Summer Orr employs the ancient practice of dowsing to find sculptural materials for her project Geomancer.
Summer Orr is preoccupied with the question of who will inherit the Earth, a concern that no doubt hails from her upbringing in the Nevada desert where dried carcasses and cracked soil and other symbols of death and drought are so common they are cliché. Twenty-six years in the desert has taught her that it will be water, not meekness, that matters in the end.
Orr has spent nearly her entire life in the Southwest. Inhabiting these parched landscapes has put the end times into sharp focus. She recalls the ash that fell from the sky over Reno, her hometown, for an entire season while the Sierras burned in the Caldor Fire. She envisions the whirlpool in Lake Powell’s final hours, when the dregs of the reservoir that generates electricity for nearly five million people will funnel through Glen Canyon Dam in one last swirling suck.
The way Orr sees it, disasters of such mythic quality can only be explained with the tools of their kind. As such, she has taken to dowsing.
Dowsing is the ancient practice of locating hidden groundwater with the guidance of sticks. To find a place to dig a well, for example, a dowser, otherwise known as a water witch, will walk around the area in question holding a forked branch or metal rods, which move to indicate when water is underfoot.
Orr does not believe dowsing is limited to just groundwater, though. “Divination is a philosophy. It’s a way to make sense of my actions,” she says. “I could be dowsing for love, water, metal, clay, anything. Dowsing is really just letting yourself be sensitive to things and seeing what you find.”
Dowsing became an integral part of her artistic practice while she lived in Green River, a small, rural town in central Utah. “As an artist, there were such limited resources in Green River,” says Orr, who now lives in Paonia, Colorado. “I had to figure out other ways to get the materials I needed.”
She created the sculptures in her most recent collection, Geomancer, with materials she found with the help of her divination stick.
The sculptures, which were showcased in Moab, Utah, in June 2022, combine pieces of railroad iron and ceramic bowls made from clay that was harvested from a seasonal lake that was dried up at the time.
“The bowls are porous,” she says. “They don’t hold water because they aren’t vitrified completely.”
She pitfired the bowls in her backyard knowing the process would not reach temperatures high enough to fully seal the clay, giving the bowls a permeability that reflects the clay’s origins, the lake that cannot retain water.
“The vessels have this almost magical quality, something interactive,” she says. “When I put water in them, it seeps into the clay and disappears.”
In the sculptures, the bowls accompany pieces of iron slag, a byproduct of railroad maintenance during which the tracks are ground down to eliminate any imperfections that occur over time. The heat produced in the grinding process melts the iron, which then cools in thin layers that accumulate to form jagged triangular masses.
“Dowsing pulled me to these metal drippings, which really informed the whole project,” she says. “I don’t know what the sculptures would have been without the slag.”
Together these objects reflect the landscape around Green River: bone-dry soil and iron-rich mountains.
“I know it sounds kind of woo-woo,” she says. She offered to take me dowsing to get a better sense of how it works. When I met her in Green River, the first place we went was the willow grove. She needed a stick.
“Anything can be a dowsing rod,” she said while she circled the willow trunk. Traditional dowsers use forked willow branches because of the tree’s association with water, with feelings, with weeping.
While I waited for Orr to select her branch, I watched a man drive a tractor across a nearby alfalfa farm. Alfalfa is a controversial crop in the Southwest—the hay, which is used to feed livestock, is one of the most water-intensive agricultural products in the United States, second only to almonds and pistachios. Almost half of all agricultural water in the Colorado Basin goes toward growing alfalfa hay.
I heard a branch snap, and Orr emerged from a curtain of yellow leaves with a Y-shaped stick about the length of her arm. She laughed at what must have been an unimpressed look on my face. “It’s just a stick,” she said. “It doesn’t have any magical powers.”
Some dowsers might disagree, but Orr believes the sticks are merely antennas through which her intentions are channeled. She, not the stick, has the power to expose hidden treasures. The stick is just a helpful tool.
Orr took me to the train tracks where she found the slag. She held one end of the forked branch in either hand and walked around slowly. I forgot to ask about the significance of the two-pronged stick, probably because it made intuitive sense at the time. I had seen a version of this before, seen little fingers wrapped wishfully around chicken bones. I thought of other guiding forks. The tuning fork finds the right pitch, finds the fracture in the bone. The fork in the metaphorical road gives us pause on our quest to find the right path.
“What are we going to find today?” I asked. “Whatever we need,” she replied, matter-of-factly. Orr is the daughter of a Blackjack dealer. She knows that luck is distinct from probability. Luck is something you can wash off your hands. Luck is a matter of reading the room, reading the table, reading the ground. She believes in the justice of chance. You find what you need. You get what you deserve.
“How do you know what you need?” I asked. She was slower to answer this time. “You need what you find,” she said without looking away from her stick.
I considered this while we paced along the tracks. Orr was talking about her childhood, about wandering in the desert outside of Reno where the dipsticks of abandoned cars became make-believe swords. Perhaps dowsing is really just an exercise in ingenuity. Finding what you need requires a luck you might not always possess. But needing what you find merely requires a change in perspective, some kind of imagination.
Orr stopped in front of a pile of discarded metal. She picked up a small steel door and worked the handle loose. “This is exactly what I mean,” she said. She had recently made a ceramic teapot that still needed a handle, and this would be perfect, she said. “The land gives you what you need.”
When Orr lived in Green River, she said she found herself constantly wondering about the town’s future inhabitants in the face of accelerating drought. “People are just going to keep growing alfalfa here until all the water is gone,” she said. “Who will survive in this place?”
I thought back to the man on the tractor. How long before he would heed that same willow tree in search of the perfect stick? How long until the river runs dry, until the farmers turn to twig sorcery?