Painting the Water in Arizona, Scarce but Oh, So Beautiful

Guest Post by Barbara Kemp Cowlin

Why would I paint images of water when I live in Arizona?

Many people ask me this question and I always answer that the scarcity of water is why I am compelled to paint it. My subjects are water as abstraction, water with natural forms, the interaction of people and water. Water contained or harnessed in man-made situations is a new branch of my Painting Water series.

My first experience with painting water was when I lived in Santa Barbara and received an assignment in a painting class to go to the wharf, observe and then choose something to paint on site. The subject most students picked were the sailboats. I, however, looked down and was mesmerized by the reflections on the top of the water, the feeling of impenetrable depth and the changing colors. Did I create a successful painting? No. But the challenge never left me.

When I moved to Arizona long ago the thing I missed most about California was the ocean. While growing up in California, it was in a 10-year drought. When a rare rain occurred kids of all ages went outside to play in the puddles in our suburban neighborhood.

The scarcity of water wasn’t new to me. What was new was the way in which the desert atmosphere, blue skies and monsoon clouds create wonderful colors and reflections in the water. I’ve painted everything water from puddles to creeks, lakes and canals.

Lake•Boat•Wake, 36”x48”, acrylic on panel Barbara Kemp Cowlin
Lake•Boat•Wake, 36”x48”, acrylic on panel Barbara Kemp Cowlin

Lake•Boat•Wake, 36”x48”, acrylic on panel, is from the wake I saw at the back of a boat on Lake Powell.

Organic forms, rocks, reeds, create a different kind of challenge. In addition. I am capturing the movement in the water.

Catalina, 36”x44”, acrylic on canvas by Barbara Kemp Cowlin

Catalina, 36”x44”, acrylic on canvas. This is from a snapshot I took at Catalina State Park. A seasonal stream flows through the wash, which is what I captured in this painting. Beautiful grasses and flowers spring up and wildlife gathers around when the creeks is running. Hikers splash through it.

I work from snapshots taken with my iPhone. Once back in my studio in Oracle, after the images are downloaded I pick and choose, crop and print. Then I start to paint, usually working from 2 or 3 reference photographs for each painting and work on 3 or 4 paintings at the same time. I block in large shapes first and then add many layers gradually working into details.

I enjoy showing people interacting with water in various situations.

Jack and David Attempt to Capture the Beauty painting by Barbara Kemp Cowlin

Jack and David Attempt to Capture the Beauty, 36”x24”, acrylic on canvas. Located at Shinumo Creek along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, this painting illustrates my brother-in-law and nephew on a raft trip we took with them, as they madly shot photographs the entire 9 day trip. I never found out if they were happy with these photographs. I took the occasional photograph but spent most of my time looking. The results are a series of paintings using the photos for reference.

Next are images of water being controlled by man:

The Barrier, 36”x48”, acrylic on panel. This shows Glen Canyon Dam on the downriver side, where the Colorado resumes its’ flow. On the other side is Lake Powell, popular recreation area for people throughout Arizona and adjacent states. The Dam generates hydroelectric power to the tune of 4 billion kilowatt hours per year and provides water distribution to Colorado, Wyoming, most of New Mexico and Utah as well as to most Arizonans. It was and remains a controversial project because it filled Glen Canyon, a spot with stunning sandstone gorges, not to mention Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings destroying the environment of the area, but creating an entirely new place.

The Contradiction, 36”x48”, acrylic on panel, below, shows one of the many canals in Arizona. The Florence-Casa Grande Canal is part of the San Carlos Irrigation Project. This painting shows the canal just outside of Florence where you can see the otherworldly water tanks in the distance. The color of the water is just as I saw it, really!

Beauty Contained, 36”x48”, acrylic on panel, the view from inside the lobby at the Phoenix Art Museum looking out the window at the fountain. Not only does this fountain add beauty to the site, it also simulates the sound of running water. A lovely way to get into the right frame of mind to view the art treasures inside.

Barbara Kemp Cowlin has lived in Arizona for most of her adult life, in Flagstaff, Phoenix, Ajo and now, Oracle. She has a BFA and MA in art and has shown and been collected in Arizona and around the country. She paints daily in her 650 sq. foot studio steps away from her home in Oracle.

Water/Ways Sierra Vista Programs

Courtesy City of Sierra Vista and the Henry F. Hauser Museum

Explore Water Programs in Sierra Vista!

For more information and to confirm programs schedule, please call (520) 417-6980.

Saturday, January 12 – 1:00 PM

Sierra Vista Water/Ways – Changing Landscapes
A Smithsonian Water/Ways Local Companion Exhibit
Grand Opening
Saturday, January 12
1:00 PM Ribbon-cutting Ceremony
1:30-3:30 PM Exhibit Open to the Public

Tuesday, January 8 – 1:00 PM

Whose Fault is it? Revisiting the 1887 Sonoran Earthquake
Henry F. Hauser Museum
Ethel H. Berger Center
2950 East Tacoma Street

The 1887 shaking was a major earthquake causing damage in the southwest United States and Mexico. Just how close is the Pitaycachi Fault to Cochise County and how has this fault been studied recently to analyze its reactivation potential? Cartographer and geographer, Glenn Minuth, returns to examine pictures of the fault to discuss its geological significance; and finally reviews historic damage pictures along with the narrative accounts from those who recorded their thoughts at the time from some of the over 200 Arizona locations, in nearby states, and Mexico.

Friday, January 18 – 5:30-7:00 PM

Stacks After Dark – Water Panel Discussion
A Conversation About Water Resources, Use, and Management in the Upper San Pedro River Valley

Sierra Vista Public Library
Public Meeting Room
Join moderator, George Van Otten, Professor Emeritus of Geography and Public Planning, Northern Arizona, for a conversation about water resources, use, and management in the Upper San Pedro River Valley. Panel members include County Supervisor Pat Call, Friends of the San Pedro River member, Tricia Gerrodette; Community member and former vice president of Bella Vista Water/Ranches, Judy Gignac; and local rancher and board member of the Hereford Natural Resource Conservation District, Jim Lindsey.

Saturday, January 19 – 10:00-11:00 AM

Watercolor Magic Hoops for Kids
Ethel H. Berger Center
Cost: Free
Maximum Participants: 30
Registration is required. Space is limited. To reserve your space call 520-439-2307 or email
Children ages 7-13 will use their imaginations to create a water scene depicting an aspect of water found in the San Pedro Valley.
Using markers and colored pencils, participants will draw their water scene on fabric or choose from available templated prints. Magic happens when a watercolor solution is added. Each masterpiece is then framed in an embroidery hoop. Participants in the January class have the option to display their creation in the museum as part of our companion exhibit!
We thank the Hummingbird Stitchers Quilt Guild for sponsoring and conducting this class.

Saturday, January 26 – 9:00 –11:00 AM

San Pedro River Tour
San Pedro House
Hwy 90 East
Friends of the San Pedro River and hydrogeologist Victoria Hermosilla in partnership with the City of Sierra Vista’s Henry F. Hauser Museum are offering a free guided hike along the San Pedro River. The tour covers a range of educational topics such as riparian ecology, river hydrology, groundwater science, native and migratory birds, and water policy. Join us at the San Pedro House shortly before 9am for this discussion-focused hike, all while enjoying the scenic beauty of the San Pedro River corridor. Please wear sturdy shoes and bring water.

Saturday, January 26 – 1:00-2:00 pm

Hydrology and Water Resources 101

Ethel H. Berger Center

As we move into the 21st century, our water resources and management will need to become more adaptive under the pressures of population growth and less predictable weather patterns. This interactive and discussion-based presentation, with hydrogologist Victoria Hermosilla, covers the water cycle, surface water and groundwater basics with considerations of water usage as it relates water & energy and water & food. Victoria will also provide access to groundwater models and other informational displays.

Saturday, February 2 – 9:00 am -5:00 pm AND Sunday, February 3 – 10:00 am -3:00 pm

Quilt Show – A Sierra Vista Water/Ways Special Quilt Exhibit

Buena High School

Cost:  Free for Special Water/Ways Exhibit Hall, $7 for the “Quilts of the Huachucas” exhibit.

The Henry F. Hauser Museum has partnered with our local Hummingbird Stitchers Quilt Guild in bringing this special water inspired quilt exhibit to the public, as part of their annual Quilt Show and Sale. There is a small fee for entrance into their regular exhibit area, but the Water/Ways quilt exhibit space is free. Stop by and take a peek. We have some incredibly talented quilters right here in the greater Sierra Vista area!

Saturday, February 2

Slow the H2O – Rain Chains Workshop for Kids & Adults

10:00 AM -11:30 PM Adult Class (Maximum participants – 10)
1:00-2:30 PM Kids Class (Ages 10-17) (Maximum Participants – 20)

Ethel H. Berger Center
A parent or guardian is encouraged to participate.
Cost: Free
Help us create unique and artistic rain chains to channel water from the Ethel Berger Center roof into the vegetation. The adult class will construct one chain and the kids workshop will make two. We’ll be using various metal items such as spoons, forks, funnels, and bells, and we’ll add some beads for color! After each creation is made, we’ll do a short “Hanging Ceremony.” Once you’ve learned the basics, you can create your own at home from your own recycled “treasures”
Registration is required. Space is limited. To reserve your space call 520-439-2307 or email

Tuesday, February 5 – 1:00 PM

Water in Arizona: Past, Present, Future
Henry F. Hauser Museum
Ethel H. Berger Center
2950 East Tacoma Street

Water is Arizona’s most precious resource, yet few people know where their water comes from, who provides it, how its quality is assured, or how secure future water supplies are for the state’s 6 million residents. A billboard near Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River proclaimed in the 1960s: “Arizona Grows Where Water Flows.” However, growth and the control of water to support it have never been simple uncontested endeavors. There are the haves and have nots, conflicts between farmers, cities, and industry over who gets how much and who pays how much. Federal, tribal, state, and local governments are involved in developing and distributing water to serve diverse constituents with often competing interests. And what about nature? Who is looking out for Arizona’s native fish and amphibians, and the birds and insects that thrive in the cottonwood and willow forests along our most rare and valuable streamside ecosystems? We face very serious water supply sustainability challenges in the coming decades. Who makes decisions about our water future? ASU Professor of History and Sustainability Paul Hirt takes us on a bird’s eye view of the past, present, and future of water in Arizona.

February 5 through 7

Water Stories Storytime @ the Library
Tuesday, February 5 Baby Storytime
Wednesday, February 6 Preschool Storytime
Friday, February 8 Toddler Storytime
10:20-11:10 AM
Thursday, February 7 Pajama Storytime
6:30-7:15 PM
Sierra Vista Public Library
Public Meeting Room
Cost: Free
The Henry F. Hauser Museum has partnered with our city library in celebrating the many faces of water; from rivers and waterfalls to ice and steam. Join children’s librarian, Erica Merritt, for a fun and educational week. For more information call (520) 458-4225.

Saturday, February 16  – 11:00 AM -12:00 PM

Make and Take: Squirt Gun Art for Families and Teens
Ethel H. Berger Center
Dining Room
Cost: Free
Maximum Participants: Unlimited (Ages 5-17)

Stop by the museum, take a peek at the Smithsonian Exhibit and create a one of a kind design using squirt guns and paint!
No registration required. Simply show up!

Saturday, February 16 – Presentation:  1:00-2:00 pm      

A History and Overview of Water Treatment at the City’s Environmental Operations Park

Presentation and Tour

Ethel H. Berger Center

Wastewater treatment isn’t something most people like to think about, but it is vital to protect public health.  Did you know that buildings from the City’s first wastewater treatment facility are still standing in Sierra Vista’s historic West End?  Did you know that the City once used treated effluent to grow alfalfa?  What does the City do with its effluent today?  From the West End, to harvesting alfalfa, to the single-most important recharge project in our region, come hear about the history and future of wastewater treatment operations from the City’s Public Works Director, Sharon Flissar. Then meet her at the EOP for a tour following the presentation.

Saturday, February 23 – 10:00-11:00 AM

Watercolor Magic Hoops

Ethel H. Berger Center
Cost: Free
Maximum Participants: 30
Registration is required. Space is limited. To reserve your space call 520-439-2307 or email
Children ages 7-13 will use their imaginations to create a water scene depicting an aspect of water found in the San Pedro Valley.
Using markers and colored pencils, participants will draw their water scene on fabric or choose from available templated prints. Magic happens when a watercolor solution is added. Each masterpiece is then framed in an embroidery hoop.

Saturday, February 23 – 10:00 AM -3:00 PM

Sierra Vista Water/Ways Youth Arts Festival
Cochise College, Sierra Vista Campus
Cost: Free
The Henry F. Hauser Museum is pleased to partner with the annual Youth Arts Festival this year in celebrating the Smithsonian Water/Ways exhibit! This family-friendly event serves grades K-8 students through dynamic “make and take” activities and live performances centered around the theme of water. This collaboration between the Sierra Vista Arts & Humanities Commission and the Cochise College Art Department invites local artists and talents to run stations including Art, Craft, Writing, Theater, Music, Dance and more, where local youth can try new things and explore creative interests. For more information about attending or volunteering for this event, contact:

We thank the Hummingbird Stitchers Quilt Guild for sponsoring and conducting this class.

Tuesday, March 5 – 1:00 PM

Huachuca Water Company: an Engineering Success
Henry F. Hauser Museum
Ethel H. Berger Center
2950 East Tacoma Street

Join historian and professional researcher, Nancy Sosa, for an educational and entertaining look into a rather unique regional water story – The Tombstone Pipeline. The Huachuca Water Company was established in 1880 to bring water to Tombstone, Arizona. The investors of the Huachuca Water Company claimed and developed 23 springs in Miller and Carr Canyons of the Huachuca Mountains, and built an approximate 27-mile long iron pipeline to deliver the water. Once the longest gravity fed pipeline in America, this line is still in use today, bringing much-needed water to the citizens and visitors of Tombstone.

Educating teachers about water in rural Arizona

By Liz Marquez, Program Manager, Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC), Arizona State University

Colorado River Basin from Basin Study by US Bureau of Reclamation

Primary Source of Water

Looking at the map of the Lower Colorado River Basin and the state of Arizona, it becomes clear that as the Colorado River flows south from Hoover Dam, the area around Lake Havasu City and Parker, are critical water management areas for Arizona and California. For Arizona, the Central Arizona Project Canal begins its 336-mile journey to bring one of the primary sources of water to central Arizona. Also, the Colorado River continues past Parker Dam, to bring the primary source of water to the fertile agricultural valley of Yuma county.  For California, the Colorado River Aqueduct begins its 242-mile water journey to the east side of the Santa Ana Mountains and provides one of the primary sources of drinking water for Southern California.

Lake Havasu City Teacher Training December 2018

Water Education Training comes to Lake Havasu City

To help teachers and students gain a better understanding of the importance of water management in this region, our team of researchers and educators from Decision Center for a Desert City at Arizona State University, Tempe campus,visited the ASU Lake Havasu campus in Lake Havasu City, Arizona on December 1,2018, to train 21 grade 7-12 teachers from Lake Havasu City, Bullhead City, and Kingman on tools to integrate water education in science and humanities classrooms.

courtesy Decision Center for a Desert City

Teachers learned about water in Arizona and used a water balance systems model developed by DCDC, called WaterSim Arizona. With this web-based tool, they compared different trade-offs associated with choosing different water policies and compared various water stakeholders.

WaterSim Arizona

Teachers also learned about WaterStories, a platform for students to engage in discussions about local water sustainability by expressing personal stories about water in their culture and communities. Using recording equipment available to loan to teachers who attend our workshop, teachers recorded their own water stories to get an idea of what recording stories is like for their students.

About the Project

For more information about the Rural Arizona Water Education project, visit:

This project is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and from the Ellis Center for EducationalExcellence of the Arizona Community Foundation. Established in 1978, the Arizona Community Foundation is a statewide philanthropic entity supported by thousands of Arizonans. Last year, ACF and its affiliates awarded more than $40 million in grants and scholarships, funding projects of some 3,000nonprofit organizations, schools and government agencies. Visit  to learn more.