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Omaha Magazine

Molding a Message

Feb 24, 2023 10:15AM ● By Blake Ursch
Jess Benjamin

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

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Growing up in Cozad, Nebraska, ceramics artist Jess Benjamin honed her powers of observation watching streams of water flow down the turn rows on her family’s farm.

That keen eye served her well. Good artists, after all, are good observers. 

But her upbringing on the 100th meridian—the boundary between the rainy eastern U.S. and the drier western plains—gave Benjamin something else that has proven invaluable to her work: a unique perspective that’s spurred her to confront, head on, the looming reality of a world without water.

In large-scale ceramics, Benjamin, now based in Omaha, creates haunting visions of extreme drought. Her work largely concerns water usage on the Great Plains, which relies heavily on the underground Ogallala Aquifer to support crops and livestock. Experts say demand on the Ogallala is outpacing the aquifer’s ability to replenish itself—a problem that’s due to worsen as climate change drives record-breaking drought and heat. 

“[Water] is a basic part of all life, and how civilizations treat water in their time periods determines if they’re going to survive,” Benjamin said. “We’ve seen the collapse of many of society’s civilizations due to lack of water.”

Benjamin’s work tackles an imposing issue on a proportionately imposing scale. Take one of her pieces: “Hoover Dam Intake Towers.” The piece consists of two 8-foot-tall towers made of fired clay, meant to depict four real-life structures standing in Lake Mead, the man-made reservoir formed by Hoover Dam. 

The actual intake towers—which stand almost 400 feet tall—take in lake water, which then is used to generate hydroelectric power within the dam. Historically, with the lake at capacity, the towers have remained mostly submerged. 

But in recent years, as the water level in the lake drops, more and more of the towers are being exposed. 

“It’s an object that really shouldn’t be seen,” Benjamin explained. “Right now, Lake Mead is a little over 200 feet below capacity at the intake towers. From the Omaha perspective, that’s the same size as the St. Cecilia Cathedral towers.”

Other pieces reflect the water crisis closer to home. Several of Benjamin’s works feature recreations of the 180,000 “jackstones” that line the water-facing side of the Kingsley Dam at Lake McConaughy. The 800-pound stones, which resemble the six-pointed children’s toy, were placed as an interlocking layer of protection at the face of the dam, meant to guard against erosion at the time of its construction in the early 1940s.

Like the Hoover Dam intake towers, the jackstones were underwater for decades—hidden from view until the waters of Lake McConaughy receded during a serious drought that began in 2002.
“The jackstone and the intake tower are two objects that my audience likely has no clue what they are,” Benjamin noted. “Yet, they can get a sense of what I’m talking about just by the way that these objects are breaking down.”

Clay, Benjamin explained, is the perfect medium with which to tell the story of an impending water crisis. The parallels are clear: an artist takes dry clay, adds water, sculpts it into a desired shape, and then dries it. 

“So, it’s controlling drought,” Benjamin said. “I think that speaks metaphorically to making work about water and drought. Using the most natural material you can, taking it through the process that our environment is going through, and creating an artifact that’s going to last through all droughts.” 

It’s also a medium that allows her to take advantage of the patience and quiet attention to detail that she developed on the farm.

“Us farm kids are taught at an early age to be observant of your environment—you’re constantly watching for changes, whether that’s with your animals or with the grass that you grow,” she said. “[Clay] requires me to watch it constantly. And I enjoy watching clay dry. Always have, my whole life.”

Benjamin’s work has been featured in solo exhibitions in Omaha, Lincoln, and elsewhere around the country. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, several of her pieces found a home at the Amarillo Museum of Art in Amarillo, Texas.

Ultimately, Benjamin hopes her work motivates people to engage with the ongoing discussion about water conservation. Yes, it’s an environmental imperative, she said. But it’s a message that, for her, also strikes at something deeper. 

“My work is so personal because it’s about where I’m from,” she said. “Water is our most precious commodity in Nebraska. I can think about it, put it out there for others to think about, and I know it’ll make a positive impact, even if they don’t like my work, because it’s still going to get them thinking about water.” 

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This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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