Summer in Texas is infamous for its sweltering heat. But over the last decade or so, it seems as though this state has entered a new era of extreme weather. And we’re not alone; this year is on track to be the hottest year ever recorded globally, with the last eight years being the warmest on record. As a result, compounding natural disasters around the world are showing us the realities of climate change.
With an exhibition of works focused on the theme of drought and flooding, the latest Cell Series installation at The Old Jail Art Center feels very apropos. To create the show, Fort Worth-based artist and co-founder of Easyside Corrie Thompson spent the past year researching, digging through news articles, state archival materials, first-person accounts, public planning documents, and Google image searches relating to the effects of weather in the Lone Star state.
The first room of the exhibit features three hanging cloth banners with text. The largest banner includes an excerpt from the official proclamation of the Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas. Yes, you read that correctly, this was a real thing. In the spring of 2011, higher than normal temperatures and severe drought led Governor Rick Perry to “urge Texans of all faiths and traditions to offer prayers on that day for the healing of our land, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of our normal and robust way of life.” No push for public policies to help mitigate the effects of climate change were made. Following the Days of Prayer for Rain proclamation, the drought continued to worsen for four months.
Another banner in the exhibit features an excerpt from a biblical story about the cows of famine. The narrative goes that the Pharaoh had a dream in which seven fat, healthy cows were eaten by seven thin, emaciated cows. It’s a reference to predictions of seven years of drought and famine.
The third banner includes a quote from the Pacific Railroad Survey reports published by the U.S. Department of War in 1855. The survey was intended to provide possible routes for the railroad to connect eastern and western states. For this banner, the artist pulled from a section of the report about the area between the Trinity and Brazos Rivers. The author of the text uses rich visual language to describe the landscape, but makes note of what they feel is missing: man’s cultivation and settlement of the land. Today, we see the effects of that inevitable development, as points of the Brazos River have become polluted with runoff from nearby quarries and untreated household sewage from adjacent municipalities, resulting in the contamination of a major public waterway.
The banners themselves are reminiscent of liturgical banners in churches used to inspire congregants. For Thompson, she also found inspiration in the history of the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo. Searching through the photo archive from the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the artist found images of champion stock show cattle decorated with award ribbons. The banner format of the works creates a ceremonial context and adds power to the selected texts.
The other room of the exhibition features three drawings on fire screen structures that reference natural disasters like floods and wildfires. Drawn directly onto fabric, the material adds a softness to the graphic lines of each composition. And yet the details are impeccable, down to the wood grain of the fence in Firescreen for the Acts of God and the hairs of the cow in Firescreen for the Sacrifice.
The choice of structure for the drawings is relevant. Fire screens were used in the 18th and early 19th centuries as a way to protect a person from direct heat as they sat by a fireplace. They were often made from wood, with fabric or needlework details. By the late 1800s, once heating stoves were widely available, fire screens became more decorative in function. By using the structure of a fire screen, the drawings share the viewer’s space, calling unavoidable attention to Thompson’s subject matter.
With each work in Drought and Deluge, both the artist’s choice of materials and presentation is deliberate. I love that the canvases of each work come from reclaimed clothing and bedding — zero waste for the win! And though Thompson’ sources of inspiration may be historical, the consequences of the weather-related disasters featured resonate loudly for today’s audiences. At least in my experience, driving to Albany through the dry, drought-stricken prairie lands west of Fort Worth in the middle of another excessive heat warning felt like the perfect prelude to Thompson’s work.
Drought and Deluge is on view at The Old Jail Art Center in Albany through August 26, 2023.