Dig a few inches into the rocky beaches of Prince William Sound or Alaska's Kenai Peninsula and the water that seeps in may shimmer strangely. Or the shallow pit will fill with a dark, viscous liquid. The effluences are oil left from the Exxon Valdez tanker that ran aground on Bligh Reef 21 years ago.

The midnight accident dumped 10.8 million gallons of oil into the cold sea and eventually soiled 1,300 miles of shoreline. Despite four years of cleanup efforts by 10,000 workers at a cost of $2.1 billion, the Valdez disaster lingers. Bigger spills have happened elsewhere since then, but none caused more extensive or lasting environmental damage.

You don't do "issue art" on a short timeline, and artist Carole Fisher has no attention-deficit disorder. After two decades she is still bulldogging the Exxon Valdez. It has been the catalyst for more than 25 of her art installations nationwide, the most recent opening Friday at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD). "Sticks in the Mind: Alaska Oil Spill Project, 1989-2011," which runs through Feb. 20, is a three-dimensional collage of words, images, brochures, film and video footage, interviews and memorabilia related to the Valdez incident and more recent environmental episodes including the 2010 oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

"Oil spills happen everywhere, so why do I focus on this one?" Fisher asked rhetorically. "Because Alaska is the grand land, and we need to preserve it."

The MCAD show will include a sample of Valdez oil gathered this past summer by a research vessel working in Prince William Sound. Even though sun, wind and countless storms have battered the shores, pockets of oil are still lodged in the crevices, potentially poisoning wildlife and ruining the coastline for fishers, hunters and tourists.

"It smells like a gas station," Fisher said. "It's on the beaches and in the sediment. It leaches into the water continually because of the wave action."

Aesthetic activism

Trained as a painter and printmaker, Fisher taught at MCAD for 31 years before her retirement last summer. When she finished her MFA at Pennsylvania State University in the 1970s, the era's social, environmental and economic issues seemed too complex to address with a paintbrush and too compelling to ignore.

"I thought it was too late to just paint, and I began to think of more temporal and situational work that was based in the public sphere or came from that," she said.

As the daughter of a welder who was also a union organizer, Fisher grew up in a south Minneapolis house where strikes and labor actions were often discussed and social activism was expected. Over the years, her work has addressed such volatile topics as rape, incest, toxic waste sites, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and even the U.S. Army's secret spraying in the 1950s of her childhood neighborhood with zinc cadmium, a known carcinogen. She learned later that the Army had been testing fallout patterns of airborne materials in anticipation of a possible germ-warfare attack. But as a kid, she just thought it was cool that the snow sometimes turned pink without realizing that the color came from toxic chemicals. "And, of course, we played in it and ate it the way kids do," she said.

For Fisher and other artists, the challenge of the 1970s was to translate issues into aesthetic statements that would move and inform people without hectoring. The oil-saturated creatures of the Valdez disaster proved especially potent and mutable. In various installations she has garnished the walls with huge silhouettes of birds, animals or people painted in broad black streaks that suggest oil stains.

For love of drawing

"I love to draw, and the images are my romantic attachment to that activity," she said. "So there is something of the traditional work of an artist, the mark of the hand. I need to do that or otherwise it's just all this text."

She adapts her material to each setting, sometimes littering the floor with a maze of electrical cords to remind visitors of their energy dependence. Or setting up house-shaped displays or incorporating piles of oil debris. This past summer she and an assistant spent several weeks in Alaska, interviewing and photographing more than 50 environmentalists, fishermen, park rangers, hoteliers, naturalists and others about Valdez and the 2010 Gulf spill. Having spoken with many of the same people on previous visits, she was able to elicit thoughtful reflections and heartfelt insights into the tragedy. Transcripts of the interviews will be included along with poetic wall texts that weave interview excerpts, facts and figures into an evocative palimpsest of memory, incident and even policy issues.

"I'm not a scientist," she said. "I take it in and put it back out. I just think we are interested in each other's stories."

And what of the Exxon Valdez tanker itself?

Eventually the ship was refloated, refurbished and renamed. Now called the Sea River Mediterranean, it hauls oil across the Atlantic. It is prohibited by law from returning to Prince William Sound.

mabbe@startribune.com • 612-673-4431