Trashwater, a Humanitarian Group Inviting Artists to Lend a Hand

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Joe Tsambiras donated this T-shirt for Trashwater’s fund-raiser at MINT Gallery earlier this year. Image courtesy

While Joshua Sanders and Colin Denlea were on a 2007 humanitarian trip in Cairo, Egypt, something happened that sparked the creation of the nonprofit Trashwater. There, the pair was warned to avoid drinking the tap water, as it was unfit for consumption. Unfortunately, Sanders did not fully understand the importance of the advice and, after eating some vegetables he had washed in a sink, he found himself violently ill. After a stay in a Cairo hospital, Sanders was released and the two returned stateside.

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Finding themselves somewhat confused as to how the water in a major metropolis―the world’s sixteenth largest, in fact―could possibly be so dangerous to the people it ought to nourish, Denlea and Sanders did a little research. What they found both surprised and disgusted them: although most large urban areas of the world are equipped with running water, many of these places have a water supply that is contaminated and deadly.

Photo courtesy Joshua Sanders
Photo by Mark Vaughn.
Photo courtesy Joshua Sanders
Photo by Mark Vaughn.
Photo courtesy Joshua Sanders
Photo by Mark Vaughn.

With this realization in mind, Sanders and Denlea decided to apply themselves toward making a difference in the matter. They began corresponding with a Catholic mission in Manshiyat Naser (or “Trash City,” as Sanders writes), near Cairo, about purifying their water. Over the course of these missives, the “Trash City Water Project” became the “Trash Water Project” and then, finally, simply “Trashwater.”

“As odd a name as it is, it does have one major selling point … it’s hard to forget,” explains Sanders.

With their somewhat strange name in place, and their hearts and minds set on their philanthropic goal, Sanders and Denlea recruited Organizational Manager Michael Packer. The three set about the not-so-modest task of setting up clean drinking water programs in large urban areas around the world.

Under Construction: Collage from The Mint Museum on view at the Hunter Museum of American Art

When asked why they chose to work in metropolitan areas, Sanders responds, “Since we saw a lot of organizations doing fantastic work addressing clean water issues in rural areas, but not as many in cities, we felt we needed to do something. Trashwater was born out of these conversations.”

Through a three-part system involving education (drawing attention to the world’s water problems), filtration (tackling existing contaminated water supplies head-on), and mobilization (empowering communities to help themselves), Trashwater has made quite a splash in its short history. This youthful nonprofit has collaborated on sustainable systems in Cairo and in Los Brasiles, Nicaragua, and more are in the works. But despite the success they’ve achieved in such a short time, the Trashwater gang is still far from satisfied.

T-shirt design by Jane Garver, courtesy

With their formidable objectives in mind, the founders of Trashwater decided to partner with local artists and creatives to raise awareness of their international campaign.

“I think it is vital for creative entities to support humanitarianism,” says Brandi Supra, an Atlanta-based artist and a participant in last summer’s Trashwater fund-raiser, which was held at the always supportive MINT Gallery. “Artists themselves need support, so how can you expect to get any if you only think of yourself when you could be lending your talent to a greater good? I feel it is very selfish and a waste of talent for artists to not support any charity in their spare time.”

Masha Rastatourova, another area artist who has worked with Trashwater, agrees. “It does not have to be a monetary donation, it can be time or whatever talent. The more we get involved, the stronger we will become as a community all around the globe.”

Photo courtesy Joshua Sanders
Photo by Mark Vaughn.
Photo courtesy Joshua Sanders
Photo by Mark Vaughn.

With this kind of attitude being displayed by artists, it’s little wonder that Trashwater chose to turn to them for aid in the first place. This kind of cooperation demonstrates that people from many walks of life, with different personality types and individual goals, may agree on the importance of certain social issues, even if they’ve never been personally affected. A cause like Trashwater’s is certainly the type that just about anyone can back.

“Why? Because we are all in this together … hopefully aiming to be good people, trying to live good, healthy lives,” says Joe Tsambiras, another local artist who has answered the call. “… And that means wanting [such lives] for others, too,”

Tsambiras’s contributions include designing T-shirts for the fund-raiser (you can find more info about related events at the Trashwater blog). Although he has devoted his energies to refugee-related efforts in the past, he admits that this particular cause was at first foreign to him: “I didn’t have much knowledge about ‘clean water solutions’ organizations, so … I had to learn about [them].”

Trashwater is currently busy planning for its future. In April 2012, the organization plans to hold a fund-raising, festival-style event, again teaming the group with Atlanta’s art community. The idea is to continue along the current stream, as well as to spread awareness of their issue―one that concerns a basic need for all living things. The organization also plans to utilize its relationships with these artists to help strengthen the infrastructure of the programs already in place in Egypt and Nicaragua.

Photo courtesy Joshua Sanders
Photo by Mark Vaughn.

Sanders explains: “The first [plan] is a sanitation unit [that] would include separate showers and latrines for men and women, a large community wash basin for doing dishes or washing clothes, illustrations highlighting important hygienic practices, and solar panels for energy. The other project we’re very excited about is using art to empower the communities in which we work. Next year we’ll be bringing artists with us to Los Brasiles—the village in Managua, Nicaragua, where we’re working—to begin creating public murals and holding art education classes.

“We believe strongly that incorporating art directly into our mission is immensely important. Art provides a sense of perspective, personal value, and a way to transcend one’s environment. All of which has tremendous value both for the people we’re serving in the field and the artists engaging them.”

It is Sanders’s hope that this ongoing collaborative effort will continue to yield results similar to what Trashwater has already achieved. Thanks in part to his tireless efforts, you can bet the citizens of Cairo and Los Brasiles will drink to that.

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