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Life and death: Kay Westhues’ ‘The Specialness of Springs’

| Friday, September 10, 2021

Maggie Klaers | The Observer

As I walked into the Moreau Art Galleries — conveniently located just north of my dorm at Saint Mary’s — I was greeted by dim lighting and slight confusion. I was expecting the gallery to be filled with sculptures and statues, all waiting to be reviewed by an (un)professional with a notebook and pen.

Water bottle in hand, not ready to give up on my task, I turned around the corner and was met with something less than spectacular: One framed photograph and two hand-drawn maps suspended to the wall. Being an amateur art critic — if I might even call myself that — I did not realize that every photograph hanging around the gallery was the work of Kay Westhues and her series, “The Specialness of Springs.”

I started with what seemed to be the first photograph of the series, “Spring at Trail’s End.” Photographed in Grant County, Ind., there were beautiful flowers — flashing bright red and yellow —sticking out of what seemed to be a small spout. But what really caught my eye was the water that came from the spout, sparkling and smooth. This water drew my eye from the center of the painting to the left edge, an intentional movement on the part of Westhues, yet so natural I almost didn’t notice its true starting point: The out-of-focus leaves at the right of the photo. Satisfied with my viewing, I moved on.

Passing intricately hand-drawn maps of Westhues’ journey around Indiana, I made my way to a beautiful three-part photo. Each individual portrait was suspended about three inches apart and made up one larger image, that of a bright red, flatbed freight truck carrying a windmill blade through Iroquois County, Illinois. It reminded me of the giant windmill blade I had seen in Iowa City this summer driving down I-80. The memory made me appreciate the quality of this photograph even more; it must have been hard to capture such a large, moving target. If it weren’t for the title, “Artesian Well on Old Butterfield Trail,” I wouldn’t have noticed the well centered towards the bottom of all three photos. The last frame even had a vial of water from the source, secured tightly to the wood.

While water in art is typically symbolic of life, a number of these photos made me think just the opposite. “Shelman Spring,” photographed in Union Star, Ken., presents a large well with an empty spout hanging over its opening just so. It more or less reminded me of a coffin. With its cold, concrete structure and bare background, it would be the perfect scene for a Lifetime original movie to take place.

“Avilla’s Artesian Well,” photographed in Avilla, Ind., had one giant well just slightly off center. I stared at it for a while. Its tall, wooden structure and planks hanging across had the poet in me analyzing a stark contrast between life and death, as this well looked more like a guillotine than anything else. Nevertheless, there was water flowing from the bottom, clear and bubbly, just waiting to be used for one of the million life-giving purposes that water is capable of.

Despite the attractiveness of Westhues’ photography, some of the photos didn’t interest me, particularly the images with people. It’s not that I don’t like people, it’s just that I felt it took away from the central idea of the series: Water. Upon looking at Westhues’ website, I noticed many of her photos are centered on people and the things they do, where they work, etc. It seems to me that “The Specialness of Springs” drifts away from her niche. But Westhues, unable to stray too far from humanity, creatively found a way to bring humans into this display. Tucked away in a corner of the gallery was a wooden table with various water bottles stacked on top, all from different locations around the United States. It serves as its own kind of well — for students to add water and bring together life sources from everywhere.

Water is meant to represent a life-giving source, yet somehow I managed to find the depressing qualities. However, I don’t think that’s a bad thing, as it means Westhues’ work is dynamic. As I closed my notebook and walked out of Moreau, I thought of all those life giving-qualities. But somewhere deep down in my budding, art critic soul, the uneasiness of Westhues’ contrast between life and death stayed put, waiting to be discovered on my next adventure into her universe.

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About Lexi Kilcoin

Lexi is an aspiring journalist studying Creative Writing and Religious Studies at Saint Mary's College. She loves all things The Office and is sure to start a conversation with anyone she meets.

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