From tap to tapestry: Using art and creativity to protect drinking water

Headshots of artists Shirley and Sharon Nordrum with an aerial view of Little Falls, Minnesota in the background.

Little Falls, Minn. – Two artist educators, Sharon and Shirley Nordrum, have been commissioned to creatively engage Little Falls residents on issues of drinking water and environmental health. The year-long project is initiated by the Source Water Protection Collaborative, a partnership between government agencies, nonprofits, researchers, farmers, and public health experts convened by the nonprofit, Environmental Initiative.

The project aims to address the public engagement gap in rural communities. In 2019, the city of Little Falls was awarded the Our Town grant to thoughtfully engage residents, create a roadmap of priorities, and plan for the future of the community. However, like many rural communities, without this additional funding, it can be a struggle to find the time, resources, and intentionality to do additional community engagement on specific issues such as drinking water.

As educators and artists-in-residence, Sharon and Shirley Nordrum will support filling these gaps. By reflecting on drinking water with community, allowing for local creative leadership, and facilitating accessible spaces, Sharon and Shirley will add capacity to local efforts.

Sharon and Shirley are storytellers, sisters, Red Lake Band members, lifelong residents of rural Minnesota, and advocates for those without voices and those unheard. Shirley is one of the Bush Foundation’s 2022 fellows as well as the former Leech Lake Band environmental director. Sharon is a multi-media artist. Her most recent collaboration was a series of Ojibwe, woodland-style floral murals for the Maajiigin Family Center.

Groundwater supplies 75% of Minnesota’s drinking water, with 54% of households served by public water systems and 20% by private wells. Surface water, such as the Mississippi River, supplies the rest of our drinking water. Groundwater and surface water concerns vary from place to place, even within Minnesota, which is why understanding local concerns is paramount to protecting drinking water. Little Falls’ groundwater is currently classified as vulnerable to nitrate contamination, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and the city is located on the Mississippi upstream of the St. Cloud water intake.

Environmental Initiative convenes the Source Water Protection Collaborative, which is funded via the Minnesota Department of Health through the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment. Learn more about efforts to protect groundwater on Environmental Initiative’s website.

A note from Environmental Initiative

In April 2023, the Source Water Protection Collaborative announced artists-in-residence Sharon and Shirley Nordrum and welcomed their art and community engagement expertise into Little Falls. Sadly, Shirley Nordrum passed away shortly thereafter. Following Shirley’s passing, Sharon made the decision to step back from the work. Since then, Sharon and Su Legatt have spent time together discussing the project and transitioning the effort to Su. 

Shirley Nordrum leaves behind a rich legacy. We encourage you to learn more about her generous spirit and impact on the Red Lake Nation.


Britta Dornfeld, Partnership Manager, Environmental Initiative

“Collaborative members know firsthand that communities in greater Minnesota often do not have access to public engagement resources. Sharon and Shirley’s work will support creating more equitable systems around drinking water, where local governments have what they need, and residents are empowered to participate in issues that affect them.”

Jon Radermacher, Little Falls City Administrator

“Many rural communities, ourselves included, have unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to groundwater, drinking water, and keeping the public informed. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, which is why Sharon and Shirley’s year-long conversation with Little Falls will be so important. Sharon and Shirley’s work will help us proactively connect people to their drinking water and water resources.”

Sharon and Shirley Nordrum, educators and artists-in-residence

“We are honored to be chosen to work with the community of Little Falls. We love bringing people together by creating inviting, safe spaces for sharing ideas, and inspiring each other. We look forward to working with the government agencies and community to help raise awareness on the importance of protecting the water—not just for now but for future generations.”


About Environmental Initiative
Environmental Initiative is a nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis that catalyzes collaboration across perspectives, power, and systems for social equity and environmental health.

About the Source Water Protection Collaborative
The Source Water Protection Collaborative is a statewide network of individuals with experience in source water protection, community, outreach, engagement, agriculture, academia, and public health working to promote land use that protects drinking water. Environmental Initiative convenes the Source Water Protection Collaborative, which is funded via the Minnesota Department of Health through the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment.