Clay Culture: Flint Water Whistles

Flint’s water crisis began in 2013 when the city council voted to change the city’s source of drinking water. In the process, an anti-corrosive agent was not added at the water plant, resulting in lead being leached from Flint’s aging water pipes. For three years Flint drank, cooked, and bathed in lead-contaminated water.

Buckham Gallery (buckhamgallery.org), an artist-run gallery in operation for over 30 years, is located in the heart of downtown Flint, Michigan. As one of its members, I suggested we organize an exhibition titled “Water Crisis” at the gallery in response to the disastrous threat to public health caused by the city’s water supply change. In discussions, while most were enthusiastic, some members expressed concern about motive and perspective. A number of high-profile celebrities, while donating to alleviate the crisis, had also seemed equally interested in calling attention to themselves. They also asked, should artist members who don’t live in Flint be able to exhibit? (I live outside Flint, but do teach in Flint.)

In spite of legitimate concerns, the members voted overwhelmingly to schedule the show for October 2016, three years into the disaster. Buckham Gallery artists and invited guests were asked to create art in response to the water crisis.

Themed shows, where artists are asked to make pieces outside of their regular body of work, can be intimidating. I encouraged artist members to use the show to stretch themselves and step outside of their usual comfort zone of work. To explore a new direction, to delve into a different medium, or to consider size and scale—get big or perhaps small.

Taking my own advice, I decided to create water whistles based on the now iconic Flint water tower. My more traditional work is handbuilt animal forms fired in my gas-fired, catenary arch kiln. The water whistles would be wheel thrown and glazed fired to mid-range temperatures in an electric kiln.

Flint Water Whistle, 7¾ in. (20 cm) in height, wheel-thrown and altered stoneware, glaze, lusters, and decals. Photo: Kerry Burgdorfer.

Flint Water Whistle (back detail), 7¾ in. (20 cm) in height, wheel-thrown and altered stoneware, glaze, lusters, and decals. Photo: Kerry Burgdorfer.

Water Whistles

A water whistle makes a wonderful chirping, bird-like sound when air is blown into the form. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any information on how to make a water whistle—no books or YouTube instructional videos, nothing. When I quizzed my circle of ceramic friends, most had never heard of a water whistle.

Unlike traditional ceramic whistles, they can’t be tested until they have been bisque fired and water can be added. My only clues into their workings came from studying the collection of ceramic water whistles I had acquired in my travels.

For the next few months, I made a handful of whistles, bisque fired them, added water, tested, and discarded those that didn’t work. A few weeks before the October show, I finally mastered the form, and made a number of water whistles to show in the Water Crisis exhibition at the gallery. Needless to say, my throwing skills, which were rusty, also improved dramatically.

Flint Water Whistle Symbolism

  • The sphere of the water tower included both a fired-on decal reading FLINT WATER CRISIS on one side and a modeled skull on the other.
  • A bright red glaze on the mouthpiece is a reminder— if using Flint water in the whistle, don’t ingest it.
  • On the top of the tower sits a small crow with opened beak in a nest. A crow is an ominous sign and the baby crow speaks of those most damaged by lead poisoning.
  • Surrounding the base of the tower, blue ripples represent the Flint River.
  • A tiny empty water bottle (which all of Flint is now drinking from) pollutes and floats in the river.
  • A copper luster painted around the base represents a coin, as trying to save pennies on the dollar created the Flint water crisis.

Symbolism

After the exhibition, I planned to shelve the making of water whistles and return to my usual ceramic bill-of-fare. I imagine my wife was glad for a reprieve from hearing me endlessly testing the whistles in my basement studio. Instead, the whistles took on a life of their own.

With each batch of whistles I took from the kiln, new ideas presented themselves, adding to their poignancy. When I’ve experienced a body of work that takes on a life of its own, it can be euphoric. Conscious effort and planning took a back seat as each piece made its own suggestions of where to go next.

After weeks and then months, the layering and additions continued to evolve. The whistles became so laden with symbols I created a small crib sheet to go with each whistle sold.

Platform for Discussion

By October 2017, a little over one year after the Water Crisis exhibition, the whistles had reached a point where no more symbols could be added. Selling the whistles throughout the year provided a platform for discussion about the water crisis. I give 25% of the sales to the Flint Children’s Health and Development Fund (www.flintkids.com), which is dedicated to long-term and ongoing change for a better response to the water crisis, particularly for those most vulnerable—kids under six years old. Some felt it was wrong for me to be making money off the crisis, but most thanked me for keeping the crisis in the public’s attention.

A few years ago, I received a letter from John Hartom, founder of Empty Bowls and someone whom I consider a mentor in my thinking about social justice. On the envelope he’d stamped “ART SAVES LIVES.” I cut off the saying and made it into a pin, which I wore for years. It is my hope that making and discussing this series of water whistles, plus the money donated, will help make a difference in people’s lives.

How to Make a Water Whistle

1 Cut a hole in the lower section of the hollow sphere. Attach the mouthpiece over the cut hole. 2 Push the longer end of a cut wooden coffee stirrer through the mouthpiece until you feel it enter the hollow sphere. Leave the stirrer in place. 3 Using the shorter wooden stirrer, scratch a rectangular hole into the mouthpiece, down to the longer stirrer. With the shorter stirrer, cut a 45° angle in the side of the opening closest to the sphere, removing a small bit of clay.

4 Check to make sure the clay hasn’t clogged the space between the connection of the mouthpiece and sphere. Check that the cut angle is still sharp. Note: I often re-insert the longer stirrer to make small but important corrections/adjustments. 5 Cut a hole in the sphere and attach the bird’s head. 6 Use a needle tool to slice the beak and pierce a hole into the hollow interior. Gently open the beak, so it looks like the bird is singing. 7 Bisque fire the piece, then fill with water. Blow into the whistle and smile as you hear the cheerful sound of a chirping bird, (hopefully)! Now it’s ready to be glazed, decorated, and fired.

the author Craig Hinshaw is an artist and instructor living in Davison, Michigan. He is the author of  Clay Connections, a ceramic book based on his contributions to Kids Korner, which he wrote for Pottery Making Illustrated. Learn more at www.craighinshaw.com.

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