American Art Collector - - Contents - By John O’Hern

The Great Lakes hang pen­du­lously on the map form­ing a large part of the bor­der be­tween the U.S. and Canada. For most of us, they are things of beauty, places for recre­ation and the high­ways for ocean go­ing ships to reach the in­te­rior of the coun­try. We know they drain over Ni­a­gara Falls into Lake On­tario and even­tu­ally to the At­lantic Ocean.

In the early 1970s when I was liv­ing in Buf­falo, New York, we knew many of the nearby Lake Erie beaches were con­tam­i­nated and we could see some of the sources in the steel mills south of the city. A friend pur­chased pas­sage for six peo­ple at a PBS auc­tion and we

all boarded a work­ing freighter in Lack­awanna to sail across Lakes Erie, Lake Huron and Lake Michi­gan— drop­ping off lime­stone, pick­ing up coal. We saw ar­eas of pris­tine beauty, man­sions at Grosse Pointe, Michi­gan, and docked fi­nally in Cleve­land where oil slicked de­bris on the Cuya­hoga River had caught fire in 1969.

Alexis Rockman is an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist and painter who has com­pleted five can­vases mea­sur­ing 6 by 12 feet, doc­u­ment­ing the ex­tra­or­di­nary in­ter­re­la­tion­ships in the ecosys­tem of the lakes. The Great Lakes Cy­cle, which is trav­el­ing to mu­se­ums along the lakes, is at the Chicago Cul­tural Cen­ter through Oc­to­ber 1.

Rockman says, “The lakes con­tain 20 per­cent of Earth’s—and 95 per­cent of the U.S.’s—sur­face fresh­wa­ter. So they are ‘ground zero’ for the fu­ture when fresh­wa­ter will be Earth’s most valu­able as­set. Yet they are ne­glected, ex­ploited and fur­ther stressed by cli­mate change. Can we face the re­al­ity of our ac­tions and the con­se­quences of com­pla­cency?” Com­pla­cency has re­cently been com­pounded by a

pro­posed cut in fed­eral fund­ing for the Great Lakes Restora­tion Ini­tia­tive (GLRI) from $300 mil­lion to $30 mil­lion. The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA) ac­knowl­edges, nev­er­the­less, “Fed­eral agen­cies use GLRI re­sources to strate­gi­cally tar­get the big­gest threats to the Great Lakes ecosys­tem and to ac­cel­er­ate progress to­ward long-term goals.”

The ex­hi­bi­tion be­gan at the Grand Rapids Art Museum and re­sulted from a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the artist and the museum’s di­rec­tor and CEO Dana Friis-Hansen.

The mu­ral-sized paint­ings are ac­com­pa­nied by field draw­ings cre­ated from or­ganic ma­te­ri­als gath­ered along the lakes. Rockman not only gath­ered his own in­for­ma­tion from ob­ser­va­tions of the lakes, he con­sulted with peo­ple in­volved in the life of the lakes from recre­ational fish­er­men to univer­sity sci­en­tists.

The five large paint­ings are de­scribed by the Grand Rapids museum. “Pi­o­neers fo­cuses on the wa­ter it­self and the aquatic life therein; Cas­cade ex­am­ines the his­tory and ef­fects of hu­man ac­tiv­ity; Spheres of In­flu­ence looks at the re­la­tion­ship of the at­mos­phere to the wa­ter; Wa­ter­shed con­sid­ers the land around the

Lakes and its im­pact on the ecosys­tem; and Forces of Change re­flects on the chal­lenges and op­por­tu­ni­ties of re­cov­ery in the postin­dus­trial age.”

They re­sem­ble the posters many of us had in our bed­rooms or school class­rooms when we were kids. Dio­rama-like im­ages of a scene in na­ture ac­com­pa­nied by coded out­line draw­ings or keys ex­plain­ing the ob­jects in the paint­ings—from robins and trout to maples and elms. Rockman’s keys are more com­plex, iden­ti­fy­ing his ren­der­ing of Fred­eric Church’s 1856 paint­ing of Ni­a­gara Falls to the in­va­sive Tree of Heaven, to the also in­va­sive ze­bra mus­sel, to the wreck of the SS Ed­mund Fitzger­ald, which went down in a storm on Lake Su­pe­rior in 1975 with all 29 crewmem­bers.

The com­plex in­ter­re­la­tion­ships in the paint­ings are mes­mer­iz­ing as we see from the sky to the bot­tom of the lakes. The vis­ual com­po­si­tions ini­ti­ate an un­der­stand­ing of the ef­fects of one or­gan­ism on an­other and hu­man ac­tiv­ity on the nat­u­ral life of the lakes. The keys may send you scur­ry­ing to Google to learn more about a par­tic­u­lar species. You might also learn that too ex­ten­sive clean­ing of the wa­ter can re­move nu­tri­ents and or­gan­isms that form the base of the food chain. There is a Chi­nese say­ing that “where there is crys­tal-clear wa­ter, there are no fish.” It is,

as Ed­ward Al­bee would have said “A Del­i­cate Bal­ance.”

Cas­cade, 2015, was the first paint­ing in the se­ries. It is the Great Lakes in a nut­shell. On the left, a group of cari­bou swims by a re­treat­ing Pleis­tocene glacier. An early Pa­le­oIn­dian Clo­vis Point and Shaft rests on the bot­tom. On the right, foresters de­for­est and a log raft floats along the sur­face. In the dis­tance is a coal-fired power plant.

Rockman says, “I go to see things first­hand. I make field notes…Later, in my stu­dio, I study how sci­en­tists have shown this sub­ject in the past—and I talk to the ex­perts.” Then he be­gins to paint in tra­di­tional oils and alkyds.

The paint­ings are di­dac­tic but not pedan­tic. They are filled with facts as well as beau­ti­ful pas­sages of paint­ing.

The land­scape painter Thomas Mo­ran and the pho­tog­ra­pher Wil­liam Henry Jack­son ac­com­pa­nied the first sci­en­tific ex­pe­di­tion to the Yel­low­stone re­gion. Mo­ran pro­duced dra­matic, se­duc­tive paint­ings and Jack­son’s pho­tos showed that the scenes were real. Even­tu­ally, their work in­flu­enced Congress to es­tab­lish Yel­low­stone as the coun­try’s first na­tional park in 1872.

Friis-Hansen says The Great Lakes Cy­cle “ad­dresses a global is­sue, lo­cal­ized in the Great Lakes. Alexis draws to­gether deep sci­en­tific aware­ness, pas­sion for the en­vi­ron­ment, broad art his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge, deft artis­tic skills and a driv­ing cu­rios­ity about the forces shap­ing our eco­log­i­cal fu­ture.”

By mak­ing the facts vis­ual and vis­cer­ally im­pact­ful in his paint­ings, per­haps Rockman may also in­flu­ence the po­lit­i­cal pow­ers that have the abil­ity to di­rect our destiny to­ward good or ill.


Forces of Change, oil and acrylic on wood panel, 72 x 144". Col­lec­tion of Jonathan O’Hara and She­lia Skaff.


Pi­o­neers, oil and acrylic on wood panel, 72 x 144". Courtesy the artist and Sper­one West­wa­ter, New York.


Cas­cade, oil and alkyd on wood panel, 72 x 144". Com­mis­sioned by Grand Rapids Art Museum with funds pro­vided by Peter Wege, Jim and Mary Nel­son, John and Muriel Hal­ick, Mary B. Loupee, and Karl and Pa­tri­cia Betz. Grand Rapids Art Museum, 2015.19.


Wa­ter­shed, oil and alkyd on wood panel, 72 x 144". Col­lec­tion of Jonathan O’Hara and She­lia Skaff.



Spheres of In­flu­ence, oil and alkyd on wood panel, 72 x 144". Col­lec­tion of Jonathan O’Hara and She­lia Skaff.

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