THE GREAT LAKES CYCLE
A MULTIFACETED PROJECT BY ALEXIS ROCKMAN EXPLORES THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE OF THE GREAT LAKES.
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.