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Artist uses Truckee River sidewalk poem to meditate on science, time, place

Nearly a decade in the making, visual artist Todd Gilens’ Reno sidewalk poem explores how the Truckee River intersects with an urban landscape.
Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg

Between the Truckee River and asphalt roads that line its banks are yellow cursive scribblings on the sidewalk. The words go on for a mile, unfurling as a tale about time, change and place. 

It is a 5,000-word poem about water, and it is meant to prompt questions. 

This is not the type of poem that can be found in a book — at least, not any time soon. Instead, for readers to take in the poem, “Confluence: Stream Science, Handwriting, and Urban Curbs,” they are asked to start walking from Idlewild Park to bustling downtown Reno. The public poem, after extensive planning over a decade, was installed in September.

From the poem, the river is never far. Visitors can hear the rush of water running through town and downstream as they take in the sidewalk words, covered intermittently by golden autumnal leaves, the paws of dogs walking by, the wheels of bicycles and the feet of other people. 

“Having a poem of this nature where it asks you to do a little work — to kind of reflect and think and wonder, as you walk along — that’s what I hope the poem and poetry in general can invite us to do,” said visual artist Todd Gilens, who led the project. “That’s one level of the intention.”

Gilens, who is based in the Bay Area, got the idea nearly a decade ago while he was spending time in University of California field stations scattered across the Sierra Nevada mountains, which feed the Truckee and many other rivers that sustain life in the region. 

As he worked at the field stations, where scientists investigate how snow melts into streams and how water interacts with the environment, Gilens sought to explore the ways in which rivers — and water more generally — are stitched into the landscape in ways seen and unseen. 

Gilens was drawn to the urban connection between the watersheds that dot the Sierra and the towns that rely on their water, including Mammoth Lakes, Reno and San Francisco. At the same time, in trying to communicate the complexity and layers of water’s ephemerality and movement through landscapes and time, Gilens became drawn to the curb as a medium for his poem. 

“It is a very rich space, when you get into thinking what a curb is — how it separates machines from bodies, how it manages water as it flows over hard surfaces and down into storm drains and how it holds roads together,” Gilens said during a phone interview earlier this month.

And Reno, with a river walk and openness to public art, seemed a natural fit. 

“I looked for a place with this idea of poetry, and then I wrote the poem to fit the place,” he said. 

The poem itself spans thousands of words, but Gilens only expects readers to capture a few words — maybe across 10 feet or so — as they walk near the river. It’s not a short story, and it wasn’t written that way. Instead he notes that “there’s a lot of variability in the sections,” moving from stream science to metaphorical language. 

“Those choices are made according to where that section is” along the river, he said. 

Gilens found a local sponsor for the project in the Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation, which  fundraised to support the installation and maintenance of the display. The roughly $70,000 project also received support from the City of Reno, Washoe County and Nevada Humanities.

“We really saw this project as a thing that inspired people to ask questions,” said Heidi Anderson, the parks foundation’s executive director. “As you come across this piece of artwork — this poetry that you’re reading as you’re walking along the sidewalk — it is going to make you curious. It’s going to make you want to learn more and investigate.”

A major initial issue for the project was deciding what materials and font to use to make the poem readable for visitors, durable through Reno’s changing seasons and still removable.

“You need the right type of material that is going to stick but that type of material is going to be nice and thick, so how’s it going to get cut?” Anderson said. “A simple blade is not going to do it.” 

"When snow melts it begins to move, the weight and
volume thawed each spring pulls boulders from their beds,
and knocking rocks on rock make silt and sand and
chips:  A stream grows older as rocks get smoothed, while
rocks grow up by getting smaller and more numerous.
Shoved and pulled, sharp edges soften into curves, the
muscles of water read in rocks’ quantity, their contact,
piles, height and shape."

— Todd Gilens, "Confluence"

Gilens decided on a yellow cursive, the color matching yellow markings on the road, separating one side of traffic from another. Time and change are central themes in the poem — and both are woven into the art installation with the visual character of the cursive. 

The poem is written in the reconstructed handwriting of Claude Dukes, who served as federal water master from 1959 to 1984. The federal water master is charged with overseeing water rights on the Truckee and Carson rivers, which were connected in the early 1900s by the Derby Dam, a diversion that siphoned the Truckee away from its natural terminus at Pyramid Lake. 

Choosing Dukes, Gilens said, came after he “auditioned” writing from papers across the West, from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. Orion Clemens, the first secretary of the Nevada Territory and Mark Twain’s brother, was a candidate, but he picked Dukes for his legible cursive. 

How long will the poem last on the curb? One year is the minimum, but it was not designed to last forever, reinforcing themes in the poem of change and impermanence. Gilens, however, is hoping to publish a book containing the poem and essays about environmental public art. 

The book, he said, could make the poem “go many places and last for much longer.”

Visual artist Todd Gilens used manuscripts from UNR Special Collections to recreate the handwriting of a former Truckee River water official. (Photo courtesy of Todd Gilens)

Gilens said using art to critique and understand science is important, arguing that “a culture that is able to move back and forth between a science fact and a poetic fact has a lot of resilience.” 

Elizabeth Koebele, a UNR professor who focuses on environmental policy, said she found Gilens’ project compelling because it had a public art component —  a valuable format to interrogate how we view our surroundings and the dynamics of the natural world. 

“As someone who now tries to communicate science, figuring out how to do that in a way that's clear but also in a way that’s engaging, I think is really important,” said Koebele, a co-author on the recent Fifth National Climate Assessment report, which featured a gallery on art and climate. 

Rather than being a call for action, the Truckee River poem often reads as more of a reflection “on how science is a way of interpreting our relationship with nature,” Koebele said. 

Visiting the project since it was installed earlier this year, Gilens said it has been rewarding. When people are reading the poem, Gilens said he can see their posture, breathing and movements changing. They slow down.

“You can tell from a distance away they are working through reading,” he said.

This story was updated at 10:45 a.m. on 12/4/23 to correct the geography of where the poem starts and ends.


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