Skip to main content
University of Wisconsin–Madison

Guest Post: Mary Burns Explores Women’s Roles as Water Stewards

Once a month, the Go Big Read blog will feature an article written by one of the contributing authors for the Center for Limnology blog. This collaboration was made possible by Adam Hinterthuer, the University Relations Specialist for the Center for Limnology. 

Courtesy of UW Center for Limnology

Mary Burns believes that water is sacred.

A textile artist and weaver, Mary lives on the banks of the Manitowish River, in the cabin that once belonged to her grandparents. She said that the cabin, and the river that runs beside it, are the sites of some of her earliest memories.

“I think people really feel drawn to water, and it means a lot to people, whether it is a sense of belonging, or a sense of serenity,” Mary said. “I think there is a magnetic pull to water for most people.”

Her own connection to water has inspired her throughout her career as a weaver. Now, she hopes that a residency at Trout Lake Station will give her the opportunity to explore that relationship — as well as the role of women as environmental stewards — further.

Mary works on a sample for a current project. She can use up to 1300 warp threads at one time. Courtesy of UW Center for Limnology

She imagines her residency taking the form of a series of woven portraits, featuring women who are leaders in water science and stewardship, paired with weavings of freshwater landscapes. She also plans to extract natural dyes from those landscapes.

“I think that women working in limnology are essential. I would like to bring their expertise into this discussion,” Mary said. “I would like the exhibit to broaden people’s knowledge our water problems and encourage people to take action.”

Tentatively, she will title the collection The Living Water.

The series will expand on a project that Mary has been working on for the past several years. Called Ancestral Women, that series included 12 woven portraits of native women and 12 landscapes. The collection resulted from a collaboration between Mary and tribal communities across Wisconsin.

“Women are life givers, and in many native societies, they are the water protectors,” Mary explained. “I started working with native women on this because it seemed to me that they should be honored first.”
A portrait of water walker Josephine Mandamin.
Weavings from both series line the walls of Mary’s airy studio.

“This is Josephine Mandamin,” Mary said, gesturing toward a grey-tone image of an older woman carrying a copper pot. It’s one of the first pieces Mary has competed as part of Living Water.

A portrait of water walker Josephine Mandamin. Courtesy of UW Center for Limnology

Josephine, Mary explained, began the Water Walk Movement, an effort lead by native women to advocate for freshwater conservation. Josephine has walked over 15,000 miles to raise awareness for water.

“She is tremendously inspirational to me,” Mary said.

The portrait of Josephine, took Mary over a month to complete. Mary has been weaving since high school, but Ancestral Women was the first time she had ever attempted portraiture in that medium.

But weaving, she said, was the best way for her to share these stories.

“Bringing these stories to life in weaving is a gift I have been given,” Mary said. “I think that people relate to it and are amazed by it. It’s a textile, and people are drawn to that. It’s something basic, it connects to everybody and it’s something that can be touched.”

Mary said she chose to design the the portraits in grey tones because color would have distracted from the stories she wanted the weavings to tell.

“I think the monochrome is more powerful,” she said. “The minimalism contains complexity.”

Mary’s jacquard loom stands in the back corner of her studio, near a window overlooking a garden bursting with the indigo she uses to dye silks.

Even when she reduces her palette to a few colors, the weaving process is incredibly complicated. Mary works with 1,300 warp threads at any time, and she controls each individually.

She navigates between 4,000 weave structures to create the perfect shading and textures in her pieces.

While Mary said she hopes her work conveys her gratitude for Wisconsin’s abundant freshwater systems, she also hopes that it inspires stewardship of them, and cautions audiences that the state’s resources cannot be taken for granted.

Particularly, she sees agricultural and industrial runoff and mining as threats to Wisconsin’s waterways. When she weaves, she said it is with that thankfulness — but also those worries — in mind.

Mary will be working at Trout Lake station throughout the summer and fall as she completes her residency. Check back often to see more of her completed work.

To view more of Mary’s weavings, please visit her website. To learn more about the Trout Lake Station artist-in-residence program (and to see some beautiful aquatic-inspired art), visit the Drawing Water website.

Article by Sydney Widell

Summer Science Communication Intern, Center for Limnology

Guest Contributor, Go Big Read