not only development pressures, but the threat of sea level rise and reclamation by powerful storm surges in the coming decades, who will occupy this island?

Lily Consuela Saporta Tagiuri is an industrial designer and creative director based in Brooklyn, NY. Her work addresses emerging climates and conditions of the contemporary metropolis through design interventions. Using video, food, material exploration, products, and installation, she aims to draw attention to underlying social, political, and environmental systems in our modern cities and to explore alternatives.

Ayasha Guerin is an artist and scholar based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work explores themes of urban ecology, community and security in public and private space. She is a PhD candidate in NYU's American Studies department, where her research engages questions about the entanglements of race, nature and value. Her dissertation explores the socio-ecological histories and resiliencies of waterfront communities in Lower Manhattan. She is currently a Fellow of Urban Practice at The Urban Democracy Lab, formerly a Graduate Fellow at NYU's Center for the Humanities, and before, the Andrew W. Mellon Pre-doctoral Fellow at the Museum of the City of New York. 

Three Poems from Night Crossing by Kelly Sullivan

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Kelly Sullivan was in residence on Governors Island from October 15-31, 2018.


Say nothing is boring. Say there is no where
we cannot find the husk of something
and dig its fine lining, the white thread up
the cicadas’ split trunk. Say there are forty-

five words for the way a helicopter’s rotor blade
fucks up this city. Say we have a job to do,
a field to cull, a closet to open and inside, bees,

woven through the fabric of the wall. Say there are
five or six small tricks we use to fix the planet’s
last gasp, and when we do we open up

ourselves. Then cleave. Split against the grain, move
sideways through the narrow pass, divide
and divide, rehash, repeat, announce a line or two

of industry inside these walls. The plaster falls.
Reveal the grid of honeybees, each cell full
to dripping, each insect’s eye divided to a thousand

tiny globes as if, in concentration, we could
replicate their quiet production, split
and make our own planet again and again, dripping

with the richness of it. Say, then, we just
move on to the next, another range of mountains,
blush of leaves across the cooler hip,

another split river carving out a canyon
for a helicopter to explode in sound. Shut
your mouth on that. We know it is not pass on and pass

on but slowly rising glacier melt. The elm outside
survived disease in the shelter of the island’s
isolated belt. An archipelago of human craft

engulfing it with cells of city blocks, apartments,
windows. Our eyes to the glass. Hands pressed
against it. Just one place. Cleave tight and don’t let go.

Coat Without a Body

Distended to the left, one sleeve
half-tucked at the cuff, dirty
around the collar and ripped
at the edge. Did the man stand up
and walk to the ledge
and leave? Did the woman
take her husband’s coat
when she came across, her night
journey cold, the waves rocking
the small wooden craft?
Is it left at rest, or to rot, moth-
eaten, a drip of paint across
the seam. The brass buttons
gone green.

Styrofoam Stone After the Nor’Easter

Washed up with a line
of dreck. Thrown across
a wooden deck, a wave
of rubbish, human packing
swept in a sheet
of slick dross. A couple
takes turns photographing
each other with
this bridge
spanning the sky. Storm
surge over at three. It’s
going dark
and sand grits
against our feet. I kick
the styrofoam stone
and watch it catch the wind
and blow back in.

Artist Statement: These three poems —“Cleave,” “Coat Without a Body,” and “Styrofoam Stone”—were written for a collection in progress, titled Night Crossing (previously Toledo Blade), a book that explores crossings—rivers, dreams, countries, borders, climates.

Kelly Sullivan is a writer and academic living in New York City. She teaches Irish Studies at New York University. Find more about her at

Misdirected Flow by Edmund Mooney

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Edmund Mooney was in residence on Governors Island from July 9-22, 2018.

Duration: 9 minutes
Materials: Video

Artist Statement: Misdirected Flow is a meditation on the industrialization of a natural resource and the effects of its environmental degradation, rippling out into the surrounding community, upsetting the natural order and causing or inspiring a multitude of injuries and deaths. The Gowanus Creek was a salt marsh of great renown that the Canarsee tribe fished, hunted, and lived on. The Dutch settled there because it reminded them of their native land and they immediately set about taming the waters for their own benefit. The oysters and clams and fish and game pulled from its waters were known the world over as exceptional. Soon after the canalization was completed in the 1840s, people and animals started dying there. Converting the tidal creek into a canal fundamentally changed contact with the water, from the gently sloping banks formed in the last ice age to an abrupt edge dropping off to a a uniform depth well over 10 feet. The resulting cognitive dissonance was deadly: people who couldn’t swim (most everyone in those days) would enter the canal where they used to go wading, only to find that they couldn’t get out.  

We don’t look at the Gowanus and think of a rainforest, but it once teemed with nearly as much biodiversity. Salt marshes are the 2nd most productive and bio-diverse biomes on earth, behind only the rainforest. When the tidal creek was  converted to a canal, it was done on the cheap. Self-cleaning measures were foregone, and the canal became a viaduct for combined sewer and storm drain outflows, a cost-saving shortcut for sewage, rather than taking it all the way to the bay. The canal was designed to become incredibly polluted very quickly and it did just that.  

The canalification of this tidal salt marsh began with the Dutch and increased after an 1826 state decree allowing all land up to 400 feet beyond the low water mark to be developed. My work since 2010 has been more and more focused on the environmental effects of policies like this, on the impact of urban “progress.” In my historical obsessiveness, I see the city as palimpsests or erasures. Each erasure takes a toll on historical reality until no one can really remember what used to be there, and more importantly, how it was to be there. My explorations are an attempt to get back to the ground truth—or the water truth. This piece is the third in a series of meditations on loss of natural resources in the larger Brooklyn/Queens watershed, from the Hunters Point South/Newtown Creek area, to the Flushing River, and now the Gowanus Creek/Canal. The underwater sound and video recordings are my attempt to enter the unswimmable waters and imagine the final resting place of all the people and animals lost. The newspaper clippings anchor the aqueous recordings with their matter-of-fact descriptions. The tragedy of loss is quietly illustrated in the photojournalists’ crumpled images.

Find more about Edmund Mooney at

Gowanus Time Slip Map by Edmund Mooney

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Edmund Mooney was in residence on Governors Island from July 9-22, 2018.

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Materials: Archival ink jet print on paper
Dimensions: 57 x 26 inches

Artist Statement: An 18th-century map of Gowanus Creek was overlaid with a 1990 aerial photo of the Gowanus Canal. The layers were then finessed until a fusion of graphic content was achieved.

Find more about Edmund Mooney at

Drawings from House 5B Inspection Scrolls by Deanna Lee

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Deanna Lee was in residence on Governors Island from September 4-30th, 2018.

Materials: Ink on vellum
Dimensions: 9 x 12 inches

Artist Statement: During my residency, I made rubbings of eleven walls in House 5B in Nolan Park, to record evidence of the physical effects of water and other natural forces on them. From these documentary works, made of colored pencil on tracing paper, I developed drawings, made of ink on vellum, that bring forth the organic character of the transformation on the walls. On a different wall, I placed these drawings in relationship to the existing features of its surface, as shown in the photographs. These drawings are part of an ongoing project, Amateur Archaeology.

Deanna Lee was born in Putnam County, New York, to parents from China and Taiwan, and raised in suburban Boston. She grew up spending time in her mother’s biology lab and taking classical-music lessons on several instruments for 14 years. Comprising drawings, paintings, site-specific installations, and public artworks, her work interprets everyday traces of transformation in natural systems and the built environment. Numerous venues have shown her work, including Robert Henry Contemporary, Wave Hill, The Drawing Center, and Trestle Projects. Her public artworks include a mural on jersey barriers for the NYC Department of Transportation and a window installation in DUMBO, Brooklyn. Her honors include awards from: Pollock-Krasner Foundation, Asia Society, National Academy, Millay Colony, and Saltonstall Foundation. She lives and works in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Survivalist Cinema 1 (Water) by Rachel Stevens

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Rachel Stevens was in residence on Governors Island in 2018.

Duration: 6 minutes
Materials: Video (appropriated footage processed with analog processing tools)

Artist Statement: Scenes from 1970s ecological disaster and survivalist films were sampled and processed using analog signal processing tools. During the residency I was able to take the time to isolate scenes specifically involving water and edit them into an experimental piece with a kind of dramatic arc.

Rachel Stevens is an NYC-based artist and researcher interested in social ecologies, critical geography and experimental media. As half of the collaboration Oyster City (with Meredith Drum) she created an Augmented Reality walking tour and game about oysters in NYC and the Fish Stories Community Cookbook, a publication for Paths to Pier 42 that drew together recipes, stories, drawings and ecological information contributed by people living and working in the Lower East Side. She is an editor of Millennium Film Journal and teaches in the Hunter College Integrated Media Art MFA. Recently Rachel has participated in residencies with Works on Water/Underwater New York, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, iLand and Signal Culture. 

Mosholu by Maya Ciarrocchi

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Maya Ciarrocchi was in residence on Governors Island from August 20-September 16, 2018.

Artist Statement: Mosholu is an in-progress series of drawings that map Tibbetts Brook in the Bronx, a waterway which has been directed underground, rerouted and renamed over time. To create this work, I presented these questions:

How does a city whose landscape is in flux affect the identity of its residents?

What is the relationship of urban dwellers to water in poorer neighborhoods versus those in affluent ones?

Who is granted access?

I will continue to add drawings to this series and eventually create a walk which follows the trajectory of the brook from Westchester to the Harlem River.

Maya Ciarrocchi is a Bronx-based interdisciplinary artist whose work addresses identity and the body as a site of history. She has exhibited nationally and internationally and in New York at: Abrons Arts Center, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, The Chocolate Factory, Kinescope Gallery and Smack Mellon. Ciarrocchi is a 2017 Bronx Museum of the Arts Artist in the Marketplace alum and has received residencies from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Millay Colony and the UCross Foundation. She received a Foundation for Contemporary Arts Emergency Grant, a Film/Video Grant from The Jerome Foundation and funding from The Puffin Foundation. In addition to her art-making practice, Ciarrocchi has created award winning projection design for dance and theater including the TONY-award winning Broadway musical The Band's Visit. She is currently a LABA Fellow in the Laboratory for Jewish Culture at the 14th Street Y and a fellow in the inaugural Moving Towards Justice Dance Art as Activism program at Gibney Dance.

Island, Romance by Asya Graf

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Asya Graf was in residence on Governors Island from October 1-31, 2018.

It was June, not yet summer. The clouds hung low over the towers in the Financial District and Staten Island was a hazy idea, more mirage than landmass. A fine drizzle pricked our faces. Bracing ourselves against the railing on the upper deck of the ferry—8 minutes to Governors Island, the sign said in the waiting room at the Battery Maritime Building—it was like we were swimming already. As though all it took was some water and the anticipation of our bodies in it to erase all that seemed solid and insurmountable.


I signed up to swim in the annual race around Governors Island in order to experience my city from a different angle and from a different element, trading air for water, the vertical for the horizontal. I told myself I’m not here to race: I’d spent enough of my youth racing in water, oblivious to everything save my body fighting to beat time. I’d meant to take it slow, to notice the particular way the Statue of Liberty loomed over the water to my right and the four verdigris cupolas on the roof of the Main Building on Ellis Island floated like a fantasy over the industrial waters of the harbor. I wanted new, but what I got was old.

As soon as my body entered water, I had only two goals in mind: stay warm, win. And once the race began: only win. The harbor flicked on and off from view, but all I knew or cared to know was my racing body. Total self-absorption, a paranoid state of proprioception and fixation on a feel for the water to the exclusion of all else. The very thing I longed for—to know my city from the water—receded as soon as I touched water. This tension felt old and familiar: loss at the very moment of possession.


Maybe it’s only that I wanted to say, misquoting Whitman: I too lived, Brooklyn was mine. I too walked the streets of Manhattan and swam around it. But swimming around Manhattan felt beyond me, a pool swimmer trained to go for hours back and forth, not around. Instead, there was this little island, a circumference of two-something miles, which was my measure, the measure of my body. Governors Island was intimate and lyric alongside Manhattan’s epic. An island I could hold in my mind, an island a child could draw, a blob with no complications. An ice-cream cone. An island of the mind and of the body. My geographic twin.


It’s not quite accurate to say I fell in love, and yet there must’ve been an original falling. The first island I deliberately sought out was Shaw in the San Juan Islands, cupped between mainland Washington and Vancouver Island. I went toward, but mostly came away from. I thought of islands as negative passions: freedom from, escape from, absence of. On the ferry from Anacortes, I scanned the waves for orcas but couldn’t look away from the pale bulk of Mt. Baker behind me. The white mass above, the possibility of whales below—it wasn’t islands I was after but wildness, not shelter but exposure. On Shaw, I found a benign kind of domesticity, the opposite of wildness, although I now understand this to be a false binary. I stayed for a week with the Benedictine nuns at Our Lady of the Rock, learning to card and spin wool and clean the chicken coops. The sisters were an island on an island, their lives weaving together the conflicted connotations of insular—insulated and isolated, safe and cut off.


What does it mean to swim around an island? The artist Paul David Young swam across the New York Harbor to Governors Island in order to complete Christopher Marlowe’s unfinished poem “Hero and Leander,” a retelling of the Greek myth in which Leander crosses the Bosporus each night to visit his beloved Hero. It doesn’t end well: one stormy night, her light goes out, he drowns, she throws herself off a cliff. But that wasn’t my myth, was it? I thought I wanted a sense of completion and the satisfaction of encompassing: “to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time,” as T. S. Eliot said. A tight loop around a small island is not transgression, as in crossing a treacherous strait, but a wish for homecoming. Even Odysseus’ ten-year zigzag around the Mediterranean is a circumnavigation of Ithaca, the wildness of his journey subsumed by its purpose—to reestablish domestic integrity. Though of course, in the end, as Tennyson rightly pointed out, Odysseus was not particularly thrilled to be home.


And yet something remains from my circumnavigation of Governors Island, something more than my obsession with the race or its myths. Breathing to the left as we passed Castle Williams, I was heartened to see a family of four pedaling south in their rented red surrey, pacing me. I remember too the momentary vertigo after we rounded the southwest tip of the island and all of Upper New York Bay opened up, clear to Staten Island, down to the Verrazano Bridge. Cargo vessels were anchored out in the bay, awaiting clearance, for a tugboat to come fetch them, giants amassing as though plotting a takeover. The gantry cranes loomed over us across Buttermilk Channel, at the Red Hook Container Port. They were loading or unloading an enormous blue container ship, though now I think this was a hallucination. I remember the precise vulnerability of my body. It’s a feeling like sandpaper across the back of my scalp. An industrial harbor is no place for the human body. And yet, this vulnerability takes the form of longing, like the desire for a lover to crush you. I still have dreams of swimming among an armada of container ships. I’d be lying if I said these dreams were nightmares.  


Two days later, B. found the sea lice bites. I took off my shirt in the bathroom and B. asked me, “What’s that on you?” The bites looked like measles, a rash spread across my stomach and breasts, following the contours of my swimsuit. The itching was gradual and then persistent. By the time B. pointed out the bites, I was in denial of the other symptoms: fever, lactic burn in all my muscles, shortness of breath, nausea. We were flying to Mexico City in a few days. I should’ve gone to the doctor but didn’t. Two days later, straining up the steps of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, I was still carrying traces of the harbor. Under the high-altitude sun, my body wouldn’t let me forget the place I called home, a damp archipelago where jellyfish larvae terrorize the unwary swimmer. Female swimmers in particular, trapped in our one-piece swimsuits and bikinis.


When I asked a teammate what it’s like to swim around Governors Island, he said it was fine till you got to Buttermilk Channel. That’s where you’ll really smell the diesel, he said. He was right. Once we rounded Picnic Point—the bottom of the ice-cream cone—the quality of the water changed. From the mint and mud smell of the estuary, it took on a thin papery quality, as though it had lost some of its density. Something about it reminded me of acetone. The tide was going out like someone had pulled the plug on the harbor, and we were pushing up against it. The waves were slapping me in the face and I swallowed water. According to the Department of Environmental Protection, the harbor is the cleanest it’s ever been. But still: I likely swallowed fecal matter. It was my way of saying, again misquoting: I am fused with you, men and women of Mannahatta!


Ports are places of grief, Philip Hoare writes. Sailors refused to learn how to swim, since swimming would only prolong the agony of drowning. Ports are places of temporary arrival and inevitable parting, of risk, hard labor, hard lives. The containerization of the shipping industry has made the smaller, tighter anchorages of the city unworkable for cargo vessels. The Red Hook Marine Terminal is still a working port, but most shipping has moved to New Jersey and Staten Island. Swimming around the city’s harbor means immersing yourself in grief for its robust history, for its departed vessels, warehouses, carriages and horses and carts and trucks, brothels and saloons and boarding houses and markets. The eeriness of swimming here is due in large part to how empty it is of people.

By contrast, Governors Island feels alive and intimate. A body that will allow me near it. That I can approach, encircle, make mine.


After supper my first night with the Benedictine nuns on Shaw Island, I walked over with the other guests to the priest’s house to watch a wildlife documentary. He had just arrived from Kenya, sent to this island by the Church. I wondered what sin he’d committed to merit this exile. He showed us leopards and lions stalking their prey as his eyes filled with tears. Were we the only ones homesick on this entire island, a black African man and an atheist Soviet Jew? Afterwards, in the dark with a flashlight, I hiked up to the highest point on the island in desperate search of reception so that I could call B. I cried imagining B. on our red loveseat binge-watching “Wallander.”


Swimming around an island is an exercise in melancholia. Attempting to encompass something you cannot own, to approach something you can only circle around. It is intimacy through distance, being kept away when your heart’s and body’s desire is to possess. For the privilege to land on Governors Island, Governors Island Trust, acting as the Charon of New York Harbor, levied a steep toll from the race organizers. As though to touch the body of the island had to come at a price. The fee notwithstanding, the island’s very geography makes it unapproachable, surrounded as it is by a perimeter of landfill, a bulwark of sharp rocks and debris dredged from the bottom of the harbor and collected from subway construction over a hundred years ago. The island is defended, and I’m self-absorbed, and we’re both impenetrable.


Tracing the perimeter of things, knowing all along that circumnavigation is not enough. Who wants to trace the outside when the prize lies in getting through? Governors Island was used primarily for defense of the Upper Bay and the city beyond it. Like the Byzantines’ chain across the Golden Horn—much good it did them against the Ottomans—Castle Williams and Castle Clinton across the water in Manhattan were meant to block British ships in the War of 1812. Then as now, the island is not easily breached. I might have encircled it by swimming around it, but all the fortifications remained between us. The jagged rocks of the seawall, the chain link fence around the promenade, the bureaucratic obstacles to touching the body of the island. Which in fact we never did. We entered the water off a boat and exited via a ramp, never feeling under our feet the fine, squelchy sediment at the bottom of the harbor.


One of the first books I read after our immigration from Soviet Russia to San Diego was Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins. The book was, and still is, a staple of the California middle grade curriculum. Of course, I identified with Karana and the real woman on whom her character was based, stranded alone for eighteen years on San Nicolas Island: her home, but not domestic; a wild, terrifying, lonely place that took all her wits to survive. Two ways to lose home: you leave, or all the people you love leave and you alone remain. You desert or are deserted. On clear Santa Ana mornings, I’d strain to see San Clemente Island, the southernmost of the Channel Islands. It seemed close enough to swim to. Remote and unreachable, it became the stand-in for the lost home. A place to long for. If nostalgia is a longing for a home that never was, an island on the horizon is an ideal embodiment of that impossible home.


“Remoteness is inseparable from movement, but it is created through a special kind of movement that separates at the same time it connects,” writes John Gillis in Islands of the Mind, talking about the way the remoteness of islands is a social more than geographic construction. I create the distance between us, and then I seek to erase it. Blurring the boundaries, I bring you near while somehow still keeping us apart. Isn’t that what all romances are? Playing with intimacy while striving to maintain boundaries? Or maybe what I was after was an end to this game. I wanted to surrender. Don’t ask me, surrender to whom? Rather, surrender what. Surrender is transitive but not dative. Psychoanalyst Emmanuel Ghent writes that surrender is a passionately sought controlled dissolution of boundaries, a relinquishing of our false self, an intense wish to be known and recognized. Instead of landfill, I wanted landfall.


Several weeks after a friend died, I happened to be traveling to Iona in the Hebrides Islands. It was remote and cold, and yet the place was overrun with tourists. Ignoring the crowded abbey, I made for the southern beach where St. Columba was supposed to have landed in the sixth century. There I picked out three spherical pink marble stones, each about an inch in diameter, and brought them home with me. I’d meant to put them on my friend’s grave, but they’ve been hard to give up and I’m no longer even trying. My favorite of the three is the most perfectly round. Flecks of mica glitter as I roll it around on my palm. In Jewish tradition stones stand for the permanence of memory. From Governors Island, I’ll carry always on my body the sea lice scars, mingled with those from chicken pox, contracted one summer thirty years ago in a Soviet sanatorium. I’ll keep too the vertigo of the open bay, the terror under the gantry cranes, a queasy longing for the container ships, and the taste of mint, mud, and diesel.

Asya Graf’s poetry and essays have appeared in Boxcar, Cimarron Review, Comparative Literature, The Santa Fe Literary Review, Sport Literate, Underwater New York, and Vestal Review, among other journals.