American contemporary artist Alexis Rockman will visit Northern Michigan University to participate in a series of October events titled “The Great Lakes Cycle: Art + Science with Alexis Rockman.” The artist is known for his paintings of future landscapes depicting the impact of climate change, species extinction and evolution influenced by genetic engineering. He collaborated with Oscar-winning director Ang Lee on concepts for the Life of Pi film. His work has also been exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Camden Art Center in London and other galleries and museums around the world.
The Grand Rapids Art Museum commissioned Rockman to create The Great Lakes Cycle, an exhibition that celebrates the natural majesty and global importance of the Great Lakes while exploring how they are threatened by factors such as climate change, globalization, invasive species, mass agriculture and urban sprawl. The centerpiece is a suite of five mural-sized paintings depicting separate themes that emerged during his research tour of the region. These are accompanied by several large-scale watercolors and monochromatic field drawings of plants and animals made from site-sourced organic material such as mud and leaves.
“I knew the Great Lakes were important at a very young age,” Rockman said. “I didn’t know a lot, but I was familiar with zebra mussels, lamprey and the collapse of the fishing industry. As I learned more, it became clearer how interesting and diverse they are. The Great Lakes system is economically and ecologically significant. But it has been transformed in the past 500 years—much more than I realized by humans. I was just amazed that it’s so huge, yet can be changed so profoundly. Northern Michigan University had a huge role in the scientific and historical accuracy of the project.”
NMU biology professor Jill Leonard met with Rockman in 2014, when he passed through Marquette on his research tour. They discussed her studies related to fish biology and more general information about the Great Lakes. Last spring, Leonard began preparing online educational materials to back up the paintings in preparation for Rockman’s NMU visit, which she's coordinating with art and design professor Taimur Cleary.
“I was obviously pretty familiar with the basic science concepts,” she said. “It’s been much more challenging to learn about the history and social science that shows up in the paintings. So I reached out to local experts, started reading completely different literature and really had to delve into some new areas. It has been a great learning experience. I am thrilled to embrace any approach that will help make science accessible. Art does this exceptionally well since it is visually arresting and allows the viewer to see things that may be challenging to see in the real world. What I love about the Rockman paintings is that they are just realistic enough to draw us into the natural world we recognize, yet stylistic enough to bring important concepts to the forefront.”
The DeVos Art Museum will feature a learning lab and display of three large-scale prints from Rockman’s Great Lakes Cycle series, along with 25 field drawings and digital projections, through Oct. 30. A student field art exhibit is planned Oct. 21-31 at Olson Library. Other activities related to Rockman’s NMU visit include the following:
Thursday, Oct. 12: Science on Tap presents “A Positive Feedback Loop: Art, Science and Alexis Rockman’s Great Lakes Cycle” at 7 p.m. at the Ore Dock Brewing Company.
Wednesday, Oct. 18: Screening of the film Life of Pi, with an introduction by Rockman, 7 p.m., 1100 Jamrich Hall.
Thursday, Oct. 19:
8-10 a.m. Enjoy a light breakfast and a chance to visit with Rockman at the Beaumier U.P. Heritage Center in Gries Hall while viewing the Conserving the Land exhibit on efforts to set aside land to preserve the U.P.’s natural resources.
5 p.m. Rockman will give a presentation on his new project based on the Great Lakes and the inspirations and processes for producing these works in the Art and Design Building’s seminar room.
7 p.m. Artist reception for Rockman with complimentary food and music, DeVos Art Museum.
Friday, Oct. 20:
8-10 a.m. Breakfast with Alexis and exhibit by NMU art and design professors Taimur Cleary and Christine Lenzen at Peter White Public Library.
9 a.m. Learn about the history, ecology and environmental impact of the Dead River Basin during a walk along its shore with Rockman and local experts. Meet at Tourist Park.
Noon: Northern Climate Network Panel Discussion in 1318 Jamrich Hall. Rockman and NMU professors Norma Froelich, Aimee Cree-Dunn and Jill Leonard will discuss the role of art and other forms of representation in public education regarding science issues, including climate change.
Rockman often consults with scientists, molecular biologists and architects. He has worked with conservation groups such as the Lemur Conservation Foundation and is an ambassador for the Rainforest Alliance. Many of his works have been inspired by his travels to Costa Rica, Brazil, Madagascar, Guyana, Tasmania, Australia and Antarctica. His early influences included childhood visits to the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History with his mother, who worked for anthropologist Margaret Mead.
The Great Lakes Cycle will be showcased in its entirety at the Grand Rapids Art Museum from Jan. 27-April 29.