The Great Lakes are a marvel to almost every Michigander, but, there’s something dark in the water - at least that’s part of the story in the latest exhibit at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM).

Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle fuses art with science to showcase the past, present and future of the Great Lakes. In this beautifully haunting exhibit, visitors will be able to soak in Rockman’s mural-sized oil and alkyd paintings, field drawings, and large-scale watercolors that tell a vivid and heartbreaking story about what’s happening ecologically and economically to the interconnected bodies of water that make up the Great Lakes.

Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle will inform and inspire viewers regarding the history of the Great Lakes, current challenges and threats to the region, and opportunities to positively shape its future,” says GRAM Director and CEO Dana Friis-Hansen.

Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM)
Fact: The GRAM's Director and CEO sparked Rockman's creativity, which led to the creation of The Great Lakes Cycle.
Photo credit: Experience Grand Rapids

How it all began...

This special exhibit started out as just an idea more than five years ago. In fact, it was initiated by a conversation where Friis-Hansen asked Rockman what he could do to add to the dialogue centered around sustainability.

“Since the GRAM is the world’s first LEED® Gold certified museum and has an ecological reverence for the environment, I thought about what kind of topics could we address with artwork,” says Friis-Hansen. “Alexis is a science nerd, he loves nature, is an advocate for the protection of the wild and makes beautiful art.”

Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle Field Drawings
Alexis Rockman’s field drawings illustrate detail of the creatures surrounding the Great Lakes.
Photo credit: Nadira Kharmai-Freed

The artist's motivation...

The New York-based artist chose to focus on the Great Lakes after seeing posters for Sleeping Bear Dunes and other national parks. “The posters about these lakeshore sites only tell half the story,” says Rockman.

As he travelled throughout the region to experience the Lakes for himself, he also endured a scientific and historical research journey to uncover how geology, climate, and humanity affect the Great Lakes.

“As I have worked on this project for the past five years, the environmental issues facing the Lakes have become even more critical. My expedition in this region, observations of the area and conversations with experts have helped me tell a story that is, I hope, a compelling call for action on behalf of this natural treasure.”

Exhibit Part One: Five Panoramic Paintings

The stories, expressively anchored in five panoramic paintings, feature rich history and detail. For example, one of the paintings, “Pioneers,” focuses on water and aquatic life, and also includes the earliest Great Lakes fishes as well as species introduced by either intentional or accidental human action. The painting also shows a giant freighter ejecting a dirty cloud of drainage that is carrying a multitude of invasive species from far away lands.

Meanwhile, “Forces of Change” focuses on challenges and opportunities of recovery in the post-industrial age. The painting shows heavily polluted water that’s been mistreated by viruses, human diseases, manufacturing and engineering for decades. The painting also features an allegorical monster - aptly nicknamed the “e coli-kraken” to express the enormity of the abuse happening in the lake.

Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle Ice Fishing
Alexis Rockman's Ice Fishing watercolor shows a perspective underneath the surface.
Photo credit: Nadira Kharmai-Freed

Exhibit Part Two: Six Watercolors

Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle also features gorgeous watercolors and field drawings that enhance the diversity and education of the exhibition. Rockman’s six vertically-oriented watercolors showcase interesting points of views including an ice fishing scene and the magnification of microscopic plants and animals that make up the base of the food chain in the Great Lakes. His 28 monochrome field drawings were created exclusively with organic materials collected at various Great Lakes sites such as sand from Presque Isle and coal dust from Grand Haven Power Plant. These drawings include turtles, waterfowl, large fish, a racoon, and a river otter.

To see Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle, visit the GRAM before the exhibit concludes on April 29. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for Seniors and students, and $6 for youth. Admission is free on “Meijer Free Tuesdays and Thursday Nights.” Grand Rapids Art Museum also participates in the Culture Pass GR, an experience pass that offers admission and deals to several of Grand Rapids' cultural attractions for one price.

Have you been to the Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle exhibit? If so, let us know what you think in the comments! If you haven't been yet, check out our preview video below.