Art exhibition in Flint offers a new perspective on the Great Lakes

A series of large, provocative paintings that blend art, history and science to explore the Great Lakes is on display this summer at the Flint Institute of Arts.

The exhibition, “Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle,” will be at the FIA through Sept. 27. It features five mural-sized paintings and several smaller paintings and drawings by Rockman, a New York City-based artist whose previous work has been displayed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“The Great Lakes Cycle” is based on Rockman’s travels and interviews with scientists who study the lakes, which contain 20 percent of all surface freshwater on the planet. The exhibition captures the physical and ecological transformation of the world’s largest freshwater system over the past 10,000 years, examines current threats and imagines possible future scenarios.

“As a community that has felt the impact of a water crisis, Flint knows more than most how important sources of fresh, clean water are to our survival and peace of mind,” said John B. Henry, executive director of the FIA. “By showing us how vital the Great Lakes are through his large-scale paintings, Alexis Rockman offers the opportunity to see how we all can play a role in preserving this resource.”

FIA curatorial staff said they were struck by Rockman’s ability to present an intricate history of the lakes in paintings that are immersive without being overwhelming.

“In one large painting, you see 10,000 years of Great Lakes history,” said Tracee Glab, curator of collections and exhibitions at the FIA. “They are incredibly detailed, and the more you look, the more you see.”

The Grand Rapids Art Museum commissioned Rockman in 2014 to produce a series of paintings that would build awareness of the Great Lakes. The exhibition has been displayed at museums around the lakes over the past three years. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, a longtime supporter of the FIA, helped bring it to Flint.

“This exhibition is unlike any other Great Lakes artwork I’ve ever seen,” said Tim Eder, a program officer at Mott who manages the Foundation’s Great Lakes grantmaking. “The murals are huge and visually striking, and they present a tremendous amount of information in a very compelling way.”

Rockman said he was struck by how the five interconnected Great Lakes, which collectively span 94,250 square miles of surface area, could be so ecologically fragile. Formed by glaciers that receded about 10,000 years ago, the lakes have been dramatically altered over the past two centuries by manmade canals, chemical pollutants and more than 180 nonnative species of fish, mussels and other creatures.

“The fact that the lakes are so enormous yet so fragile is very moving,” Rockman said. “Over the past six years, I’ve learned a lot about the process of glaciation, the lakes and the Midwest. It’s been very gratifying.”

Collectively, the five Great Lakes provide drinking water for 48 million people in the U.S. and Canada. They also support a $6 trillion regional economy — the world’s third largest. With 10,500 miles of coastline and 3,500 species of plants, insects and wildlife, the lakes are central to the region’s identity and are a source of recreation for millions of people.

Rockman said he hopes his exhibition deepens public understanding of the Great Lakes and the need to protect them. He said climate change and recent cuts to federal programs designed to protect water quality do not bode well for the lakes or the communities that rely on them.

Rockman was scheduled to give a talk about his artwork at the FIA, but that event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There will be a virtual program on Sept. 16, at 6 p.m., featuring a talk by the artist followed by a live Q&A session.

To protect the public and FIA staff, the museum has developed extensive safety procedures, including an upgraded air filtration system, social distancing markers, increased hand sanitizing stations, and the requirement that everyone wear facial coverings inside the facility.

Glab said she hopes Rockman’s artwork generates more dialogue in the area about the Great Lakes. Although Flint is not located on one of the five Great Lakes, the Flint River flows into Lake Huron via the Saginaw River.

“It’s not always easy to talk about humans’ impact on the environment, but these paintings will help people see the Great Lakes in a new way,” Glab said. “I hope this exhibition instills a deeper appreciation of the water resources we have.”

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