5 Things to Know About the Woman Behind the Watermarks Project

Meet Mary Miss, the artist and pioneer behind Milwaukee’s Watermarks project.

New York-based artist Mary Miss is known as a pioneer of “land art,” using the environment as her canvas. Her new Milwaukee project “Watermarks” does just that on a sprawling scale. The project aims to “make an atlas of water in the city of Milwaukee,” she says. “We’re creating visual icons that will make you aware of different places where we can tell the story of water’s connection to the city, the most visible one being the smokestack at Jones Island.” As the centerpiece, the Jones Island smokestack will usually glow blue, but when rain is due the next day, it will glow red. “If it’s red, you’re not going to water your lawn that night, and then you’re becoming part of the green infrastructure of the city,” explains Miss. Her team also will hang large Google Maps-like letters on things like utility poles or rooftops to pinpoint important water landmarks. Passers-by can look up the information using their smartphones. The project’s design phase is funded through a $200,000 grant from Marquette University’s Innovation Fund; it’s being managed by the school’s Haggerty Museum of Art. Construction should start in spring 2018. “We’ll begin in the inner harbor and spread through the rest of the city,” says Miss. “It could go on for years incrementally.”

1  Miss had a key role in the design of the Milwaukee Riverwalk project 20 years ago, with the goal of raising the community’s awareness of its main stream: “I really wanted people to see the relationship between the city and the river.”

2  One of her most praised works includes a large hole in the ground. In part of the “Perimeters/Pavilions/Decoys” installation, located on Long Island, New York, visitors can climb down a ladder to an underground courtyard that probably isn’t a dungeon. Probably.

3  The 72-year-old artist is known for collaborating with scientists, historians and notoriously art-averse public administrators, such as with her 2015 Indianapolis project “SteamLines,” which used mirrors, markers and text to highlight the city’s waterways.

4  Similarly, she’s the founder and artistic director of the City as Living Laboratory project in New York City, which uses art exhibits to inform people about the effects of climate change.

5  Yes, that’s her real name. “My sister is Christian Miss, my father was David Miss – Mr. Miss…”

‘5 Things to Know About Mary Miss’ appears in the April 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning April 3, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Based in his hometown of Madison, Steve is a freelance reporter and regular contributor to Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus and many other publications. During his undergraduate studies at UW-Milwaukee, he wrote for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Shepherd Express. Now a graduate student at UW-Madison, he'll build on his 15 years of experience in print by focusing on multimedia reporting and data visualization.