New GRAM exhibit tells story of the Great Lakes

"Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle" opens to the public Saturday

GRAM, Great Lakes exhibit
"Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle" at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. (Jan. 25, 2018)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Nationally acclaimed artist Alexis Rockman is unveiling his new exhibit on the Great Lakes at the Grand Rapids Art Museum Saturday.

The poignant display captures more than the lake’s beauty. It also dives into the lakes’ history and how humans have unintentionally changed them in big ways.

The exhibit began as an idea by GRAM Director and CEO Dana Friis-Hansen. He said he knew he wanted to curate a display that focused on the environment, but was unsure of what that piece would be. As he was thinking about it, he called his friend Rockman; the two have known each other for 30 years.

“I thought it would be one painting, so I talked with Alexis and I said, ‘Do you have any ideas?’ And he said, ‘Fly me out there and I’ll make you a proposal,'” Friis-Hansen recalled.

The flight marked the start of “The Great Lakes Cycle” project, which features more than 30 pieces of art. The exhibit spans two rooms, the first of which contains large watercolors and several sketches of flora and fauna around the Great Lakes. These sketches were made using elements like mud and sand collected from the shores of the Great Lakes themselves. The second room holds the main attraction: five massive paintings packed with vibrant color and detail.

Photo: Drawings by Rockman composed out of natural elements like mud or sand collected during Rockman’s research.

Each of the five paintings focuses on a story ingrained deep in the waters of the Great Lakes.

“A lot of these paintings have the ice age in them and I knew that the ice age was going to be a crucial part in the history of the Great Lakes,” Rockman said.

The paintings read left to right. Each element included is based on historical facts and scientific research.

“Next to each painting is a diagram that labels every single element and how it relates to fact and science and history. So that shipwreck, there’s a plane that went down in 1950. These are details of his very extensive research,” Friis-Hansen said.

Photo: One of five paintings in the “Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle.”

While preparing for this project, Rockman toured the Great Lakes following an itinerary set by the GRAM. He spoke with local scientists, like Dr. Jill Leonard, professor of biology at Northern Michigan University, who will be giving a talk at the launch of the exhibit Saturday.

Rockman’s work has already been seen by several local students thanks to the GRAM. Students at Grand Haven Public Schools where able to create their own responses, which will also be viewable via QR codes found throughout the exhibit.

Rockman said he hopes his project will help to inspire visitors to change the way they view and interact with the Great Lakes so that the next stage in the cycle will be a brighter one.