Heather Parrish Questions Waller Creek

Sourcing historic photographs of the Austin waterway sometimes forgotten for the racial segregation that it represents


Heather Parrish has a keen sense of place and a curiosity about who inhabitedthat place before her.

Parrish is a native Austinite who can trace her family lineage back to the city’s founding in 1836. Yet thanks to her father’s career, she spent her formative childhood years in Southeast Asia where she learned to traverse cultural and geographic landscapes. She returned to live in Austin at various points: for her undergraduate degree, then later to work as a professional collaborating printer at the Flatbed Center for Contemporary Printmaking. Now, head of the printmaking program at the University of Iowa, Parrish still circles back to see family in Austin.

No surprise that her life’s trajectory of coming and going to a place with which she has deep inherited history shapes her artistic practice.

For her current exhibition at Flatbed, “Seeing Out The Other Eye: A View Through Waller Creek,” Parrish mines historic photographs of the downtown Austin waterway which, in its 21st century renaissance as a gleaming urban arts and environmental showpiece, is sometimes forgotten for the racial segregation that it represents in the city’s history.

Combining printmaking, photography and collage, Parrish probes the history of the creek, named for Edwin Waller, an early Texas colonist, plantation owner, and enslaver who laid out the grid for the new state capital and served as its first mayor. In intriguing photogravure prints, Parrish uses images of a 1915 flood which wiped out the shanty homes of poor Black Austinites who made the creek bank their neighborhood. That flood wasn’t the first time it happened, nor the last. Austin is an area of Texas’ dubbed “flash flood alley,” one of the most flood-prone parts of North America.

Her research-based approach to art making means that for this current body she dug into work by Katherine Leah Pace, an environmental historian who most recently focused on the interplay between flash floods and social forces in Austin.

“I think of (Pace) really as a collaborator on this body of work,” Parrish told me at the exhibition opening.

A side table in the gallery featured copies of Pace’s articles, “Forgetting Waller Creek: Race, Parks, and Planning in Downtown Austin, Texas” and the longer version, “’We may expect nothing but shacks to be erected here’: An Environmental History of Waterloo Park.”

(Parrish and Pace will be in discussion together July 22 in a free gallery talk.)

As Pace’s research illuminates, while Austin’s first master plan of 1928 is now infamous for the way it institutionalized residential segregation and racist zoning policies, less know is how the plan used parks to racially engineer urban space.

In the 1920s, at the height of Jim Crow laws, city leaders looked for legal methods to enforce segregation of the races. The 1928 master plan called for limiting public services for Black residents, homeowners, and business owners to a newly created “Negro District” east of what is now Interstate 35, effectively wiping out the Black enclaves interspersed around Austin.

And, as Pace’s research points out, the plan also leveraged park improvement to dislodge communities of color. To manage the shantytowns along Shoal and Waller creeks — riparian zones home to mostly Black and Mexican people — planners recommended a park system that, Pace writes, “was not designed to take advantage of natural scenery, let alone mitigate floods hazards. It was designed to racially engineer low-lying urban space.”

In response to Pace’s research, Parrish’s images are palimpsests, traces of the past layered with contemporary reworkings. She skews the orientation of historic photographs, positioning them upside down, or flipping them backwards. An eye-like shape reoccurs in her collaged works, sometimes rendered in bright blank white. On the exhibition’s checklist, she includes notes or quotes along with each work’s usual details. And she gives her exhibition an epigraph from Carl Sandberg’s poem “River Moons:”   “… a twist of water asking a question.”

Heather Parrish
Heather Parrish, “Other Eye III (Injustice Underway),” 2022, polymer photogravure. Courtesy the artist and Flatbed

“Other Eye I (Daydream Like Mad)” features an eye-shaped photogravure image of roiling floodwater imposed on a larger background image of the creek. Parrish writes on the checklist: “Tejano music legend Manuel “Cowboy” Donley whose father owned a barbershop overlooking Waller Creek used to look down at the water and daydream like mad.”

For a related piece “Other Eye II (Bottomlands/Parkway),” she quotes the 1928 master plan “… this drive will entail the acquisition of certain cheap property along the banks of Waller Creek. Most of the property which will be needed is at present occupied by very unsightly and unsanitary shacks inhabited by negroes. With these building removed… remaining property will be of a substantially more desirable type.”

“I feel very invested in how the history Austin’s development created such division,” Parrish says.

Heather Parrish
Courtesy the artist and Flatbed

An intriguing dark blue monotype print — one of a series titled “Access” — brings the creek’s story to the present. A rough-sketched white circular outline centers “Access II: Cyborg Creek.”  And in the lower right corner is a tiny photo-based image of the $161 million tunnel that now runs under Waller Creek from Waterloo Park to Lady Bird Lake, the centerpiece of a massive flood-mitigation project that captures floodwaters and releases them into Lady Bird Lake.

The city’s Watershed Protection Program writes cheerfully on its site: “The tunnel reduces the size of the floodplain along Waller Creek. In doing so, it helps revitalize the eastern part of downtown.”

That revitalization is already in progress. The tunnel makes possible Waterloo Greenway, a $265-million “park system” of gleaming, art-filled spaces and amenities. As Pace notes, Waller Creek “remains a tool with which to socially engineer low-lying urban space.”

Parrish tells me that her current work is really the beginning of a project she plans to continue.

“I want to illuminate how so much of what has been done the name of ‘renewal’ and ‘beautification’ in Austin has a dark underbelly of disruption and displacement.”

“Seeing Out The Other Eye: A View Through Waller Creek” continues through July 26 at Flabed, 3710 Drosset Dr. Heather Parrish and Katherine Pace will present a gallery talk 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. July 22.


Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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