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National Drought Mitigation Center


Artist sculpts U.S. Drought Monitor

Oct 3, 2012
Jess Benjamin constructed a 10-by-6-foot representation of the Sept. 18, 2012, U.S. Drought Monitor from water molecules shaped from clay. Each molecule consists of one big ball representing a hydrogen atom and two smaller ones representing oxygen atoms.

Jess Benjamin would like to start a conversation. It’s about water and drought, and about what we grow and how we grow it.

Benjamin grew up on a farm and ranch near Cozad, Nebraska. She is an Omaha-based sculptor and her latest subjects are the Sept. 18, 2012, U.S. Drought Monitor and a multi-dimensional piece depicting the Seasonal Drought Outlook, the Ogallala Aquifer, and the Aug. 21, 2012 U.S. Drought Monitor. She also teaches ceramics at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

“The more conversations you’re having about one of the most essential element of life – water – it’s a pretty important thing,” she said. “I’m trying to present what science presents, but give it my own voice.”

Benjamin constructed a 10-by-6-foot representation of the U.S. Drought Monitor from water molecules shaped from clay. Each molecule consists of one big ball representing a hydrogen atom and two smaller ones representing oxygen atoms. Benjamin, a serious artist who doesn’t take herself too seriously, notes that some may relate to the molecules more easily as Mickey Mouse heads.

She modified the original U.S. Drought Monitor map by filling the white “D-Nothing” areas with green molecules, and using blue molecules for the Great Lakes. On the map, white areas indicate normal or above-normal precipitation. The symmetrical shape and even texture of Benjamin’s molecules deteriorates along with the conditions they represent. Blue molecules are round and smooth; green are slightly textured; pale yellow, a drought color, starts looking gouged; and the orange and red molecules look eroded, suggesting a river bed or cracked earth. The maroon molecules, showing the worst drought, are broken, with twisting (ceramic) rebar coming out.

The rebar alludes to the huge jackstones -- concrete and rebar tetrahedrons weighing in at 800 pounds or more -- that protect Kingsley Dam at Lake McConaughy, in Ogallala, Neb.

Jess Benjamin stands on jackstones at Lake McConaughy.

 “As the water levels drop, you see more and more jackstones exposed,” Benjamin said. “The erosion is breaking down the form of the object and showing its interior structure. It’s been the backbone of our history: dams built out of concrete and rebar.  I don’t think that’s going to be our future strength,” she said. Benjamin’s sense is that the future lies in “wind, sun and seed.”

To make that point, she grows corn from small, jackstone-shaped ceramic planters with multiple openings. She also makes jackstones with the texture of corn. Her earlier work used large ceramic jackstones to represent conflict between states in drought, but after she sold a few, she reconfigured them to represent Kingsley Dam.

Benjamin’s studio is lined with these and other conversation-starters. Wall installations interpret hydrologic data such as levels of the Missouri River, Lake Mead, and the Ogallala Aquifer. Roaming one side of Benjamin’s studio is a pack of canine ethanol molecules. Benjamin noted that as she made them, they took on the temperaments and quirks of dogs she knows. “Man’s best friend?” she mused. “Ethanol has done what it was supposed to do. Now, as water becomes more and more important, there are additional crops that can be doing the same job as corn.”

To learn more about Jess Benjamin and her work, please visit

Jess Benjamin sculpted a map showing the Ogallala Aquifer, U.S. Drought Monitor status, and the Seasonal Drought Outlook.

-- Kelly Helm Smith, National Drought Mitigation Center

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