Art student Sadie Runge is halfway across the James River in her green canoe when her giant chicken-feather raft hits a snag.
The 15-foot circular float, constructed of foam tubes, netting and a pile of white chicken feathers, catches on a branch and tears. Runge is forced to bring it back to shore under the Huguenot Bridge.
“Oh man. It's a grand adventure,” Runge says while she clambers up the frozen, muddy bank. Damp feathers cling to her jacket and hair.
A 22-year-old environmental science and studio art major at the University of Richmond, Runge wanted to create a performance-art project for her thesis that combined her two areas of study and her passion for the river.
The piece, which she launched Dec. 10, is called “James River UFO — Unidentified: A Feathered Objection to Polluted Water.”
Unidentified, because “you can't point to a source that's where the pollution is coming from” in the James River, Runge says. Feathered, because feathers can attract heavy metal ions from the water, she says. She'll conduct chemical testing to see what they picked up.
Her boyfriend, economics major Doug Kayser, helps her carry the sodden raft back to the parking lot for repair. A distinct chickenlike odor wafts from it. Runge collected the feathers from a local farm, Kayser says, “with the skin and the beaks and the feet all in it.” She spent hours sorting and cleaning the feathers in a campus studio.
Runge's supporters include the James River Park's manager, Ralph White, and artist Heide Trepanier, her academic adviser. Trepanier says she encourages all her students to create art that reflects what they really care about — not others' expectations. Trepanier says of Runge, “She really wants to change things.”
Runge hopes her project will inspire the Richmond community to seek “a common goal, a common solution” to reducing nonpoint-source pollution in the James — pollution that can't be pinpointed, such as runoff from roads. The state Department of Environmental Quality considers the James River to be an impaired waterway. A 2008 report identified too-high levels of fecal coliform bacteria and nutrients, as well as fish containing PCBs, in the section of the James from the fall line, around the Mayo Bridge, east to the Appomattox River.
Undeterred by the initial snag and the icy water, Runge and her assistant, kayaker Fritz Hoogakker, successfully relaunch the float. Feathers billow up like snow. A handful of friends cheer from the Huguenot Bridge. Runge and Hoogakker pull the float out a short distance downriver.
Runge plans a repeat performance in the spring.