The Negro Speaks Of Rivers

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers. 

- Langston Hughes


For the past decade, I’ve been exploring the worlds of our solar system through paint.  I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with NASA scientists dissecting the geology of our planetary neighbors while conveying their stories in mixed-media works. Throughout this process, I’m often asked, “why planets?” To respond to this question, I’ve recently turned my focus back to Earth so to speak. Although obvious, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Earth is a planet – a marvelous, complex and fragile system we call home.  My newest series embarks on a journey to investigate our unique world from the vantage point of space.

Earth is marvelously yet dauntingly complex.  Its crust is shaped not only by pervasive geologic activity; the surface of Earth has been carved by humans. So I struggled with where to begin. One day, while listening to NPR, I heard a poem by Langston Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” This impressed upon me the role of rivers in shaping our planet, its habitability, history and civilizations. Around the same time, I had the chance to visit both the headwaters of the Colorado River in Rocky Mountain National Park and its course through Colorado, Utah and the Grand Canyon. I was struck by the story of the Colorado River in shaping the landscape and development of the American West and my new series was born.

Literally and metaphorically, rivers are the life blood of Earth. Their cycles parallel our bodies’ circulatory systems as they journey to deliver fresh water and nutrients to the land. They also have defined the development of civilizations, providing essential resources and conduits for our societies to flourish. The story of the Colorado River embodies the power of rivers as essential to land and life. My new series takes a look at the journey of the Colorado River from humble headwaters to its untimely demise before it reaches the Sea of Cortez. The Colorado River is one of the most heavily legislated, litigated and manipulated rivers in the world with international implications. Its watershed allowed for the “desert to bloom” as predicted by John Wesley Powell, but human impact has also had devastating effects on its health and the environment. From Denver to Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Diego, the Colorado River is crucial for millions of people and huge agricultural enterprises. The American public literally feeds off the bounty of the river every day. However, this precious resource is at risk and it is truly and endangered landscape.

My new series takes a look at the Colorado River basin as captured by Earth orbiting satellites. Views from this remote sensing perspective truly highlight the journey of the Colorado River as manipulated and impacted by human development – a true example of the Anthropocene. This is dramatically seen in the contrast of the fractal and organic patterns viewed in the natural landscape as juxtaposed with the geometric manipulation of Earth’s surface pervasive in our urban and agricultural areas. For this series, I’m interested in investigating the juxtaposing forms of man vs. nature while contemplating the history and future of this remarkable, iconic and fragile resource.

- Monica Aiello, 2014