Alexis Rockman—The Great Lakes Cycle Catalogue

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Alexis Rockman

The Great Lakes Cycle

Alexis Rockman

The Great Lakes Cycle DANA FRIIS-HANSEN With contributions by Jeff Alexander and Thyrza Nichols Goodeve Grand Rapids Art Museum in association with Michigan State University Press



All rights reserved. No portion of this publication may be reproduced, stored


in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, mechanical, electronic, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without written permission of the publisher. Library of Congress Control Number: 2017954264 ISBN 978-1-61186-291-1 PUBLISHED BY THE GRAND RAPIDS ART MUSEUM

101 Monroe Center NW Grand Rapids, Michigan 49503 Wege Foundation PUBLISHED IN ASSOCIATION WITH MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS

National Endowment for the Arts

Frey Foundation LaFontsee Galleries and Framing


Eenhoorn, LLC

Ferris State University Kendall College of Art and Design

Edited by Mariah Keller

Wolverine Worldwide Foundation

Designed by Thomas Eykemans

James and Mary Nelson

Typeset in Sentinel by Maggie Lee

Cascade Engineering

Proofread by Brynn Warriner

Blue Water Communications

Color management by iocolor, Seattle

Dirk and June Hoffius

Printed and bound in China by C&C Offset Printing Co., Ltd.

Greg and Meg Willit Robert Daverman, AIA¡/¡Grand Rapids Community Foundation Diana Dopson¡/¡D*Lux Travel


January 28–April 29, 2018

Grand Rapids Art Museum

Prime, Buchholz & Associates, Inc.

June 2–October 1, 2018

Chicago Cultural Center

Bill Scarbrough and Kate Kesteloot Scarbrough

October 19, 2018–January 27, 2019

Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland

J. Visser Design

October 5, 2019–January 5, 2020

Weisman Art Museum, University

May 9–August 12, 2020

Flint Institute of Arts

of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Additional funding is provided by the GRAM Exhibition Society. Donor list as of September 30, 2017.


Fig. 5. Jeff Alexander. Page 20 Fig. 7. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, [LC-DIG-det-4a12352]. Page 23 Fig. 8. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs

Fig. 27. © 1966, 1975, 1985, 1989, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA. Pages 51–52 Fig. 29. Stephen Dalton¡/¡Minden Pictures. Page 53 Fig. 32. Produced by the Nongame Wildlife Fund,

Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection,

Natural Heritage Program, Wildlife Division,

[LC-DIG-det-4a12121]. Page 25

in cooperation with the Press Office, Michigan

Fig. 9. Andrea Miehls, U.S. Geological Survey. Page 26

Department of Natural Resources. Painting by

Fig. 10. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen. Page 55

Page 28

Fig. 33. Cory VanderZwaag. Page 57

Jacket (front and back): Cascade (detail), 2015. Oil and acrylic on wood panel, 72 × 144 inches. Title page: Spheres of Influence (detail), 2016. Oil and alkyd on wood panel, 72 × 144 inches. Page 6: Pioneers (detail), 2017. Oil and acrylic on wood panel, 72 × 144 inches. Page 12: Walleye (detail), 2017. Soil from Presque Isle Park and acrylic polymer on paper, 9 × 121/2 inches. Page 13: Spheres of Influence (detail), 2016. Oil and alkyd on wood panel, 72 × 144 inches.

Fig. 12. U.S. Department of Transportation. Page 31

Fig. 36. Dana Friis-Hansen. Page 89

Fig. 13. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Fig. 38. Michael Twohey. Page 91

Page 14: Ice Fishing (detail), 2017. Watercolor, ink, and acrylic on paper, 741/4 × 52 inches.

Fig. 15. Michigan Sea Grant. Page 35

Unless otherwise noted, all Alexis Rockman works

Page 18: Watershed (detail), 2015.

Fig. 19. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

from The Great Lakes Cycle are photographed by

Page 42: Cascade (detail), 2015.

Adam Reich. Studio photographs on pages 84–98

Page 61: Trillium (detail), 2017. Watercolor, ink, and

Fig. 14. Michigan Sea Grant. Page 34

Page 46 Fig. 21. © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Page 47

provided by Alexis Rockman.

Fig. 25. Photo by Denis Finnin © American Museum of Natural History. Page 50

acrylic on paper, 74 × 52 inches. Page 62: Forces of Change (detail), 2017. Oil and

Fig. 23. © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Page 49 Unless otherwise noted, all works © Alexis Rockman

acrylic on wood panel, 72 × 144 inches. Page 84: Studio View, April 2017, Alexis Rockman. Page 100: Lake Huron Locust (detail), 2017. Sand from Sleeping Bear Dunes and acrylic polymer on paper, 9 × 121/2 inches.



Introduction and Acknowledgments¯Dana Friis-Hansen Foreword¯Mark Van Putten


The Great Lakes in the 21st Century Jeff Alexander




Reflections and Refractions Dana Friis-Hansen AL E XI S ROCKM AN AND T HE GRE AT L AKE S


The Great Lakes Cycle: Paintings


This Is Who I Am Thyrza Nichols Goodeve AL E XI S ROCKM AN AT WORK

10 0

The Great Lakes Cycle: Works on Paper


Exhibition Checklist Selected Exhibition History and Bibliography Suggested Reading and Resources

122 126

Introduction and Acknowledgments


the start of the twenty-first century, former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali warned, “During this century, water will be more important than oil.”1 Decades before, marine biologist Jacques Yves Cousteau declared, “We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.”2 One of the world’s great natural treasures, the Great Lakes—Erie, Huron, Ontario, Michigan, and Superior—form an interconnected system that is among the most beautiful, economically significant, and ecologically complex regions on the planet. The Great Lakes—which hold more than 20 percent of the world’s fresh water—are one of the most precious resources for the future of humans and all life on earth. At the invitation of the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), in 2013, Alexis Rockman began research for The Great Lakes Cycle, an ambitious suite of paintings and works on paper that the artist created over the course of four years. It will debut in Grand Rapids in 2018 and tour throughout the Great Lakes region. Water has been a central component of Rockman’s imagery across the course of his thirty-year career. He has depicted the primordial ponds from which life formed, and early amphibians ready to leave the water to make a life on land. He has traveled to the Amazon Rainforest, the Karoo Desert in South Africa, and Antarctica to observe those unique conditions undergoing gradual change, while his Weather Drawings (fig. 47) depict the immediacy of forces such as waterspouts and cloudbursts. In large-scale panoramic works, he has looked to the deep past of natural history in Evolution (1992) (fig. 18), and has imagined the near future in envisioning a flooded New York City after climate change in Manifest Destiny (2004) (fig. 20), while also exploring a postapocalyptic narrative in the Biosphere series (1992–94), which suggests that the world’s water has become so toxic on Earth that the only safe place for sustaining life is an artificial ecosystem in outer space, far away from Earth itself. While celebrating the natural majesty and global importance of the Great Lakes, Rockman also explores how one of the world’s most emblematic and T


FIGURE 1¯Watershed (detail), 2015. Oil and alkyd on wood panel, 72 × 144 inches.


ecologically significant ecosystems is threatened by potent forces, including climate change, globalization, invasive species, mass agriculture, and urban sprawl. Some of the actions taken in recent decades to protect these ecosystems and counteract environmental damages have produced positive results. It is our goal that Rockman’s dramatic works and their exploration of the past, present, and future of the Great Lakes will serve to create wider awareness and inspire everyone to play a role in protecting our environment and preserving such precious resources for future generations. This exhibition is a special component of GRAM’s yearlong anniversary celebrating a decade in our nationally recognized building at 101 Monroe Center. A key element of the Museum’s five-year strategic plan is to be a “Greener GRAM,” inspired by the vision of Peter M. Wege (1920–2014) who was the major catalyst and donor to what became the world’s first LEED Gold certified art museum. To mark the leadership role of Peter Wege and The Wege Foundation in connecting art, education, environment, health, and community service, we invited Foundation Chief Executive Officer Mark Van Putten to write the foreword. Van Putten himself is an important environmental leader and expert on water issues; he served for twenty-one years on the staff of the National Wildlife Federation, including nearly eight as President and CEO, and was named one of thirty nationwide “Clean Water Heroes” on the thirtieth anniversary of the Clean Water Act. The support and encouragement of the Museum’s Board of Trustees has been essential for me to carry this project forward along with duties of directorship. Tammy Bailey, current President; Jane Boyles Meilner, immediate past President; and Mitch Watt, previous past President; as well as all the board members support us in fulfilling the Museum’s mission to connect people through art, creativity, and design. Exhibitions of this scale and complexity require the cooperation and collaboration of every member of the GRAM staff, and several deserve special mention. Julie Burgess Conklin, first as Curatorial Assistant, and now as Registrar, has attended to many project details, starting in 2014 with researching and plotting out Alexis’s first Great Lakes itinerary through to arranging for the careful handling of the now-finished artworks and relationships with the institutions who will mount the show during its tour. Chief Curator Ron Platt has provided valuable insights for the exhibition and catalogue, while Curatorial Assistant Jennifer Wcisel adeptly managed myriad project details with good cheer. I am grateful to our Preparations Team, including David Otis, Nick Cummins, and Erwin Erkfitz, who provided creative and tactical insights to strengthen the exhibition’s presentation and installation. Dan VanDeSteeg oversaw the framing of the works on paper. Director of Learning and Creativity Christopher Bruce and his team have shaped an exciting curriculum and programmatic experiences that extend the impact of this important series. GRAM’s Advancement Department, led by Director Elly Barnette-Dawson, has reached out to provide broad funding and


FIGURE 2¯Upper Peninsula (detail), 2017. Watercolors, ink, and acrylic on paper, 74 × 52 inches.

wide visibility for this venture, especially Grant Writer Brad Ter Haar, Manager of Corporate Partnerships and Fundraising Events Marnie McGuire, and Communications Manager Elizabeth Payne. Lucas Schurkamp and Artie Bowman brought their creative design and media production talents to the presentation and promotion of the exhibition. Blue Water Communications is our national public relations partner, and we are pleased to be working again with this team. There are so many GRAM staff who attend to the Museum and our guests on a day-to-day basis, and without the Operations, Finance, Facilities, Visitors Services, Security, and Human Resources staff, we would not be able to open our doors. I am especially indebted to my Executive Office team, Administrative Assistant Jolie Masters and former Manager of Executive Office and Strategic Initiatives Kate Neckers. The impact for The Great Lakes Cycle is multiplied through its national tour, and I am so grateful for the cooperative spirit of the host institutions: Daniel Schulman and Greg Lunceford, Chicago Cultural Center; Jill Snyder and Megan Reich, Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland; Lyndel King and Diane Mullin, Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; and John Henry and Tracee Glab, Flint Institute of Arts. This publication had a dedicated team of its own. In his lead essay about the Great Lakes in the twenty-first century, Jeff Alexander weaves together history, biology, and politics to share new insights about the future of this natural treasure. Jeff is an award-winning author and former environmental journalist. His 2009 book about invasive species, Pandora’s Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence Seaway, has been called the “definitive history of a Great Lakes tragedy.” Thyrza Nichols Goodeve pulls back the curtain on Rockman’s studio practice, while also revealing a sense of what drives the artist to make these paintings at this moment. The Brooklyn-based critic and art historian is the Senior Art Editor of The Brooklyn Rail, and has a special interest in the relationship between art and science. She is currently compiling her collected writings into a publication entitled No Wound Speaks for Itself: Writing, Art, Conversation, Attitude. We are indebted to our partners at Lucia¡|¡Marquand, who were essential in the development and planning of the book and its successful launch. It was a pleasure to work with Ed Marquand and Adrian Lucia; Tom Eykemans, Design Director; Melissa Duffes, Editorial Director; Kestrel Rundle, Editor; and Meghann Ney,



Designer and Image Manager. Copyeditor Mariah Keller brought a consistent eye and expertise with a red pencil to the entire manuscript. At GRAM, Chief Curator Ron Platt provided vital feedback on my essay and book design, and Curatorial Assistant Jennifer Wcisel was an ideal coordinator of contracts, photography, and stray facts. We appreciate research assistance by Brianna Baurichter, Tristan Betz, Sarah Lewis, and Rebecca Woodruff. Photographer Adam Reich has carefully documented Rockman’s works. Keys were produced with the assistance of Harry Solasz. It is an honor to partner for the first time with Michigan State University Press, working with Julie L. Loehr, Assistant Director/Editor in Chief. GRAM has also partnered with artist, writer, and educator Mark Newman on a companion book, Rockman to the Rescue, the fourth in the Sooper Yooper book series. Written especially for children and their families, it explores Rockman’s lifelong environmental activism and the role of the artist as an environmental super hero. It will be shared on Newman’s speaking tours to schools across the Midwest and Canada. Over the past four years so many people have provided insights, guidance, and encouragement that have strengthened the final presentation. Alexis benefited greatly from meetings and conversations with many scientists, historians, and experts around the Great Lakes, especially Dr. Jill B.¡K. Leonard and Dr. Mac Strand, both from the Biology Department, Northern Michigan University. Other key players include Dr. Jim Cogswell and Don Luce, Bell Museum of Natural History, Minneapolis; D. Michael Collins, the late Mayor of Toledo; Dr. Christine Hall, The Nature Conservancy; Jessica Harden, Archivist, Michigan Department of Natural Resources; Dr. Mark Luttenton, Annis Water Resource Institute, Grand Valley State University; Terry Megnoche, Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society; Doug Padnos, PADNOS; Jim Schmiechen, Saugatuck-Douglas History Center and Museum; Chris Stephano, Mineral Museum of Michigan; Carol Stepien, Lake Erie Center; Bryan Stubbs, Cleveland Water Alliance; Michael Twohey, Marquette Biological Station; Dr. Noel Urban, Michigan Technological University; and John Vanco, Erie Art Museum, where the idea for this exhibition began. On Rockman’s first research visit to the region, Cory VanderZwaag, Erwin Erkfitz, Dellas Henke, and Jason Rutter organized a boat expedition down the Grand River to Lake Michigan and back. Additionally, for sharing their knowledge and experiences with the Great Lakes and environmental art, I am grateful to Ed Burtynsky, Sam Cummings, Elizabeth Glassman, Lisa Corrin Graziose, Bruce and Becca Ling, Marc Mayer, Chris Mueller, Jim and Mary Nelson, Mark Newman, Wendy Ogilvie, Carol Sarosik and Shelley Padnos, Chip Richards, David Ullrich, Mark Van Putten, and Robert Ziebell. I must once again salute my spouse, Mark Holzbach, for his constant and caring support, patience, and understanding during my travels, research, and writing. Rockman’s galleries, Sperone Westwater and Baldwin Gallery, have played a key role in the success of this project. We are indebted to Angela Westwater and



the gallery staff as well as to Richard Edwards and Kiki Raj at Baldwin Gallery for their counsel, encouragement, and support. The artist would also like to acknowledge Esteban Jefferson and John Kim from his studio; Mike Capitain for the 3-D cargo ship modeling; Alex Brown and Ferran Brown for exchanging ideas; and to his muse, Dorothy Spears, for her brilliant ideas, formal ingenuity, and moral support. The Grand Rapids Art Museum has many generous and dedicated friends and supporters who have made this exhibition possible, who are listed together at the front of this book. Our National Presenting Sponsors provide essential support for the organization and tour, and they include Wege Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Frey Foundation, and LaFontsee Galleries and Framing. Additional sponsors include Eenhoorn, LLC, Ferris State University, Kendall College of Art and Design, Wolverine Worldwide Foundation, James and Mary Nelson, Cascade Engineering, Robert Daverman, AIA¡/¡Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Prime, Buchholz & Associates, Inc. , Bill Scarbrough and Kate Kesteloot Scarbrough, and J. Visser Design. This list reflects sponsorships as of September 30, 2017. We are also grateful to GRAM’s Exhibition Society members who provide annual support, and to the “Lake Lovers” donors who responded to our open invitation to support this project through a grass-roots outreach. Our Media Partners include WOOD-TV, Michigan Radio, and Clark Communications. The Museum was privileged to acquire Cascade (2013), the first completed work in the series for our permanent collection. Generations of visitors to the Museum will be able to enjoy this dramatic panorama and learn from Rockman’s exploration of the past, present, and future of the Great Lakes, especially schoolchildren learning about animals in art, geology, and environmentalism. Support was provided by the Peter Wege Acquisition Fund, Karl and Patricia Betz, the John and Murial Halick Acquisition Fund, Mary B. Loupee, and James and Mary Nelson. Three of Rockman’s major panoramic paintings are lent by Johnathan O’Hara and Shelia Skaff, and both the artist and I want to underscore the importance of both their early and enthusiastic support for this undertaking and their willingness to part with these works for the extended tour. Finally, it has been a pleasure to once again work with Alexis Rockman. I applaud his energy, innovation, enthusiasm, and dedication to this project. His curiosity during its larval stages of travel, research, and development; his tenacity and work ethic during the growth stages of execution of a very ambitious collection of Great Lakes artworks; and his excitement about the final stage of exhibition presentation and tour are rare in an artist/curator relationship. We are thrilled to share The Great Lakes Cycle—and the lessons it reveals— with the world. Dana Friis-Hansen






BBC News, Talking Point: Ask Boutros Boutros Ghali, accessed July 24, 2017,


Jacques Cousteau, quoted in Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “JPL Scientists Reflect on World Water Day,” accessed July 24, 2017, =2013-113.




would love this book. It—and the paintings it depicts— integrate two of his passions: art and the environment. He deeply cared for the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) and his beloved Great Lakes. Before his death in 2014 at the age of ninety-four, Peter and the Wege Foundation he created provided tens of millions of dollars of support for GRAM’s building, operations, exhibitions, and collections. He also gave or loaned to the museum much of his personal art collection, and his Accessions Fund helped purchase Rockman’s first Great Lakes painting, Cascade (2015). While his artistic tastes were wide-ranging and eclectic, Peter especially liked art that connected people to the natural world in ways that elevated awareness and resulted in action. For example, Peter sponsored the children’s graphic novel Sooper Yooper: Environmental Defender, which was illustrated by his friend Mark Heckman. Rather than a typical superhero, it features a young man who uses his talents to combat the environmental ills that beset the Great Lakes. Supported by the Wege Foundation, Sooper Yooper’s author, Mark Newman, has brought this “gospel of the Great Lakes” to 150,000 students through 605 school presentations, and the Foundation partners with GRAM on an annual children’s art contest. Appropriately, one of this year’s Sooper Yooper contestants, Irene Cao, emulates Alexis Rockman’s paintings with her winning picture (figs. 3, 4). In conjunction with this exhibition, GRAM will publish the next book in the series, Rockman to the Rescue, showing how artists can be “environmental superheroes.” As evocative as art can be—whether Alexis Rockman’s masterworks or Irene Cao’s picture—awareness without action amounts to indifference. “Move, Wege, move!” Peter would recount as the life-changing challenge to action given him by his mentor, John Gardner. In 2004, Peter convened in Grand Rapids scientists, academics, government officials, and environmental group leaders for a three-day meeting out of which was born the Healing Our Waters ET E R WE GE


FIGURE 3¯Irene Cao, age 12, Sooper Yooper contest submission, 2017. Mixed media on paper.

FIGURE 4¯Cascade (detail), 2015. Oil and

alkyd on wood panel, 72 × 144 inches.



Coalition dedicated to restoring the Great Lakes. (Revealingly, Peter chose the Coalition’s name.) Today, the Healing Our Waters Coalition ( has nearly 150 member organizations with which it works on advocacy training and to mobilize their collective influence on policy. Most notably, the Coalition built a Lakes-wide, bipartisan network of congressional supporters for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which has yielded $2.3 billion in federal investments to clean up the Lakes. The economic return on this investment has been estimated by experts to be 2:1. As Peter recognized in coining the term, “Economicology,” good ecological stewardship can also be good for the economy. In addition to the visual and performance arts, Peter loved books, especially books about the environment. He provided financial support for authors of important environmental works about the Great Lakes such as Jeff Alexander (author of one of the essays that follow) and Dave Dempsey. As much as he loved reading these books, he enjoyed even more giving away copies of his favorites, often buying them by the boxful. Art that leads to action—like Rockman’s paintings and this book—manifests Peter Wege’s vision and is a continuing goal of the Wege Foundation. We at the Foundation are honored to continue Peter’s work, and I foresee cartons of this book being distributed to activists and organizations throughout the region to advance their Great Lakes advocacy. June 2017 Mark Van Putten President & CEO Wege Foundation



The Great Lakes in the 21st Century Profound Beauty and Extreme Change in the World’s Largest Freshwater Ecosystem Jeff Alexander



is a crisp autumn day and sweatshirt-clad tourists have gathered on a deck that juts out of a towering sand dune, 450 feet above a pristine Lake Michigan beach. They have come to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for a bird’s-eye view of the largest lake within U.S. borders. From the Lake Michigan overlook, visitors can see many of the 35 miles of scenic beaches that are the centerpiece of what has been called the most beautiful place in America (fig. 5). The Manitou Islands are visible in the distance, but the lake is dominant, riveting. Its surface area equals the size of West Virginia, extending far beyond the range of the naked eye. Lake Michigan’s personality and hue change with the weather: it can be glass flat one day and rage with 10-foot waves the next. The color of the lake transitions from pale green during storms to steel blue when calm. Occasionally, in the summer, the shallow waters along the shoreline turn a shade of turquoise that rivals the waters of the Caribbean. On this day, wind-driven waves lash the beach. Powerful gusts roar up the nearly vertical face of the coastal dune, dislodging baseball hats and whipping long hair into a vertical mess. Still, visitors tolerate the raw conditions because the payoff is unforgettable: a breathtaking view of a seemingly boundless body of water—a freshwater sea. What they cannot see from this vantage point, T


FIGURE 5¯Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

45 stories above the lake, is the biological turmoil that has made Sleeping Bear Dunes a poster child for the most serious, insidious problem confronting the Great Lakes in the twenty-first century: invasive species. This human-induced change is one of the issues at the core of Alexis Rockman’s groundbreaking exhibition The Great Lakes Cycle. Each of the five paintings in the series focuses on a different aspect of the natural and unnatural evolution of the lakes. Like the Great Lakes, Rockman’s exquisite paintings are far more detailed and complex than is apparent at first glance. Understanding his work requires a concerted effort on the part of the observer. So it is in the Great Lakes, where the sublime beauty of North America’s freshwater seas masks a suite of vexing problems. NATURAL RESOURCES The Great Lakes were carved by a series of glaciers during the Pleistocene Epoch, which began 1.8 million years ago and ended about 10,000 years ago.1 The last set of glaciers to push south from Canada dug the basins of Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario (fig. 6). The open waters of Lake Erie and southern Lake Michigan were revealed around 10,000 years ago, and the lakes reached their current form roughly 5,000 years ago.2 As the glaciers retreated, they filled the lakes with meltwater. These freshwater seas have been evolving ever since, driven by forces both natural and manmade. With 20 percent of all surface freshwater on the planet in their collective basins, the Great Lakes are one of the world’s premier ecosystems. They provide drinking water for 48 million people in the United States and Canada, support



FIGURE 6¯Map of the Great Lakes Basin, produced by the Detroit office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

a $4 billion fishery, and are the lifeblood of a $5 trillion regional economy, the third largest in the world. These inland seas span 94,000 square miles of surface area—an area the size of the United Kingdom and larger than the combined landmass of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. They contain a mind-boggling 6 quadrillion gallons of water, enough to cover the continental United States with a pool nearly 10 feet deep. The 10,900 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, put end to end, would extend halfway around planet Earth. Surrounding the lakes are a variety of ecosystems—miles of sugar sand beaches, sand dunes, biologically rich wetlands, dense boreal forests and soaring stone cliffs. The Great Lakes include the world’s largest lake by volume (Lake Superior); the largest assemblage of freshwater dunes on the planet (along Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Ontario); more than 35,000 islands (most of which are in Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay and the St. Lawrence River); 3,500 species of plants and animals; and 170 species of freshwater fish. The largest fish, the lake sturgeon, can grow to several feet long and weigh more than 200 pounds.



Depending on weather conditions, the mood of these inland seas can range from serene to menacing. Light winds beget calm waters. When roused by gales, the lakes are capable of producing waves as tall as a three-story building. Over the past three centuries, the lakes have swallowed some 6,000 ships and claimed 30,000 lives. Linked by a series of connecting channels and the St. Lawrence River— which carries virtually all water from the lakes to the Atlantic Ocean—the sprawling Great Lakes ecosystem spans 2,342 miles, from Duluth, Minnesota, to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Aside from a few narrow areas, primarily where the lakes funnel into connecting channels, such as the Detroit and Niagara Rivers, it is impossible to see across any of these freshwater seas with the naked eye. Each of the lakes is unique in size, depth, and variety of natural features. Collectively, these glacial relics are as important—ecologically, economically, and culturally—as any ecosystem on the planet: Lake Superior is a world unto itself. It could hold all the water from the other four Great Lakes in its basin, with room to spare. Superior is also the deepest and coldest of the Great Lakes, with an average depth of 500 feet and a maximum depth of 1,332 feet. The lake spans 31,700 square miles of surface area, has 2,726 miles of shoreline, and is so large it features an island in Isle Royale National Park that has a lake—a lake within a lake. Lake Michigan is surrounded by hundreds of miles of beaches and sand dunes, some of which are as tall as a 50-story building. It has been called the playground of the Great Lakes, due to its popularity among beachgoers, anglers, and boaters from across the Midwest. Lake Michigan is the only Great Lake entirely within U.S. borders; the other four straddle the U.S.-Canadian border. Lake Huron is linked to Lake Michigan, and the two are technically one lake. Huron is home to Georgian Bay, which features 30,000 islands and the largest freshwater island on the planet: Manitoulin Island. The northwest portion of the lake features submerged sinkholes that are similar to deep sea hydrothermal vents. Lake Erie is the shallowest, warmest, and most productive of the Great Lakes, in terms of fish. It holds just 2 percent of Great Lakes water but contains 50 percent of the fish. Erie is also a bellwether of change in the other 4 lakes. Many of the most serious problems in the lakes—extreme pollution, toxic algae blooms, and invasive mussels—played out first in Lake Erie. Lake Ontario, the smallest of the Great Lakes, is also the most impaired. Manufacturing and chemical plants along the Niagara River left a legacy of toxic pollution, some of which settled in the lake bottom. One of America’s most notorious toxic waste sites, a neighborhood built atop a chemical waste dump in



Love Canal, New York, is upstream of Lake Ontario. Love Canal spurred the creation of the federal Superfund program to clean up the nation’s worst pollution sites. Lake Ontario flows into the St. Lawrence River, which carries the waters of the Great Lakes 743 miles to the Atlantic Ocean.

FIGURE 7¯Deadriver Saw Mill, Marquette, Michigan, c. 1905.

The Great Lakes are a defining feature on the North American continent, but they are so much more than a long list of astonishing data. They were the lifeblood of several waves of commerce that changed the world. An incredible abundance of beaver pelts made the Great Lakes region the center of an international fur-trading industry until the late 1700s and early 1800s. Timber harvested from Michigan and the other Great Lakes states in the 1800s built much of Chicago and the rest of the Midwest, and commercial fishing fed the region’s growing population (fig. 7). Copper and iron mines around Lake Superior provided the raw materials for America’s Industrial Revolution, particularly the burgeoning auto industry. And when the United States entered World War II, Michigan’s automotive industry transitioned from manufacturing cars to churning out warplanes, jeeps, tanks, bullets, and artillery—all of which were made with iron ore extracted from mines around Lake Superior. The downside of the region’s industrial heritage: technological advances that played out in the Great Lakes region exacted a heavy toll on the ecosystem of the lakes. Fisheries were depleted, forests were laid bare, and toxic mine tailings were dumped into Lake Superior. Chemical pollutants created 43 toxic hotspots around the lakes, and polluted rivers caught fire in Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit, and Chicago. Those tortured waterways are now recovering. Many support fisheries, are popular with boaters, and have become the focus of waterfront development projects. Scientists who have studied the Great Lakes for decades say they are improving, though serious problems remain. It is unlikely the lakes will ever regain their natural condition, but they are spectacular nonetheless. According to Gary Fahnenstiel, a leading Great Lakes researcher who has studied the lakes for four decades: The Great Lakes are underappreciated, even though they are one of the world’s great natural resources. When you ask people to name the world’s great natural resources, they often mention the oceans, the Himalayan Mountains, the Florida Everglades or the Rocky Mountains. But the Great Lakes have three of the four largest lakes in the world (by surface area), contain one-fifth of all surface freshwater on the planet, and feature some of the world’s most incredible geological resources.3



When the last of the glaciers receded from what is now the Great Lakes basin, they left in their wake what could be described as a perfect freshwater ecosystem. All the lakes sit above sea level, which keeps them ecologically isolated from the Atlantic Ocean. In their natural condition, the lakes are a nearly self-contained ecosystem, with just one outlet—the St. Lawrence River. The Lachine Falls in Montreal keeps most ocean fish from swimming upstream and into Lake Ontario. Any species that manages to navigate the rapids cannot go beyond Buffalo: Niagara Falls is a natural barrier between Lake Ontario and the other four Great Lakes. Given the sheer enormity of the Great Lakes, it is hard to fathom how human activities could foul the water, deplete fisheries, decimate populations of fur-bearing mammals, and unleash invasive species that could transform entire ecosystems. But in geologic time, the lake ecosystems are young, which makes them vulnerable to upsets from chemical and biological pollutants. The closed nature of the Great Lakes ecosystem is a protective mechanism, but there is a drawback: pollutants that enter the lakes—by air, water, or land—tend to stick around. The massive surface area of the lakes makes them magnets for mercury and other airborne pollutants from around the world. The retention time of water in Lake Superior is 191 years. That means it takes nearly 2 centuries for water in the lakes to cycle out. Lake Michigan has a retention time of 99 years; in Huron, it is 22 years. Being smaller lakes at the end of the Great Lakes system, water passes through Lake Erie in just 3 years, and 6 years in Lake Ontario. It took the forces of nature several millennia to form what is now the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem. It took humans and their technological wizardry less than two centuries to push the Great Lakes to the brink of ecological collapse. Those changes demonstrate that these freshwater seas, despite their size, are not too big to fail. ORIGINS OF CHANGE In 2008, a team of archaeologists from the University of Michigan made a stunning discovery on the bottom of Lake Huron. Sitting atop a 100-mile-long ridge that crosses the lake bottom, about 120 feet below the surface, was a series of stone hunting blinds and animal herding structures. Researchers determined the site was an ancient hunting ground that Paleo-Indians had used about 9,000 years ago to ambush caribou. At the time, the water level in Lake Huron was 250 feet lower than it is currently. The discovery confirmed that Indians settled the Great Lakes region thousands of years before European immigrants began arriving in the seventeenth century. It also provided a glimpse of the Great Lakes in their infancy, when water levels fluctuated wildly as glaciers shaped and reshaped the landscape. Paleo-Indians survived by fishing, hunting caribou, and harvesting crops. Immigrants from Europe began to settle the region in the late 1600s. Rockman’s painting Cascade (pp. 70–73) illustrates the many ways humans have



FIGURE 8¯Erie Canal, Rochester, New York, c. 1900–1906.

used and abused the Great Lakes: subsistence hunting by Paleo Indians was replaced by European immigrants who launched the commercial fur trade; clearcut the region’s pine forests; developed large farms; mined for copper, iron ore, and other metals; launched industrial-scale fishing operations; built coalfired power plants; and created the region’s shipping industry. The painting also shows some of the collateral damage from the exploitation of the region’s rich natural resources: barren forests, toxic mine tailings in Lake Superior, shipwrecks, and invasive species. In the 1800s, immigrants from Europe were streaming into New York City in pursuit of a better life. With a rapidly growing population and just 16 American states at the time, there was a desire among politicians to expand the boundaries of the United States west of the Appalachian Mountains. The nation’s leaders were also concerned that the French government in Canada was trying to monopolize trade with Native Americans in the Great Lakes region, which at the time was the western frontier. To expand America’s influence and counter the growing economic power of the French, elected officials in New York and Washington, DC, came up with a plan to build a 363-mile-long canal linking the Hudson River to Lake Erie. Completed in 1825, the Erie Canal provided a conduit for westward expansion by providing boats safe passage around Niagara Falls (fig. 8). Dignitaries celebrated the completion of the Erie Canal by filling a barrel with water from Lake Erie, taking it by boat to New York City, then pouring the lake water into the Atlantic Ocean. New York’s governor at the time, DeWitt Clinton, declared the “wedding of the waters” complete. A similar ceremony was held at the other end of the Erie Canal, with a barrel of ocean water poured into Lake Erie. In the painting titled Forces of Change, Rockman uses the Flight of Five Locks in Lockport, New York, to represent the history and complex engineering of the Erie Canal. Four years after the Erie Canal opened, the first version of the Welland Canal was completed in the Canadian province of Ontario. The 27-mile-long canal linked Lakes Ontario and Erie by creating an artificial channel that crossed the Niagara Peninsula. Because it was larger than the Erie Canal, the Welland Canal allowed the largest ships of the day to avoid Niagara Falls and travel, unimpeded, from Lake Ontario to Chicago. The Erie and Welland Canals were engineering marvels that fostered the westward expansion of the



United States and Canada. But circumventing Niagara Falls had profound, unintended side effects. In the process of opening new shipping routes, the manmade canals created pipelines that gave ocean species access to Lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior. The Great Lakes ecosystem would be forever altered. THE INVASION BEGINS

FIGURE 9ÂŻSea lamprey.

The first hint of trouble came in 1873, when alewife were discovered in Lake Ontario. The fish, which can grow to a length of 16 inches, is native to the Atlantic Ocean, but spawns in freshwater tributaries that flow into the ocean. In 1921, two years after the fourth iteration of the Welland Canal widened and deepened the manmade link between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, the collateral damage associated with altering the hydrology of the Great Lakes became painfully evident. Sea lamprey, monstrous fish that look like eels and feed like vampires, were discovered in Lake Erie (fig. 9). By 1946, sea lamprey occupied all five of the Great Lakes, where they feasted on lake trout and several other native fish species. With its suction cup mouth, circular rows of teeth, and a tongue that can penetrate fish flesh, the sea lamprey is a devastatingly efficient parasite. It clings to its host, sucking out the bodily fluids. Fish attacked by lamprey either die from loss of bodily fluids or from infections in the quarter-sized holes the parasites puncture into their bodies. Because a single lamprey can kill up to 40Â pounds of fish over a period of 18 months, it was not long before the trout population in the Great Lakes began to plummet. The sea lamprey and alewife were a devastating, one-two punch that brought the Great Lakes fishery to its knees. Over the course of two decades, sea lamprey decimated the lake trout population in all five of the Great Lakes. This was enormously significant, as lake trout had been the top fish predator in the lakes and a staple of a robust commercial fishery. Before sea lamprey invaded the lakes, the commercial lake trout catch was up to 15 million pounds annually. That figure had plunged to less than 300,000 pounds by the early 1960s.4 At their peak, sea lamprey killed more than 100 million pounds of Great Lakes fish annually. Since 1958, scientists in the United States and Canada have used barriers, traps, and a chemical lampricide in rivers to control sea lamprey populations. That program costs about $20 million annually, but it has reduced by 90 percent the amount of fish killed by sea lamprey. It will continue in perpetuity, because sea lamprey are the aquatic equivalent of the herpes virus. The population can be contained, but millions lurk in the lakes and their tributaries to this day. Effective as it was, the sea lamprey control program could not resurrect the lake trout population. As a result, the dwindling lake trout population allowed alewife to become the dominant species in much of the Great Lakes. Scientists estimated in 1967 that alewife accounted for 90 percent of all biomass (the amount of all aquatic life) in Lakes Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario.



Researchers said there were 167 billion alewives in Lake Michigan alone. Only Lake Superior, which was too cold for alewife, escaped its relentless invasion. Because the alewife is vulnerable to brutally cold winters in the Great Lakes basin, massive die-offs often occurred each spring and summer in the 1950s and 1960s. Rafts of dead alewives would float on the lake surfaces, gobs of the dead fish would occasionally clog municipal water intakes, and countless tons of the fish piled up on beaches. Lakefront property owners burned piles of the dead fish or had them removed by large tractors. Longtime Great Lakes advocate Mark Van Putten grew up in west Michigan, near the Lake Michigan coast, and he has fond memories of spending time at the beach with his family, swimming in the lake, hiking up the towering sand dunes, and then barreling down those same sandy hills. There were also days when the nauseating stench of dead alewives kept Van Putten and countless others from visiting beaches along Lake Michigan or other Great Lakes. “One of my earliest memories was being eight or nine years old and seeing the beach shimmering with dead alewives,” Van Putten said. “I remember wondering how something as big as Lake Michigan could be so messed up . . . and being awed by the power of humans to cause those changes.”5 In 1966, the state of Michigan began stocking Pacific salmon in Lake Michigan to achieve two objectives: create a recreational fishery to replace the vanquished lake trout fishery, and rein in the alewife population. Because coho and chinook salmon from the Pacific Ocean could survive in the freshwaters of the Great Lakes and feasted on alewife, the experiment was a smashing success. In just over a year, Lake Michigan went from being a biological wasteland, dominated by an invasive fish from the Atlantic Ocean, to one of the world’s most productive—albeit artificial—salmon fisheries. Over the ensuing 50 years, salmon would become the dominant sport fish in Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Ontario. For a variety of reasons, lake trout populations did not return to pre–sea lamprey levels, except in Lake Superior. SEA CHANGE As the salmon fishery blossomed in Lake Michigan, massive algae blooms fueled by phosphorus from sewage treatment plants were smothering Lake Erie. Then, on a June morning in 1969, an industrialized stretch of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland erupted in flames. The river was so polluted with oil, fuel, and other chemicals, a spark from a train crossing a trestle over the river set the Cuyahoga ablaze. This was not the first time the river had burned (fig. 10). It had caught fire on twelve previous occasions dating back to 1868. The 1969 fire was not the worst of the fires on the Cuyahoga, and the problem of polluted rivers igniting was not limited to Cleveland. Rivers also caught fire in Detroit, Chicago, and Buffalo. By 1969, however, there was growing public outrage over pollution in the nation’s waterways and the longstanding practice of cities and industries using rivers and lakes as glorified sewers.



FIGURE 10¯Cuyahoga River fire, November 3, 1952.

The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire generated intense national media attention and galvanized public support for change. Three years later, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, a law that regulated the discharge of pollutants into the nation’s waters. The results were stunning. Since 1972, the volume of toxic chemicals, nutrients, and untreated sewage flowing into the lakes from industrial facilities, cities, and farms has decreased markedly. Water quality has improved in most areas of the Great Lakes, fish and wildlife populations are generally healthier, and shorelines once defiled by dead fish and other pollution now teem with beachgoers on summer days. Lake Erie, the poster child for water pollution in the 1960s, recovered to support one of the world’s best walleye fisheries. Sadly, some of the environmental improvements have been tempered, even negated in some areas, by lingering problems and a suite of new environmental insults. In 2013, a team of scientists released a study that documented 34 environmental stressors in the Great Lakes, including aquatic invasive species, climate change, coastal development, sewer overflows, runoff from farms and urban areas, plastics pollution, and toxic contaminants, such as medicines and flame retardants. They concluded that invasive species are placing the greatest strain on the lakes. Lake Superior was the least stressed of the five lakes; Ontario had the most environmental distress (fig. 11). Peter McIntyre, a coauthor of the study and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Limnology, offered a grim summary in an interview with USA Today: “It’s almost a death-by-a-thousand-cuts syndrome.” McIntyre compared the most troubled areas of the lakes to a sick patient with multiple organ failure: “It’s not going to do a lot of good to have a heart transplant if their kidneys and liver aren’t working.”6 If Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario were humans, they would be diagnosed with a broad array of serious ailments: Lake Superior has a fever. It is the fastest warming large lake on the planet and the average daily surface temperature hit a 31-year high of 68.7 degrees Fahrenheit in 2010, about 10 degrees above average. Warmer water temperatures could threaten Superior’s cold-water fishery and make the lake more hospitable to toxic algae blooms and invasive species.



FIGURE 11¯Stress Map of the Great Lakes. Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping (GLEAM) Project.

Lake Erie has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Toxic algae blanket large areas of the lake, sucking oxygen out of the water and creating biological dead zones. An Ohio State University study predicted the incidence of toxic algae blooms on Lake Erie is likely to double over the next century, as the climate changes.7 Lakes Michigan and Huron are anemic. Invasive mussels native to the Caspian Sea in Europe are literally sucking the life out of the two lakes. The mussels consume immense quantities of plankton as they filter water through their bodies. The process increases water clarity in the lakes but deprives fish and other aquatic life of a critical food source. The mussels have increased water clarity so much, Lakes Michigan and Huron are now clearer than Lake Superior. Clear water in the lakes is aesthetically pleasing, but it is also a sign of a meager fishery. Lake Ontario has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The lake is suffering from the lingering effects of being used as a toxic dumping ground for close to a century. Toxic chemicals in Lake Ontario’s bottom sediments are more widespread and more concentrated than in any of the other Great Lakes.



Plastics waste also emerged as a problem in the early years of the twenty-first century. Researchers estimated that nearly 22 million pounds of plastics enter the Great Lakes annually. Some areas of Lakes Erie, Huron, and Superior have more pieces of plastic garbage per square mile than the notorious garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean.The plastic pieces in the lakes are smaller than those found in the Pacific garbage patch, so the mass of trash in the lakes is much smaller. There is also the existential threat of Asian carp invading the Great Lakes. Many researchers believe an Asian carp invasion is imminent, but there is disagreement about the potential impact on fisheries and tourism. One study concluded the fish could thrive in parts of Lake Erie and reproduce in at least 22 rivers on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes.8 However, due to decreasing amounts of plankton (fish food) in the open waters of the Great Lakes, many scientists doubt that Asian carp will ever take over large swaths of the lakes. A SIMPLE PROBLEM NOT EASILY SOLVED One of the most chronic but solvable problems for the Great Lakes is the epidemic of sewer overflows. Each year, outdated sewer systems in American and Canadian cities dump more than 40 billion gallons of raw and untreated sewage into the lakes, according to government data. Those discharges, which often cause nearby beaches to close, are a public health threat and a drag on tourism.9 According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there are 184 combined sewer systems in the Great Lakes basin.10 Once considered cutting-edge technology, combined sewers collect stormwater and sanitary sewage in a single pipe. All of that water is then treated before being discharged into the nearest surface water. It is a great idea, provided rain showers do not dump more water than the combined sewers can handle. When rain or snowmelt inundate the combined sewers, cities are forced to make a no-win decision on short notice: discharge raw or partially treated sewage into surface waters, or allow it to back up in the basements of homes and businesses. To the river it goes, with alarming regularity and in astonishing quantities. Great Lakes cities in 2014 discharged a total of 22 billion gallons of untreated human sewage and industrial wastewater into rivers that feed into the lakes. Another 26 billion gallons of partially treated sewage—meaning it was disinfected, but polluted with toxic chemicals and other contaminants—also flowed into the Great Lakes that year.11 To gain some perspective, compare the volume of sewer overflows to the flow of water over Niagara Falls. On average, a total of 750,000 gallons of water per second—2.7 billion gallons per hour—flows over the Horseshoe, American, and Bridal Veil Falls. Using that figure, I determined that the amount of raw and partially treated sewage discharged into the Great Lakes in 2014 equaled the amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls over the course of 16 hours.



Sewer overflows occur in all the Great Lakes, but most of the discharges happen in Lakes Michigan, Erie, and Ontario. State and federal agencies have been pressuring Great Lakes cities to separate combined sewers. Milwaukee and some other cities have embraced the challenge, while Detroit and similarly cash-strapped communities lack the financial resources to tackle such costly projects. Cities that have separated combined sewers have shown dramatic improvements. In the 1980s, the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, annually discharged as much as 12 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into the Grand River, a major tributary of Lake Michigan. Those discharges often rendered the river unfit for human contact and occasionally forced authorities to prohibit swimming at Grand Haven State Park, home to a popular Lake Michigan beach at the terminus of the river. Grand Rapids invested nearly $400 million in separating combined sewer pipes and the payoff was huge: a 99 percent reduction in sewer overflows. The city is on track to eliminate all combined sewer overflows in 2019. Curtailing those discharges has improved water quality in the Grand River and reduced bacterial pollution at Grand Haven State Park. Eliminating sewer overflows is costly, and federal funds for such work have decreased markedly over the past 30 years. Still, it is imperative that local, state, and federal governments solve this problem. Until that happens, the hope of making all waters of the Great Lakes fishable and swimmable—a primary goal of the federal Clean Water Act—will remain a pipe dream. A NEW WAVE OF INVADERS

FIGURE 12¯Eisenhower Lock, Massena, New York, one of the seven canal locks on the St. Lawrence River leg of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

In the waning years of the 1980s, it seemed the worst of the Great Lakes’ problems were in the rearview mirror. That theory went out the window on a cold December day in 1989, when a dime-sized mussel that was native to Europe paralyzed a city on the coast of Lake Erie. Zebra mussels made their presence known by clogging a water intake that the city of Monroe, Michigan, uses to draw water from Lake Erie. The crisis left the city without water for 56 hours, forcing businesses, schools, government offices, and a local hospital to close temporarily. It also put the issue of biological pollution in the Great Lakes back on the front pages of newspapers, 30 years after sea lamprey had decimated native fish populations. The mussels were yet another consequence of humans fundamentally altering the Great Lakes. In 1959, the United States and Canada completed the St. Lawrence Seaway, a series of seven locks and four manmade channels in the St. Lawrence River, between Lake Ontario and Montreal (fig. 12). The $470 million project gave ocean freighters access to the Great Lakes for the first time. The seaway was supposed to supercharge the regional economy by linking Great Lakes cities and ports to the global shipping network. Shipping did increase on the lakes after it opened, but not nearly as much as industry officials had predicted.



Worse, the seaway—like the Erie and Welland canals a century earlier—created a pipeline for invasive species to enter the Great Lakes. The results have been catastrophic, on a continental scale. Transcontinental freighters that hauled cargo into the Great Lakes inadvertently carried invasive species into the lakes via ballast water. Large tanks of ballast water keep ships stable on the open sea, but the water also teems with aquatic life from distant waters. When ocean freighters took on cargo in the Great Lakes, they discharged ballast water that had been taken on in ports overseas. In the first 50 years of the seaway’s existence, zebra mussels and 56 other invasive species hitchhiked into the lakes in the ballast tanks of ocean freighters (fig. 13). The discovery of zebra mussels in Lake Erie, and the possibility that a mussel hitchhiked into the lakes in the bowels of an ocean freighter, was portrayed as a surprise to government officials across the region, but some scientists had seen it coming. A 1981 Canadian study revealed that ocean freighters entering the Great Lakes carried 206 different species of phytoplankton and invertebrates—including zebra mussels—in their ballast tanks.12 The study was sent to the U.S. and Canadian coast guards, both of which shelved the report. Government officials in both countries claimed the study was inconclusive. It most certainly was not. In 1990, just months after zebra mussels had clogged Monroe’s water intake, Congress passed the world’s first federal law regulating ballast water. It would eventually require ocean freighters to exchange ballast water in the North Atlantic Ocean before entering the Great Lakes. It was a significant law, but it came two decades too late. By the time it was proposed, zebra mussels had colonized large areas of the Great Lakes. The Clean Water Act of 1972 regulated ballast water discharges in U.S. waters, but the Environmental Protection Agency declined to enforce that part of the law. Agency officials claimed ballast water discharges posed minimal pollution risk and noted that exempting those discharges from stringent Clean Water Act rules would reduce administrative costs. It was a colossal blunder, with ramifications that will be felt in the Great Lakes and waterways across North America for the foreseeable future. One year after the discovery of zebra mussels, a similar invasive mussel, the quagga, was discovered in the Canadian waters of Lake Erie. Quagga mussels are like zebra mussels on steroids: they are larger, consume more food, and can survive in deeper water. Both mussel species would spread to all five of the Great Lakes by the mid-1990s. The frigid water of Lake Superior limited the mollusks to Duluth Harbor. In the other four Great Lakes, the mussels disrupted fisheries, clogged municipal and utility water intakes, coated boat hulls and motors, smothered native mussels, and covered beaches with razorsharp shells. By altering water chemistry and dramatically increasing clarity, the mussels created optimum conditions for rampant algae growth in four of the five Great Lakes. The result: toxic algae blooms on Lake Erie and botulism outbreaks that



FIGURE 13¯Zebra mussel–encrusted shopping

cart, used by Alexis Rockman as a reference image for the painting Pioneers (2017) (p. 64).

killed more than 100,000 water birds in the first decade of the twenty-first century. By 2013, scientists were in general agreement that quagga mussels were the most destructive invasive species to ever colonize the Great Lakes—even worse than the dreaded sea lamprey, which wiped out the top of the food chain in the lakes: the fish. Quagga mussels decimated the base of the food chain, triggering a number of profound ecological changes that rippled through the entire aquatic ecosystem. Worse yet, the mussels spread—via boats—to lakes and rivers in 30 states and two Canadian provinces. Here is the kicker: Had the U.S. government enforced the Clean Water Act of 1972 as it was written, the great mussel invasion of North America may well have been prevented. According to James Carlton, then a marine ecologist and invasive species expert at Williams College, “If we had ballast water exchange in place in the 1980s, my guess is that we would not have had the zebra mussel invasion.”13 Ironically, there was an upside to zebra and quagga mussels entering the Great Lakes. As quagga mussels filtered plankton out of the water, they stole food that was essential to the survival of salmon, trout, and other fish. Steep declines in phytoplankton in Lake Huron contributed to alewife disappearing from the lake, which caused the artificial salmon fishery to collapse. A similar phenomenon was beginning to play out in Lakes Michigan and Ontario in 2016. As the alewife and salmon populations decreased, several native species of fish prospered, including lake trout, walleye, and whitefish. Native fish species adapted to consuming bottom-dwelling round gobies, an invasive species of fish that also snuck into the Great Lakes in the ballast water tanks of ocean freighters. Pacific salmon that had been imported to the Great Lakes 50 years earlier could not adapt—they were not bottom feeders. Scientists did not anticipate this scenario. Foreign mussels achieved what humans could not—the decimation of an invasive species, the alewife, and the creation of conditions that favored the recovery of lake trout and other native fish species. The Great Lakes ecosystem was adapting to some invasive species and healing—on its own terms. AN ERIE CASE OF DÉJÀ VU From the International Space Station, 249 miles above Earth, a swirling green mass that spreads across the surface of Lake Erie most summers has an almost artistic quality (fig. 14). At ground level, the condition of the lake is simply shocking. A toxic algae bloom has turned western Lake Erie the color of pea soup. Opaque, bright green water laps at the shoreline. Occasionally, the lake spits out a dead fish (fig. 15). These algae blooms, which have plagued Lake Erie



FIGURE 14¯Aerial view of algae bloom in western Lake Erie.

every summer since 2003, produce toxins that threaten public health, harm the lake’s lucrative fishery, and are an albatross on the region’s $1 billion tourism economy. The blooms are a sign that Lake Erie is critically ill. They also illustrate how activities on land can affect the Great Lakes. The lakes are surrounded by 295,000 square miles of land—spanning 2,038 nautical miles from Duluth, Minnesota, to the Atlantic Ocean—and are fed by more than 100 large rivers that drain the landscape. What happens on land in the Great Lakes basin does not stay on the land—it eventually ends up in the water. And that can cause serious problems. Nowhere is that more evident than in Lake Erie. In 2011, a record-setting algae bloom covered 2,000 square miles of Lake Erie. “I had never seen a bloom that when you hit it with a boat, it actually slowed you down. It was that dense,” said Jeffrey Reutter, director of Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory.14 Reutter, who has studied the lake for more than 40 years, said the 2011 algae bloom was two and one-half times worse than



any previous bloom on the lake—including those in the 1960s, which prompted Time magazine to declare the lake dead.15 Summer algae blooms were common on Lake Erie in the 1960s and 1970s, when municipal sewage treatment plants dumped huge quantities of phosphorus-laden wastewater into the lake. The federal Clean Water Act clamped down on those discharges and Lake Erie healed, to the point that the resurrected walleye fishery was hailed as the world’s best from the 1980s through 2010. Now the past is present. “We’ve seen this lake go from the poster child for pollution problems to the best example in the world of ecosystem recovery,” Reutter said in 2013. “Now it’s headed back again.”16 The 2014 algae bloom was smaller than the 2011 episode, but wind blew it into an area of the lake from which the city of Toledo draws its drinking water. Blue-green algae contaminated the city’s drinking water supply with a liver toxin called microcystin; residents were told to avoid drinking city water for two days. The next year, Lake Erie recorded another record-setting algae bloom that extended 117 miles, from Toledo to Cleveland—and spanned an area roughly the size of New York City. Scientists determined that the algae blooms were caused primarily by phosphorus and manure washing off farm fields and into the Maumee River, one of Lake Erie’s largest tributaries. The lake was also getting slammed by a trifecta of problems: An increase in corn crops resulted in more phosphorus being applied to farm fields in the Maumee River basin; climate change was fueling stronger storms, which increased runoff from farm fields; and zebra and quagga mussels in Lake Erie exacerbated the problem. Their feces concentrated phosphorus on the lake bottom, where it fertilized the blue-green algae.

FIGURE 15¯Algae blooms on Lake Erie harm water quality and pose health threats to humans and wildlife.



These blue-green algae blooms, known as harmful algal blooms, are not unique to Lake Erie. They have surfaced on all five of the Great Lakes in recent years and have caused significant problems in Lake Michigan’s Green Bay, Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, and Lake Ontario’s Bay of Quinte. Blue-green algae blooms have even been spotted on Lake Superior, the cleanest of the Great Lakes and the one with the least developed watershed. Government agencies crafted a plan to reduce phosphorus inputs into Lake Erie by 40 percent, but meeting those targets will be challenging. Some farms may need to be mothballed, and no one can control the weather, which plays a major role in the production of algae blooms. That does not bode well for a region where climate change is already producing stronger storms. FORCES OF CHANGE Three years before British Petroleum (BP) became a symbol of corporate malfeasance for its role in the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—the worst spill in U.S. history—the company was at the center of a seminal debate about what constituted acceptable amounts of pollution in Lake Michigan. BP had launched a $3.8 billion expansion of its refinery in Whiting, Indiana, which would entail discharging more pollutants into Lake Michigan. In 2007, the state of Indiana granted the company a permit to discharge 1,584 pounds of ammonia into the lake each day, a 54 percent increase over previous levels. The permit also allowed the company to discharge up to 4,925 pounds of suspended solids into Lake Michigan daily, a 35 percent increase. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said the project would create jobs in an economically depressed area and enable BP to produce an additional 620 million gallons of gasoline annually. Others viewed the project as a threat to a lake struggling to recover from decades of pollution. Officials in nearby Chicago were adamantly opposed, since BP discharged its wastewater in an area of Lake Michigan that was near the city’s water intake. The BP discharge permit triggered a fierce debate in the region, across the Great Lakes states, and in Congress. Rahm Emanuel, then a U.S. representative, told a group of BP opponents that the company’s discharge permit would have generated little debate in the early 1990s. But this was 2007, he said, and public attitudes toward the Great Lakes were changing. “That’s our Grand Canyon. That’s our Yellowstone National Park,” Emanuel said as he thrust his finger toward Lake Michigan.17 “Congress simply will not stand by while our lakes are treated as a dumping zone. Fifteen years ago, they might have been able to pull this off, but there has been a total consciousness change among people who live here.”18 Emanuel introduced a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives that urged Governor Daniels to reconsider the BP permit. The house passed the measure by a vote of 387 to 26. Protecting the Great Lakes had become a bipartisan issue in a sharply divided Congress. After weeks of intense debate, BP and



the Indiana Department of Natural Resources agreed to reconsider the permit. It never resurfaced. BP completed the expansion of the Whiting refinery 6 years later. The capacity of the refinery increased substantially, jobs were created, and additional tax revenue was generated. BP achieved this while adhering to the limits of its prior pollution discharge permit. Great Lakes scientists and lawyers pointed to the BP controversy as a turning point—protecting these freshwater seas had become the top priority, and people were willing to fight for the lakes. Three years later, Congress and President Obama allocated $475 million for a new program designed to clean up toxic hotspots in the Great Lakes, combat invasive species, restore fish and wildlife habitats, and reduce polluted runoff from farms. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was the culmination of a decade-long effort to identify the most serious problems facing the lakes and attack them with unprecedented resources. The initiative received a boost from former President George W. Bush, who in 2004 declared the Great Lakes a “national treasure.” From 2010 to 2016, Congress and President Obama appropriated $1.3 billion for the program; it funded more than 3,400 restoration projects across the basin. “I’m optimistic about the future of the Great Lakes. There are a lot of nonprofit groups working on Great Lakes issues and there has never been a period in my lifetime when people value the lakes as much as they do now,” said scientist Gar Fahnenstiel, who has researched Great Lakes issues for four decades. “I think that passion for the Great Lakes will continue and the lakes will continue to be valued as a national treasure. We cannot let our guard down; we have to be vigilant in protecting the lakes.”19 WATER WARS In 2008, a year after BP canceled plans to spew more pollution into Lake Michigan, state and federal lawmakers addressed one of the most contentious Great Lakes issues—water diversions to communities outside the basin. Congress and former President George W. Bush passed a landmark law that severely restricted diversions of Great Lakes water to communities outside of the basin. The Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact was passed in response to a Canadian firm’s audacious plan to pump Lake Superior into freighters and ship it to Asia, for use in luxury hotels. In 1998, the Nova Group quietly obtained a permit from the province of Ontario to ship 150 million gallons of Lake Superior water to Asia each year. The quantity of water the company planned to take out of Lake Superior was a literal drop in the bucket of the world’s largest lake, but that was beside the point. Environmental advocates and politicians who had long criticized Chicago’s reversal of the Chicago River in 1900—which diverted 2 billion gallons of water from Lake Michigan daily—feared the Nova Group project would open the door to a flurry of Great Lakes water diversions. Those fears were warranted: at



the time, there was no legally defensible mechanism to prevent excessive use or diversions of Great Lakes water to cities, states, or countries outside of the water-rich basin. Over the next decade, lawmakers from all eight Great Lakes states hammered out a legally binding agreement to prevent most future diversions of Great Lakes water. The agreement also contained provisions requiring the Great Lakes states to document water use and manage water resources. It also treated all the region’s water resources—surface water, groundwater, and Great Lakes tributaries—as a single ecosystem. In 2016, the Great Lakes governors approved a controversial request from Waukesha, Wisconsin, to divert 8.2 million gallons of water from Lake Michigan daily to provide the community with clean drinking water. Drinking water wells in the Milwaukee suburb were contaminated by radium. The agreement requires Waukesha to return all water it siphons from Lake Michigan back to the lake. However, that did not satisfy critics. Opponents maintained that the Waukesha ruling set a precedent that could pave the way for future diversions of Great Lakes water. As of late 2017, the verdict was still out on the proposed diversion. Whether the Compact would prevent future diversions of Great Lakes water to communities outside of the basin remained the subject of debate and speculation. Mark Van Putten, a veteran environmental attorney, said he believes other states will look to the lakes as water becomes more scarce. And it will. In 2014, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that water managers in 40 of the nation’s 50 states expect water shortages by 2025.20 That could increase pressure to divert Great Lakes water to thirsty states outside of the region, even with the Compact in place. Van Putten said the law was an important step toward preventing future diversions, but it isn’t bulletproof: “Over the long term I just can’t see the Compact preventing all diversions.”21 The possibility of siphoning Great Lakes water remains on the minds of some people in the thirsty Southwest. In 2017, Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told a Cleveland publication that Great Lakes water would someday be piped to the parched southwest: From a quantity perspective you might imagine that there’s a giant bullseye that can be seen from space that’s sitting above the Great Lakes . . . it’s a target area for the rest of the country. Because there’s so much freshwater, you can imagine that 50 years from now . . . there might actually be a pipeline that brings water from the Great Lakes to Phoenix. I think that’s part of our future.22

Famiglietti said the global water crisis is “far worse than most people imagine, because it includes both the water quality and water quantity components. When you put those two together, I’m sorry to say it’s an unsolvable problem.”23



Many academics, environmentalists, and lawmakers believe the notion of diverting Great Lakes water to the Southwest is a pipe dream. They argue that it would be cost prohibitive, technically challenging, and nearly impossible from a legal standpoint to tap the lakes and pipe the water across the country. But there have been previous schemes to pipe Great Lakes water to thirsty western states, and long-range transport of water is not a new concept. In California, water is piped hundreds of miles, over mountains and across deserts, to sate the thirst of more than 13 million people in Los Angeles. A CLIMATE FOR CHANGE Climate change is already producing dramatic changes in the Great Lakes basin. All of the lakes are warming, winter ice cover on the lakes decreased 71 percent between 1973 and 2010, and stronger storms are causing more floods. Torrential spring rains and the resulting runoff played a major role in record-breaking toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie in 2011 and 2015. And increasingly mild winters could lure more people to the region, which would further stress Great Lakes ecosystems. Michigan’s population has remained stagnant for decades, but that could change. National media outlets are increasingly touting the state as a great place to live, play, and retire. Popular Science magazine predicted in 2017 that extreme weather caused by climate change will make much of the nation unbearable by 2100. When that happens, Michigan will be the best place in America to live, according to the author of that article.24 The prospect of population gains around Lake Superior concerns Jill Leonard, a biology professor at Northern Michigan University. Leonard, who has lived along America’s three best-known coasts—the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf— said she was surprised how little people in those areas knew about the Fourth Coast, the Great Lakes. “It’s only the central part of the country that thinks about the Great Lakes,” she said. “That’s one reason Alexis’s work is important—more people who live outside of the region need to learn about the Great Lakes.”25 A considerable number of people who live in the basin also need to learn more about the lakes, said Van Putten, the former CEO of the National Wildlife Federation who now runs the Wege Foundation in Michigan. “Years ago, we did focus groups in several Great Lakes cities, and people were passionate about the lakes,” he said, “but many of those same people didn’t know that their drinking water came from the lakes.” Alexis Rockman’s paintings indirectly challenge us to assess how well we know, or think we know, the Great Lakes and the issues confronting them. When I met with him in his studio, Rockman explained his approach to the subject matter: “I wanted to recreate the ecological history and human exploitation of the Great Lakes. Do I think my paintings will change anything? No.”26 I disagree. Rockman’s exploration of the natural and unnatural forces at work above and below the surface of the Great Lakes has the power to shift



FIGURE 16¯Chimera (detail), 2017. Watercolor, ink, and acrylic on paper, 733/8 × 52 inches.

public perceptions and stoke passion for these freshwater seas. Whether it leads to change that directly benefits the lakes is on us—the 48 million people who rely on this magnificent resource for drinking water, employment, recreation, or emotional sustenance. N OT E S



Kim Ann Zimmerman, “Pleistocene Epoch: Facts about the Last Ice Age,” Live Science, October 9, 2013, accessed March 15, 2017, -epoch.html.


“How They Were Made,” University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute, accessed March 15, 2017,


Gary Fahnenstiel, interview by the author, April 8, 2017.


“Sea Lamprey: The Battle Continues,” Minnesota Sea Grant, accessed March 15, 2017,


Mark Van Putten, interview by the author, April 10, 2017.


Robin Erb, “Lakes Erie, Ontario Most Threatened, Study Finds,” USA Today, December 8, 2012, accessed April 6, 2017, /environment-great-lakes-study/1777689/.


Pam Frost Gorder, “Number of Severe Algal Blooms in Lake Erie to Double, Forecast Says,” The Ohio State University, December 16, 2015, accessed April 6, 2017, /news/2015/12/16/eriecentury/.


John Dettmers, Talking Points on the Risk of Asian Carp in the Great Lakes, Great Lakes Fishery Commission, Ann Arbor, Michigan, January 2012.



U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Report to Congress: Combined Sewer Overflows into the Great Lakes Basin, EPA-833-R-06-16, April 2016, ES-3.

10. Ibid. 11. Ibid. 12. Environment Canada, The Presence and Implication of Foreign Organisms in Ship Ballast Waters Discharges into the Great Lakes, March 1981, iv–ix. 13. “From Tough Ruffe to Quagga: Intimidating Invaders Alter Earth’s Largest Freshwater Ecosystem,” Science News, July 25, 1992. 14. “Ohio State Scientists Study Runoff to Stop Toxic Algae in the Great Lakes,” PBS Newshour, September 4, 2014, accessed April 2, 2017, /michigan-scientists-study-runoff-stop-toxic-algae-great-lakes/. 15. John Hartig, “A Brief History of the Detroit River and the Western Lake Erie since the 1940s,” Great Lakes ECHO, April 5, 2010, accessed April 2, 2017, http://greatlakesecho .org/2010/04/05/a-brief-environmental-history-of-the-detroit-river-and-western-lake -erie-since-the-1940s/. 16. Michael Wines, “Spring Rain, Then Foul Algae in Ailing Lake Erie,” New York Times, March 14, 2013, accessed April 2, 2017, /algae-blooms-threaten-lake-erie.html. 17. Simon Brown, “BP Roughed Up by U.S. House Panel,” Northwest Indiana Times, July 25, 2007, accessed April 4, 2017, -panel/article_9a4d4785-65d7-5d16-bcff-ff74639155d2.html. 18. Libby Sander, “Chicago Protests as Indiana Lets a Refinery Add to Lake Pollution,” New York Times, July 31, 2007, accessed April 4, 2017, /31refinery.html. 19. Gary Fahnenstiel, interview by the author, April 8, 2017. 20. U.S. General Accounting Office, Freshwater: Supplies Concerns Continue, and Uncertainties Complicate Planning, GAO-14-430, May 2014, 2. 21. Mark Van Putten, interview by the author, April 10, 2017. 22. Keith Matheny, “Great Lakes Water Piped to Southwest Our Future, Says NASA Scientist,” Detroit Free Press, April 10, 2017, accessed April 20, 2017, /local/michigan/2017/04/10/great-lakes-water-piped-southwest-our-future-says-nasa -scientist/100301326/. 23. Ibid. 24. Brian Manzullo, “Michigan the Best Place to Live by 2100 AD , Popular Science Says,” Detroit Free Press, March 22, 2017, accessed April 4, 2017, /michigan/2017/03/22/michigan-best-place-to-live/99497966/. 25. Jill Leonard, interview by the author, April 8, 2017. 26. Alexis Rockman, interview by the author, February 13, 2017.



Reflections and Refractions Alexis Rockman and the Great Lakes Dana Friis-Hansen



the mid-1980s, Alexis Rockman has built a dramatic and distinct body of work that integrates his deft artistic skills, rich visual inventiveness, deep scientific awareness, broad art historical knowledge, and passionate concern for the earth’s ecological future. Driven by an intense curiosity about the natural world and an ambition to explore the pressing questions of our times, Rockman has been recognized not only for his impressive artistic range—as one critic described, an arresting “figurative exactitude as well as . . . [a] wildly imaginative take on what is considered ‘the real’”—but also for the intensity of his commitment to the environment and its protection.1 Born in 1962, the adopted son of an Australian jazz musician and American urban archeologist, Rockman was raised in New York City. As an only child he explored Central Park, studied Golden Field Guides, frequented the Museum of Natural History, and created his own vivaria. From an early age, he drew animals and their environments—a tree frog, a coral reef—but usually from books or from memory after watching television programs such as Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, The Wonderful World of Disney, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, and National Geographic documentaries. Rockman’s family had reproductions of artworks in their home, including those by Uccello, I N CE


FIGURE 17¯Untitled, 1991. Watercolor and ink on paper, 14 × 20 inches. Private Collection.


Leonardo, and Rembrandt, but it was not until high school that he visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He studied at Rhode Island School of Design and the School of the Visual Arts, New York, and gained early recognition in the mid-1980s for eerie bio-botanical scenes. The scope of his imagery expanded as he explored historical and contemporary artistic expression and mined the vernacular and practice of scientific representation. Rockman’s key achievements are the monumental panoramas or extended series that manage complex and compelling narratives in an expansive physical scale, competing with monumental history paintings, detailed nature dioramas, and the cinematic scope of a movie screen. Landmark works include the 24-footlong Evolution (1992) (fig. 18), an unfolding timeline of 214 plants and animals; Manifest Destiny (2003–4) (fig. 20), an apocalyptic, post–global-warming view of Brooklyn; Battle Royale (2011), which chronicles the natural history of endemic plants and animals and invaders in the Louisiana wetlands; and the 7-panel South (2008), a 29-foot vista of Antarctic icebergs and glaciers. While most of Rockman’s works look to natural history, Biosphere, his 18-painting series envisioning the dislocation of all forms of life after Earth becomes toxic and uninhabitable, is a nod to Douglas Trumbull’s environmentalist sci-fi film Silent Running (1971). The cinematic qualities of all these works extend Rockman’s long engagement with film and animation, both as a child and as an art student. More recently, this includes his collaborations on the visual development of award-winning films such as Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012) and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2013). In scope, complexity, and content, The Great Lakes Cycle (2015–17) is Rockman’s most ambitious project to date. Over the course of his thirtyfive-year career, Rockman’s approach has been to work in ensembles of thematic or formally related paintings, punctuated by major multiyear, muralscaled projects. After an initial invitation in 2013 from the Grand Rapids Art Museum to visit the region and make a proposal, this project expanded to include extensive research across eight U.S. and Canadian states and provinces, as well as the subsequent planning, composition, and creation of artworks included in this exhibition. The cycle features five panoramic landscapes that explore


FIGURE 18¯Evolution, 1992. Oil on wood, 96 × 288 inches. Collection of George R. Stroemple.

the past, present, and future of the Great Lakes; twenty-eight field drawings of single species; and six large, lush watercolors that explore moments from the life and history of the Great Lakes. With this project, Rockman advanced into new pictorial territory, as he synthesizes human history and ecology by harnessing a variety of representational languages found within art and science. He pushed the expressive liquid properties of paint, developing unique ways of using new types of acrylic that provide an especially dynamic contrast with his highly realistic narrative technique.2 In the end, Rockman created broad vistas and single views that dazzle the eye, spark the imagination, and reveal unexpected relationships across time and space. Rockman enthusiastically described his original challenge as a dynamic tension between the artistry and finesse required to craft a successful painting and the investigation, integration, and staging necessary to accommodate massive amounts of information that might not be immediately compatible. According to Rockman, “This series required everything I’ve learned about organizing and constructing images.”3 Through the careful interlacing of compositional approaches with stylistic languages, pictorial practices, and the vocabularies of science, he made visible crucial narratives that highlight the many stresses on the precarious ecological equilibrium. Beyond the visual impact of the series and the scientific information it carries, the unprecedented scale and complexity of the works reflect Rockman’s passion for underscoring the importance of the Great Lakes far beyond the region.



FIGURE 19¯Ponds Edge, 1986. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 60 × 112 inches. Rubell Family Collection, Miami.


PICTORIAL PRACTICES: THE LANGUAGE OF ROCKMAN’S ART To put this achievement in context, it is important to understand the artistic climate that prevailed after Rockman finished art school. By the 1980s, the New York art world had undergone a shift of dominance from Modernism and its narrowly focused exploration of art’s formal essences (shape, color, and line) and expression in such modes as Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. Beginning in the 1960s, a “Post-Modernism” was emerging that was characterized by an openness to imagery, content, and concepts beyond the art object, including popular, personal, and political sources. It would form the basis for Pop, Conceptual, and Earth Art, among others. As part of this shift, the act of painting itself was marginalized by growing critical attention to mixed- and multimedia explorations. As Rockman explored his options as a painter, he gravitated first toward Color Field abstractions. His breakthrough moment occurred in 1986, when he “allowed himself” to include a frog in the painting Selective Amnesia (1986). Rockman explains, “I realized I had to make paintings about what I cared about, work that I thought nobody else had done.”4 As all young artists do, he looked for common ground with other contemporary artists, even those outside his chosen medium of painting. He found relevance in Robert Smithson, who, like Rockman, was shaped by early experiences at the Museum of Natural History and made art exploring geologic time, entropy, and the diverse forces shaping contemporary landscape. In Rockman’s quest to expand his representational language, he found inspiration in the “Pictures Generation” of artists who used photo-based imagery critically by “appropriating” or “sampling” mainstream pictures and advertising vocabularies: “I got excellent advice from someone


FIGURE 20¯Manifest Destiny, 2003–2004. Oil and acrylic on wood, 96 × 288 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2011.36A-D.

who knew the art world. He asked me, ‘What are you bringing that’s unique?’ I realized I had all these childhood interests in natural history. It struck me that if I took ideas from Conceptual Art and Pop Art and applied them to my childhood interests, I could create a hybrid language.”5 Rockman was simultaneously looking to the past. All artists draw on precedents from art history to move from early experimentation to their first mature work, then continue their evolution. For example, the richly detailed, golden age Dutch still lives (also known as nature morte), such as those by Otto Marseus van Schrieck (1619–1678), provided a positive reference for Rockman’s obsessively detailed study of specimens, especially in his early work.6 He developed a deeper and more sustained dialogue with mid-nineteenth-century Hudson River School painters, especially Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), Thomas Cole (1801–1848), and Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904). Considered the first uniquely American school of painting, Hudson River School

FIGURE 21¯Thomas Cole (American, b. England, 1801–1848), River in the Catskills, 1843. Oil on canvas, 27 1/2 × 40 3/8 inches. Collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865, 47.1201.



FIGURE 22¯Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826–1900), Niagara, 1857. Oil on canvas, 40 × 901/2 inches. National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection, Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund, 2014.79.10.

artists embraced the grandeur of the heretofore undocumented topographies of western New York, as well as further frontiers on both the North and South American continents. Thomas Cole was the first artist to create a landscape language that was distinctly American. He both celebrated the majesty, drama, and divinity of the young country’s wilderness (fig. 21) and expressed his sorrow that “the beauty of such landscapes is quickly passing away—the ravages of the axe are daily increasing—the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation. We are still in Eden; the wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly.”7 Cole’s allegorical series are equally important for Rockman, especially The Course of Empire (1833–36), with which one writer found profound resonance to Rockman’s Manifest Destiny (fig. 20), highlighting “Rockman’s sober admonition to a nation unwilling to face the consequences of its own insatiable hunger for technological progress and economic gain.”8 Cole’s student Frederic Edwin Church de-emphasized the narrative and allegorical imperative in his teacher’s depiction of nature, instead investing in meticulous precision and detailed naturalism in his renderings based on personal on-site experiences and sketching en plein air. In the studio, Church executed ambitious “Great Pictures” that toured the world as popular commercial entertainment of the day.9 An oil sketch for one of his tour-de-force “blockbuster paintings,” Niagara (1857) (fig. 22), was appropriated by Rockman as the anchor of the post-glacial, pre-civilization Great Lakes geography in Forces of Nature (2017), but the parallel interest in panoramas of epic scope are notable in all of Rockman’s extended landscape narratives, starting with Evolution.



FIGURE 23¯Martin Johnson Heade (American, 1819–1904), Orchids and Spray Orchids with Hummingbirds, about 1875–90. Oil on canvas, 20 × 12 inches. Collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865, 47.1175.

Another important precedent—and parallel—for Rockman’s approach is Church’s attention to contemporaneous writings and research in natural science. Alexander von Humboldt’s groundbreaking Cosmos, published in English in London in 1849, deeply influenced Church’s activities as an explorer-painter since it articulated principles of unity between terrestrial and celestial phenomena, and, “as a seminal work of modern ecology, the study of natural habitats.”10 Rockman has cultivated relationships with some of today’s leading scientific thinkers, including Stephen Jay Gould and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and on this project built important relationships with specialists in the ecosystems of the Great Lakes. Rockman also admires Martin Johnson Heade for his “synthesis of highly romantic, but scientifically accurate paintings of exotic travel.”11 Heade originally hoped that his paintings of the Brazilian rainforest (fig. 23) would function as reference documents for the nature of the region. Yet today, Rockman ruefully observes, “we live in a [science] culture where everyone is very specialized . . . the idea that an artist could contribute to scientific knowledge is virtually impossible now.” Rockman’s research for The Great Lakes Project gave him the opportunity to visit museums in Canada, such as the National Gallery, Ottawa, and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, providing his first exposure to paintings by artists active in Canada who recorded landscapes and narratives unfamiliar to him. A.¡J. Casson (1898–1992), Lawren Harris (1885–1970), Frances Anne Hopkins (1838–1919), Cornelius Kreighoff (1815–1972), and Tom Thomson (1877–1917), among others, served as sources of imagery for this series (fig. 24). According to Rockman, “The expression of Canadian experience around the Lakes, both of native peoples and settlers, was a refreshing, eye-opening surprise” that led him to embed numerous painterly and historical references in the Great Lakes paintings.12

FIGURE 24¯Francis Ann Hopkins (English, 1838–1919), Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior, 1869, 1869. Oil on canvas, 27 × 50 inches. Collection of Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Canada, 55.8.1.




FIGURE 25¯Field to Lake Diorama in the Felix M. Warburg Hall of New York State Environment, American Museum of Natural History.

Rockman has long engaged the vocabularies of scientific representation in the creation of his work. His pictorial sources range from ancient manuscripts to contemporary infographics, from children’s nature books to engineering manuals, from museum displays to park wildlife centers, and from television nature programs to academic papers, with a special emphasis on dioramas, naturalists’ expedition diaries and botanical illustrations, documentary photography and film, and science fiction imaginings of the future. The American Museum of Natural History dioramas provided Rockman with an early and important experience of art representing nature (fig. 25). Rockman remembers, “I spent many hours there entranced by the dioramas of Akeley Hall. I was taken with how, at the beginning of the last century, they’d used painting, lighting and taxidermy to create an immersive theatrical experience set in nature. Afterward, I’d go home and paint backgrounds on the tropical fish tanks my mother let me keep.”13 In contrast to the Hudson River School painters, whose first aim in their depictions of nature was awe and allegory, dioramas are intentionally instructive, shaped by scientist’s field research expeditions and the taxidermied wildlife specimens they collected. The roots of dioramas are traced to collections of Renaissance-era Wunderkammer, or cabinets of curiosity. The first known habitat diorama for a science museum in America was created by Carl Akeley in 1889 in Milwaukee.14



FIGURE 26¯Kapok Tree, 1995. Oil on wood, 96 × 64 inches. Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University, Milwaukee. Gift of Peter Norton.

Most dioramas begin with an animal as the primary subject and source. This dictates the environment to be featured, which is then rendered through threedimensional elements in the foreground, such as plant life indigenous to the ecosystem. A curved background painting conjures the illusion of space, distance, and broader environment. For Rockman, the encyclopedic sweep and implicit authority of dioramas, as well as their combination of painting, taxidermy, and a stagecraft with art and science creates “an immersive environment I’ve always found thrilling.” Often, his panoramas incorporate the split views found in these displays: “That the viewer can see miraculously above and below the water or earth has suggested unconventional ways of organizing a picture.”15 Engaged by varied forms of nature study since childhood, Rockman’s inspirations include the explorer-naturalists and the artists with whom they traveled. These individuals immersed themselves in the wilderness, recording their visions in notebooks, scholarly publications, and artworks. “There is a great tradition of scientists working with artists in the field,”16 he explains, citing Humboldt in Latin America in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and the American William Beebe, who is renowned for articles and books that popularized scientific adventure travel. Beebe— who was often accompanied by artists from various backgrounds—was among the first to establish remote field stations, including in Guyana in 1916.17 Inspired in part by Beebe’s example, in 1994 Rockman traveled through the jungle rainforest in Guyana for six weeks. A fellow traveler on this trip was Mark Dion, whom he met in 1988 and with whom he developed a close friendship and professional alliance. Wry humor and a shared commitment to exploring art and science has informed each artist’s work and led to many collaborations on exhibitions, books, and travels. He recalled, “I didn’t go to Guyana with any specific agenda. . . . After several weeks, the impulse to draw became irresistible. Using a pencil, paper, and a magnifying glass, I started to make classic entomological drawings of insects we had caught. This process led to a notebook of ideas based on actual encounters—what happened to a catfish we caught, what insects came to devour it—that I wanted to make when I got back to my studio.”18 The Guyana trip was important to a body of paintings distinguished by “the weirdness of what is real” (fig. 26).19 Although Rockman was always aware of the strict attention to observation demanded by the rigors of the scientific method, his work up to this point had been fueled by an active imagination and wide—



FIGURE 27¯Rudolph F. Zallinger (American, 1919–1995), The Age of Reptiles, 1947. Fresco, 192 × 1,320 inches. Collection of Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

sometimes mischievous—creative license. A new, self-imposed challenge to stay true to his experiences and the actual flora and fauna gave him a new level of confidence as he composed paintings in the studio. The passage of time in nature—or as Rockman noted earlier, “what happened”—is not the aim in classical naturalist drawings or in dioramas, which are oriented to a static moment. So, for Rockman, an equally important reference are Rudolph F. Zallinger’s fresco murals at Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History: The Age of Reptiles (1947) (fig. 27) and Age of Mammals (1961–67). These vast, immersive scenes chronicle the history of life on earth with left-to-right temporal shifts across historic eras, transitioning landscapes, and multiple narrative incidents.20 This didactic display strategy shaped Rockman’s pictorial vocabulary, starting with his first panoramic landscape, Evolution (1992) (fig. 18), and becoming the driving narrative device for three paintings in The Great Lakes Cycle. Rockman extends the impact of his panoramas by accompanying each work with a key. A graphical silhouette of each element in the picture is numbered, labeled, and listed, to be shown alongside the artwork or illustration. By providing very specific details of the species, incidents from history, locations, actions, and manmade objects included in his scenes, Rockman not only underscores the scientific foundation of his research but also blurs the boundaries between art and information. Like his paintings, the keys have multiple creative agendas, and are written to engage the viewer’s curiosity and critical thinking. Rockman reveals, “The key can be a great equalizer. . . . I love the tension between the authority and credibility when one note describes something sober and predictable and then the next offers something unexpected, inappropriate, or even explosive.”21 Beyond depicting past eras or indicating temporal change, Rockman also takes on the challenge of imagining the future. Science fiction and fantasy



FIGURE 28¯Chesley Bonestell (American, 1888–1986), Atom Bomb Hits New York City: Illustration for “Hiroshima, U.S.A.” in Collier’s, August 5, 1950, cover, 1950. Oil on paper laid on board, 211/2 × 18 inches. Reproduced courtesy of Bonestell LLC. FIGURE 29¯Stephen Dalton¡/¡Minden Pictures, European hornet (Vespa crabro).

illustration are also significant sources of inspiration in the development of his pictorial language. One of his favorite visionary illustrators, Chesley Bonestall, created images of Saturn for Life Magazine in 1944 that inspired awe for outer space and expanded interest in astronautics. Rockman engages this example of “illustrator as activist,” especially in images that destabilize the status quo by imagining and depicting a convincing, future reality that is strong enough to change behavior today. For example, Bonestall’s cautionary paintings commissioned for the cover of Collier’s magazine in 1950 (fig. 28) show the effect of an atomic bomb exploding in Manhattan.22 Rockman recounts, “I had this in mind when I started worrying about climate change in the late 1990s, influencing such works as Manifest Destiny (2003–4) showing the flooding of the boroughs of New York.”23



FIGURE 30¯The Farm, 2001. Oil and acrylic on wood panel, 96 × 120 inches. Collection of Joy of Giving Something, Inc.


Another important resource for Rockman is nature photography and film documentaries. The libraries of photographers such as Stephen Dalton (fig. 29) and John Brackenbury, as well as Oxford Scientific Films, have provided outstanding visual answers to the questions scientists (and artists) are asking.24 With sophisticated lenses, strobe lights, stop-action timers, low-light film, and other technologies, cameras can record incidents in nature that would not otherwise be perceived by the naked eye. Images of quick-moving organisms helped Rockman to better understand the physics of animal locomotion, as well as the impact on the space around them. For example, in this series, insects in flight and the splash caused by a diving loon are enhanced by what he learned from studying highspeed nature photography. Cinema and its unique properties have also shaped Rockman’s art. The proportions of his panoramic paintings suggest widescreen film theater experience. Early animated films such as Fantasia (1940) and Bambi (1941) enchanted Rockman with their painterly effects.25 He draws upon film’s language of unfolding images and events as he conceives and composes his paintings to move the viewer’s eye across the image, with wide, panning, zoom, and close-up techniques, often combining several effects in one work. In the fabricated realities of a movie, Rockman has found resonance in the power of metaphor and point of view to explore humanity’s complicated relationship with the animal kingdom. For example, Rockman notes the way King Kong (1933) “delivers a synthesized, highly romantic fantasy of a lost world with the credibility that the authors have seen the real thing.”26 For his work exploring eras and environments not yet known, the film 2001 (1968) provided “the most believable, awe-inspiring and mysterious anthropology of the future.” Another source is the narrative of non-human intelligence found in Phase IV (1974), which pits a rapidly evolved colony of ants endowed with advanced thinking powers against the efforts of two scientists who utilize divergent strategies—one attempts to communicate through mathematics, while the other proposes poison to destroy the central hive. Rockman explored the power of biological invention in The Farm (2001) (fig. 30), a painting that was also used as a billboard for a public art project by Creative Time, to bring into historical context the implications of genetic engineering. The Farm depicts the “past, present, and future incarnations of three familiar farm animals—a pig, a cow, and a chicken—that have been altered through artificial selection and/or genetic modification.”27 Science-fiction and horror films provide valuable pop-culture cues for the artist to connect with our hopes—and fears—about the future. In this series, the retro-futuristic farm scenarios of Watershed (2015), are eyed by a


surveillance drone. The background of Forces of Nature takes the form of what the artist calls “time-travel tourism” starring selected Buffalo River landmarks from different historic eras, while below the water surface a battle erupts as the “E. coli Kraken” (identified as such by the key) wrestles with “Watermaster Dredger Classic V” (manufactured in Finland starting in 2016). Rockman has a soft spot for a straightforward, didactic illustrational style, such as that of the Golden Field Guides that he studied in his formative years and classroom posters distributed by government agencies. In earlier work, Rockman has frequently employed multitier structures, including cross sections and close-ups to illuminate activities above and below water or ground level, such as Forest Floor (1990) (fig. 31). During his travels in Michigan, a suite of posters produced by the Natural Heritage Program of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources caught his eye and proved helpful in the Great Lakes paintings (fig. 32). He considers such “official” educational materials to be a good starting point, “with each ecosystem presented as a place of untouched wilderness, enchantment and wonder.” Yet he explains, “They are simply archetypes, artifacts of utopian fantasies of the past. These posters deny the human impact on nature, and that’s where I see opportunity—first I’m sad, then I get angry. That’s the catalyst that gets me up in the morning to make my work.”28 In both scientific illustration and in art, relative scale can be a powerful device, and Rockman uses it effectively in this body of work. During the 1990s he conceived paintings driven by magnification, including the humorous selfportraits Ecotourist (1997) and Tropical Hazards (1999). Whether showing in a separate cutaway, or simply enlarged and completely out of scale with the rest of the scene, “paint[ing] microscopic or invisible dangers, magnified thousands of times, and . . . insert[ing] them into the context of a landscape, presented a delightful opportunity I could not ignore.”29 Within the science of the Great Lakes, and within Rockman’s exploration of it, the tiniest life-forms can have the largest impact, as represented in the bacteria, plankton, and larvae seen in Spheres of Influence (2016), Forces of Change (2017), and Pioneers (2017). BEHIND THE PICTURES: INVESTIGATION, INTEGRATION, AND STAGING Long before Rockman picks up a paintbrush, he develops each painting through a process of investigation, integration, and staging. Each picture is packed with centuries of history, dozens of flora and fauna, and thousands of facts. Rockman researches and composes each work with the same rigor in which he paints the image.



FIGURE 31¯Forest Floor, 1990. Oil on wood,

68 × 112 inches. Collection of Alexis Rockman.

FIGURE 32¯Michigan Department of Natural Resources wetlands poster.




FIGURE 33¯Alexis Rockman’s initial visit to the Great Lakes. Travelling the Grand River to Lake Michigan, June 6, 2014.

Rockman’s keen observation grounds his practice, so travel to the regions he is exploring is an important step. His first encounter with the Great Lakes, in June 2014, was from a small inflated Zodiac boat on the Grand River. Putting in just outside of Grand Rapids, a small group of local artists motored Rockman slowly through the low wetlands, teeming with non-native common carp, past the Grand Haven coal-burning power plant, then to the channel near Holland that lets out to Lake Michigan. Rockman then began an extended road trip, driving north to other Lake Michigan sites, then across the state, over the mighty suspension bridge spanning the Mackinac Straits between Lakes Michigan and Huron, and up to the Upper Peninsula and Lake Superior. His return brought him through Wisconsin and across Lake Michigan on a historic coal-powered ferry, recently retrofitted to upcycle its waste.30 Other research trips would take him to the lake areas surrounding Chicago, Toledo, Cleveland, Akron, Minneapolis, Toronto, and Ottawa. Rockman studies a wide array of books and conducts internet research before, during, and after his expeditions. More important, however, are his interactions with people in the region, especially scientists who study the area, who have been an essential part of The Great Lakes Cycle. He made some appointments beforehand, but sometimes an unscheduled and serendipitous stop along his route proved valuable, such as at the Spirit of the Woods Natural History Museum in Elk Rapids, Michigan, where he could experience the local nature education displays. Rockman’s appointment with Dr. Jill Leonard, Professor of Biology at Northern Michigan University in Marquette proved essential to bringing focus to the series. As Dr. Leonard explained, “It started as a random call, ‘Could I meet an artist?’ I meet lots of people who ‘like’ nature or science, but Alexis was different. We hit it off within five minutes—he was highly engaged by the facts behind the changes in the environment, but his spin was ‘How does one understand—then communicate—that change?’ His purpose was to help people see it on a visual level, then feel it on a visceral level, while remaining true to the science.”31 Rockman and Leonard, whose specialty is fish biology (particularly the physiological ecology of fish migration), continued their conversation by phone and email as Rockman shaped the series. While building his knowledge base about the Great Lakes, amassing a collection of pictures was an important parallel process. The camera on his



smartphone was a valuable gathering tool, and as issues and themes emerged, he dove deep into the Internet to create files of digital reference images that could prove valuable later in the process. His computer database became an important resource and workspace as he expanded his investigations.32 Integration Rockman’s synthesis of information usually evolves organically, but in this case, the conversation over coffee with Dr. Leonard was catalytic, producing an outline of issues that would become the thematic drivers of the series’ five panoramic paintings. Their exchange about the Great Lakes soon landed on the agents of change. According to Dr. Leonard, it was a lively exchange: “The biggest factor to express about the Great Lakes now is that they are not the way they were. We talked a lot about the temporal aspects, which is very hard to get across, and what are the causes of those changes. The conversation would go back and forth, I would get esoteric and deep into scientific detail, and he would challenge me, ‘How do you translate that, make it visual?’ This is how the topics emerged.”33 With themes outlined, Rockman continued conversations, data collection, and consideration of the translation from facts to ideas to image. He explains, “I start to have a general impression, a feeling, about where I can go with it.”34 Exploring that mystery and bringing it into focus is an exciting part, he continues, “there is a tremendous sense of momentum to find out what ‘it’ is—the whole series, taken together.” This integrative thinking, and the holistic balance of parts to whole is an important lesson Rockman takes from science. He is deeply influenced by the ecology movement of the 1970s, as well as publications that consider the ecosystem of humanity, including Silent Spring (1962), The Population Bomb (1968), and Whole Earth Catalog (1968–72). He realized The Great Lakes Cycle was an unprecedented opportunity to synthesize geologic, anthropological, and ecological forces—as well as human history—in one suite of pictures.35 Staging The final process behind the panoramas is the assembly of digital drawings, during which Rockman orchestrates the set, characters, and plotline of his drama.36 He approaches each image as a cosmography, explaining, “I’m creating a unique universe, a new world view, and it’s at this point I need to plan the combination of information and images—reviewing, reconciling, then editing a seemingly impossible range of facts, sources, and visual elements into a single immersive, and, hopefully, compelling image.”37 Five digital collages were developed simultaneously to ensure that each painting in the suite played a unique role, while culminating into a cohesive whole. Rockman imagined an archetypal lake and considered the constituent



parts: deep water (Pioneers), shoreline and shallows (Cascade), water and atmosphere (Spheres of Influence), remote landscapes leading to the lakes (Watershed), and urban waterways leading to the lakes (Forces of Change). For each painting, Rockman worked out the general composition, progressively adding details: “First, I’m designing a stage set, then I start to think through the larger elements, then the next big thing. . . . I may know what the smaller things are, but placing them is not important until later. The relationships and transitions of the information are all in lists or in my head, but how I fit them together happens gradually. Until the digital collage is far enough along . . .”38 Then the paintings can begin. N OT E S 1.

Michael Rush, foreword to The Weight of Air (Waltham: The Rose Art Museum, 2008), 7.


Rockman worked with paint formulators and chemists at Golden Artist Colors at their facility in New Berlin, New York, in the creation and use of different types of acrylic paints.


Alexis Rockman, interview by the author, April 18, 2017.


Alexis Rockman, quoted in Prudence Roberts, “Rockman’s Evolution and the ‘Great Picture,’” in Alexis Rockman: Second Nature (Normal: University Galleries of Illinois State University, 1995), 55.


Claudia Dryfus, “Alexis Rockman Bridges the Gulf Between Art and Science,” New York Times, April 16, 2016, accessed April 24, 2017, /alexis-rockman-bridges-the-gulf-between-art-and-science.html?_r=1.


For a detailed discussion of Rockman’s early work and its relationship to Dutch still-life painting, see Johanna Marsh, “Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow,” in Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow (Washington, DC: Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2010), 17–19, 24.


Thomas Cole, “Essay on American Scenery,” American Monthly Magazine 1 (January 1836), accessed April 24, 2017,


Maurice Berger, “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” in Alexis Rockman: Manifest Destiny (Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2004), 11.


Roberts, “Rockman’s Evolution and the ‘Great Picture,’” 52–63.

10. Kevin J. Avery, Church’s Great Picture: The Heart of Andes (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993), 13. 11. Alexis Rockman on Martin Johnson Heade’s Hummingbird and Passionflowers, The Artist Project series, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed April 22, 2017, http://artistproject!. 12. Rockman, interview, April 18, 2017. 13. New York Times, April 16, 2016. 14. For a detailed history of the science museum diorama, see Stephen Christopher Quinn, “The Habitat Diorama: Art in the Service of Science,” in Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History (New York: Harry N. Abrams), 10–14. 15. Alexis Rockman, preface to Rubicon (New York: Sperone Westwater), 5. 16. Alexis Rockman, quoted in Terrie Sultan, East End Field Drawings: Works on Paper by Alexis Rockman (Water Mill, NY: Parrish Art Museum, 2015), 58. 17. Johanna Klein, “They Mixed Science, Art and Costume Parties to Reveal Mysteries of the Sea,” New York Times, March 27, 2017, accessed April 23, 2017, /2017/03/27/science/william-beebe-department-of-tropical-research-illustrations.html.



18. Alexis Rockman, quoted in Jonathan Crary, Alexis Rockman (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2003), 142. 19. Marsh, “Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow,” 40. 20. Ibid., 29. 21. Alexis Rockman, in email to the author, May 20, 2017. 22. Matt Novak, “Hiroshima, U.S.A.,”, accessed May 3, 2017, http://www 23. Alexis Rockman, interview by the author, April 14, 2017. 24. Alexis Rockman, in email to the author, May 8, 2017. The remainder of this paragraph is drawn from this email. 25. Alexis Rockman, interview by the author, April 23, 2917. 26. Alexis Rockman, in email to the author, May 8, 2017. The remainder of this paragraph is drawn from this email. 27. Marsh, “Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow,” 49. 28. Alexis Rockman, in email to the author, May 3, 2017. 29. Rockman, preface to Rubicon, 5. 30. Tom Carr, “On Lake Michigan, A Cleaner Coal-Powered Ship Ferries On,” Weekend Edition, National Public Radio, May 31, 2015, accessed June 2, 2017, /2015/05/31/410903693/on-lake-michigan-a-cleaner-coal-powered-ship-ferries-on. 31. Jill Leonard, interview by the author, April 20, 2017. 32. For more details on Rockman’s Great Lakes Cycle database, see Thyrza Goodeve’s essay in this volume. 33. Leonard, interview. 34. Rockman, interview, April 23, 2017. 35. Alexis Rockman, interview by the author, May 3, 2017 36. For a detailed description of Rockman’s creation of digital drawings, see Thyrza Goodeve’s essay in this volume. 37. Alexis Rockman, in email to the author, April 23, 2017. 38. Alexis Rockman, in email to the author, May 8, 2017.





The Great Lakes Cycle: Paintings



centerpiece of The Great Lakes Cycle is a suite of five 72 × 144-inch paintings exploring distinct themes that emerged during Rockman’s research, travel, and engagement with specialists on the Great Lakes. The artist developed the content of each painting through an intensive process of reading, research, and ongoing dialogue with scientists, historians, anthropologists, and ecologists. In the staging of each panorama, Rockman combines information from many different sources with pictorial experimentation to create digital collages that provide the opportunity to “figure out what goes where.” Three of the paintings, Pioneers, Cascade, and Forces of Change, can be “read” from left to right, creating scientific and cultural timelines. Rockman embedded evidence from geological, ecological, and human history within these broad vistas, often starting with the Pleistocene Epoch and the first humans 10,000 years ago, passing through the centuries to focus on humankind’s present relationship with the Great Lakes, and in some cases, beyond to a vision of the lakes’ future. Each painting is accompanied by a key that notates the species, artifacts, and historical references contained in the work. HE





Pioneers (2017) focuses on the water itself and the fascinating—sometimes tragic—migration of aquatic life since the end of the Ice Age. The Great Lakes trace their roots to “the greatest lake of all time,” a body of water that once covered much of northern North America when the glacial ice sheets receded 10,000 years ago. As the lakes were forming from the melting of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, there were two main routes for life to colonize the lakes: through the St. Laurence and Mississippi Rivers. The life featured in Pioneers includes the earliest fishes, as well as species introduced by either intentional or accidental human action through the releasing of ballast water from industrial ships. This wreaked havoc on these vulnerable and ecologically naïve lakes. Rockman also developed and explored new ways to push the expressive capacity of newly developed acrylic paints and render the ways that light effects the fluidity of water in motion, flirting with a new level of abstraction. The fragmented edges of submerged icebergs and a receding glacier dominate the left side of the painting. Rockman drew upon his memories of the icebergs he saw during a 2007 Antarctic expedition. He recalls, “I’ve never seen anything like it. Ice conducts light, it gathers it, and it projects it at you.”1 His exploration of the visual drama of the masses of ice above and below the water level was first explored in the monumental, seven-panel work South (2008). In the painting’s upper right corner an oceangoing freighter looms, and in one detail we see the vessel ejecting a dirty cloud of ballast drainage that carries the larval forms of dozens of invasive species from as far away as the Caspian and Black Seas. Some of the tiny invaders pictured are Asterionella formosa, larvae of Zebra and quagga mussels; Schizopera borutzkyi; parasitic Copepod Salmincola lotae; and bloody red shrimp.


Pioneers, 2017. Oil and acrylic on wood panel, 72 × 144 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Sperone Westwater, New York.

On the lake bottom we find traces of terrestrial activity: a mastodon skull, a reminder of the Pleistocene megafauna that used to live in North America before humans decimated their populations, and more recent relics, specifically the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, one of the mightiest of lake freighters, which went down in a brutal storm in 1975, and a cast-off shopping cart encrusted with zebra mussels.2 Commanding the center of the painting is one of the Great Lakes most important historic fish species, the majestic lake sturgeon, Acipenser fulvescens.3 One of the largest of all lake fish—up to six feet long and nearly two hundred pounds—these evolutionarily ancient bottom feeders were found throughout North America’s Great Lakes, Hudson Bay, and Mississippi River ecosystems, occurring from Canada to Alabama. Abundant prior to European settlement, lake sturgeon were an important food source for Native American tribes. The tribes utilized every part of the fish, including its tough skin, and the sturgeon also served as a cultural symbol; the Menominee peoples saw the fish as protector of wild rice, and the full moon in August was known among fishing tribes as “Sturgeon Moon.”4 With unregulated and commercial sturgeon fishing by modern means, a steep decline in populations came in the early 1900s. Deforestation, agriculture, dredging, and pollution hindered reproduction. Today, efforts are being made to restore these populations, now protected as endangered species, and lake sturgeon are on the rebound.5 Pioneers highlights the shifting relationships within the aquatic ecosystem across time, as well as the role humanity plays in the balance.

1 2 3 4

5 6 7 8

9 10


Lake Whitefish Coregonus clupeaformis Atlantic Salmon Salmo salar Coaster Brook Trout Salvelinus fontinalis Deepwater Sculpin Myoxocephalus thompsonii Lake Sturgeon Acipenser fulvescens Diporeia Diporeia sp. Burbot Lota lota Columbian Mammoth Mammuthus columbi Saltwater Freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald, Lake Freighter, lost in a storm on November 10, 1975, with all 29 crewmembers, Lake Superior Zebra Mussel Dreissena polymorpha (shopping cart)

12 13 14 15 16


18 19 20 21

22 23 24

Bloody Red Shrimp Hemimysis anomala Round Goby Neogobius melanostomus Green Alga Micractinium sp. Cyanobacteria Microcystis aeruginosa Spiny Water Flea Bythotrephes longimanus Quagga Mussel Larvae Dreissena bugensis Sea Lamprey Petromyzon marinus Waterflea Daphnia lumholtzi Cyclopoid copepod Megacyclops viridis Oarsman (Harpacticoid copepod) Schizopera borutzkyi Pinaciophora fluviatilis Waterflea Daphnia galeata Waterflea Eubosmina maritima


of shipping on the Great Lakes. See https:// _the_Edmund_Fitzgerald, accessed June 3, 2017.


“Native American Relationship with Sturgeon,” Into the Outdoors, accessed June 2, 2017, /native-american-relationship-with -sturgeon/.


“Great Lakes Sturgeon Collaboration,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, accessed June 2, 2017, /midwest/sturgeon/biology.htm.

26 27 28 29 30 31

32 33 34

35 36 37 38

Rusty Crayfish Orconectes rusticus Green Alga Ankistrodesmus sp. Colonial Diatom Chaetoceros muelleri Chlorophyta Microasterias sp. Cyanobacteria Aphanizomenon sp. Chlorophyta Staurastrum sp. Zebra Mussel (life cycle) Dreissena polymorpha Chlorophyta Pediastrum sp. Diatom Asterionella formosa Cyclopoid Copepod (with egg sacs) Cyclops strenuous Colonial Diatom Tabellaria sp. Colonial Diatom Skelotonema potamos Sea Walnut Mnemiopsis leidyi Laurentide Ice Sheet


Alexis Rockman, quoted in Marsh, “Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow,” 58.


The shipwreck’s story is well known among those who follow freighters in the Great Lakes. It was reported in Newsweek magazine. Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot read that article and wrote an award-winning 1976 pop song titled “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” bringing broad attention to the drama


Michigan State University, “Lake Sturgeon and Coupled Great Lakes-Tributary Ecosystems,” accessed June 2, 2017,


Cascade (2015) addresses the use of the Great Lakes as a resource for myriad human activities, from the Pleistocene to the present. This composition follows most closely the left-to-right timeline format of Rudolph Zallinger’s Yale murals and illustrations (fig. 27). Rockman chose to paint Cascade first, explaining, “It was the clearest scene in my mind as I began: just take the lakes and show the many ways they were transformed.”6 The story begins with the recession of the Laurentide Ice Sheet that covered most of North America, when the Paleo-Indians hunted large mammals. During the Pleistocene, caribou and other megafauna were widespread and an essential resource. In the early seventeenth century, French, Dutch, and English explorers, and subsequent settlers, took advantage of the lakes’ vast shorelines and natural resources to ensure their survival, including food, shelter, and clothing. Birds supplemented the diet and their feathers were used for clothing and bedding. The hunting of ducks and the now-extinct passenger pigeon later spurred a strong tradition of recreational hunting and fishing. Early trading encounters between Native Americans and Europeans are represented by a Native American in a dugout canoe, a beaver lodge, and a fur trapper’s camp featuring a pile of pelts. The old-growth white pine forests around the lakes became an important source of building materials for the expansion of American cities; much of the lumber used to rebuild Chicago after the great fire of 1871 came from Great Lakes shorelines. The earth itself was mined for iron ore, copper, and other minerals. The ports and vast surfaces of the lakes were essential for transporting goods and resources. Rivers, canals, rails, and roads extended the lakes landward, forming a massive distribution system. Fishing, first for survival, then for commerce and sport, played a key role in the shifting ecosystems of the Great Lakes. Commercial fisheries cycled through growth and collapse, then rebounded with the introduction of non-native species, as indicated by the numerous fish represented underwater, the commercial


Cascade, 2015. Oil and alkyd on wood panel, 72 × 144 inches. 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, 2015.19.

seine boat and net line that surges toward us from the distance, and the fly fisherman in a modern canoe.7 Cascade is an allegory of humanity’s continuing impact on nature. Several of its embedded details bring Rockman’s environmentalist concerns into a broader context. In the lower right is a dying lake sturgeon, haunted by extinct “zombie-ghost fish”—grayling and blue pike. A group of pollinating bees and flies on the lower right of the water’s surface represent insects’ crucial role in agriculture around the lakes, including cherries, soy, and alfalfa, all of which are susceptible to pollution and disease. The Native American in the canoe is identified in the painting’s key as “Iron Eyes Cody,”8 referring to the acclaimed 1971 “Keep America Beautiful” public service campaign9—in which an Indian sheds a tear at the sight of a littered American landscape. Rockman connects his environmental awareness aspirations today with this defining image from pop culture at the start of the ecology movement. Cascade’s layered mix of human and natural history draws us in with its dramatic landscape, then its rich range of flora and fauna, and finally, as we delve deeper, the message that individuals, communities, and governments must take a long-term view for stewardship of the lakes.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19


Paleo-Hunter Pleistescene Glacier American Crow Corvus brachyrhynch Early Domestic Dog Canis familiaris Caribou Rangifer tarandus Burbot Lota lota American Eel Anguilla rostrata Walleye Sander vitreus Archaic Bone Tools 12,000 BP Early Paleo-Indian Clovis Point and Shaft (11,500–10,000 BP) Deepwater Sculpin Myoxocephalus thompsonii Lake Benton Ceramics Mudpuppy Necturus maculosus Lake Trout Salvelinus namaycush Cisco (Lake Herring) Coregonus artedii Lake White Fish Coregonus clupeaformis SS Norman (lost 1895) Muskallange Esox masquinongy Chinook Salmon Oncorhynchus tshawytscha Coho Salmon Oncorhynchus kisutch

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29

30 31 32

33 34

35 36 37 38 39 40

Atlantic Salmon Salmo salar Yellow Perch Perca flacescens John Osborn (lost 1884) SS Comet (lost 1875) SS John B. Cowle (lost 1902) Lake Sturgeon Acipenser fulvescens Michigan Grayling Thymallus tricolor Blue Pike Sander vitreus glaucus Steamer Regina: Canadian Package Freighter, lost November, 1913 Steelhead Trout Oncorhynchus mykiss Sweat Bee Agapostemon virescens Perplexing Bumble Bee Bombus perplexus Blue Sweat Bee Osmia ribifloris Black and Gold Bumblebee Bombus auricomus Hoverfly Syrphidae sp. Valley Carpenter Bee xylocopa varipuncta Blue Orchard Mason Bee Osmia lignaria Metallic Green Bee Agapostemon sp. Leaf Cutter bee Megachile rotundata Italian Honey Bee Apis mellifera ligustica

41 42

43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51


53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60

Log Raft Spears / Gerli Self Unloading Lake Bulk Carrier Coal Burning Power Plant Recreational Fishing Mine Tailings Iron Ore Mining Commercial Seine Boat with Net Set Fur Pelts Fur Trappers Station Camp American Beaver Castor canadensis Iron Eyes Cody, Ad Council (Marstellar, Inc.) Keep America Beautiful, 1971 Old-Growth Hemlock, White Pine, N. Hardwood Forest Snow Goose Chen caerulescens Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius Canvasback Duck Aythya valisineria Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis Mallard Duck Anas platyrhynchos Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis Eastern White Pine Pinus strobus Iron Ore


Alexis Rockman, interview by the author, April 22, 2017.


For a detailed discussion of native and introduced fish species, see Jeff Alexander’s essay in this volume.


Amy Waldman, “Iron Eyes Cody, 94, an Actor and Tearful Anti-Littering Icon,” New York Times, January 5, 1999, accessed April 12, 2017, http://www

-cody-94-an-actor-and-tearful-anti -littering-icon.html. 9.

“Keep America Beautiful,” You Tube video, 1971, accessed April 12, 2017, https://www

Spheres of Influence

Spheres of Influence, 2016. Oil and alkyd on wood panel, 72 × 144 inches. Collection of Jonathan O’Hara and Sheila Skaff.

Spheres of Influence (2016) explores how the interaction of the global ecosystem—including weather and migrating birds, insects, and bats, as well as airborne micro-contaminants—has shaped the current condition of the Great Lakes. History of human transportation on the lakes, first on the surface with boats and then with aircraft above, has brought disease, invasive species, and pollutants. Moving masses of raw materials, goods, and humans, these vessels release carbon and other toxic substances into the water and air. The fragile relationship between air and water systems has at times led to unforeseen catastrophes, such as botulism from algae blooms, which poisoned drinking water, decimated waterfowl populations, and ruined shorelines. The composition of Spheres of Influence is split horizontally between air and water, with no land in sight. The churning sky ranges dramatically from ominous dark clouds to soft purple-hewed atmosphere or dramatic sunlight on the horizon. The air teems with life, including animals of all sizes and types that fly the north– south axis, from hummingbirds to hawks and monarch butterflies to cucumber beetles. Human history is noted through watercraft that span from the canoe of explorers to a British naval sloop captured by Americans in the Battle of Detroit in the War of 1812 and a long-range, twentieth-century freight steamer. Underwater is the eerie silhouette of a DC-4 passenger plane downed by a turbulent squall over Lake Michigan in 1950.10 The dramatic—and sometimes fatal—interrelationship between native and invasive species above and below the water is a driving narrative in Spheres of Influence. The players, all identified in the painting’s key, include bluegreen algae (#26), type E botulism (#25), zebra mussels attached to the wing of the plane (#17), round goby fish


(#24), merganser (#13) and canvasback (#21) ducks, and a loon (#14). Rockman alludes to the vicious cycle of ecological poisoning that paralyzed or killed 100,000 waterfowl between 1999 and 2015 by contrasting birds in flight with diseased or dead ones, which float on the surface or contort and struggle awkwardly, afflicted by what scientists call “limberneck.”11 In the key, Rockman brings focus to points from across human history and recent ecological incidents that might elude the viewer. Early Canadian fur-trading exploration is referenced in a detail (#18) Rockman adapted from the 1869 painting Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior by Frances A. Hopkins (1838–1919) (fig. 24). A British artist whose husband was an officer in the Hudson Bay Company, Hopkins depicted herself in a canoe holding a sketchpad.12 By adapting Hopkins’s painting, Rockman may be referencing his own investigative boat journeys on the Great Lakes, as well as the role of artists as recorders. Rendered in the painting’s lower right are a more contemporary arrival: five floating clusters of Holopedium (#15). In the past decade, large concentrations of this plankton have “turn[ed] water into jelly” and been described by bewildered swimmers as “mysterious peasize blobs of gelatinous ooze.”13 Believed to be caused by low calcium levels, these outbreaks have been linked to acid rain, factory runoff, and rapid reforestation after logging.14 Often referred to as “the inland sea,” the Great Lakes are a nexus that is impacted by activities far beyond the region.

1 2


4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Monarch Butterfly Danaus plexippus Migratory Grasshopper Melanoplus sanguinipes Ruby-throated Hummingbird Archilochus colubris Common Nighthawk Chordeiles minor Yellow Warbler Setophaga petechia Cooper’s Hawk Accipiter cooperii Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus American Woodcock Scolopax minor Indigo Bunting Passerina cyanea Baltimore Oriole Icterus galbula

11 12 13 14 15 16 17



Chimney Swift Chaetura pelagica Red Saddlebag Tramea onusta Red Breasted Merganser Mergus serrator Common Loon Gavia immer Holopedium Yellow Perch Perca flavescens Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 2501, DC-4, crashed Lake Michigan, June 23, 1950 Frances Anne Hopkins Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior (1869) H.M.S. Queen Charlotte, War of 1812


21 22

23 24 25 26 27 28

Spotted Cucumber Beetle Diabrotica undecimpunctata Canvasback Duck Aythya valisineria Steamer Regina: Canadian Package Freighter, lost November, 1913 Kinsman Independent (Bulk Carrier) Round Goby Neogobius melanostomus Type E Botulism Clostridium botulinum Green Algae Chlorophyta Zebra Mussel Dreissena polymorpha Horned Grebe Podiceps auritus

NOT ES 10. Ken Haddad, “The Unexplained Disappearance of Northwest Flight 2501 over Lake Michigan,” WDIV News, February 1, 2017, accessed April 30, 2017, http://www -unexplained-disappearance-of -northwest-flight-2501-over-lake -michigan.

12. MaryEllen Weller-Smith, “Fur Trade Canoes and London Society: The Paintings of Frances Anne Hopkins,” Voyageur Heritage Community Journal and Resource Guide, accessed May 3, 2017, /fur-trade-canoes-and-london-society -the-paintings-of-frances-anne-hopkins/.

11. For a detailed account, see Jeff Alexander’s essay in this volume.

13. “Readers Want to Know,” Minnesota Sea Grant, accessed May 5, 2017, http://www /readers_want_to_know.html. 14. “Plankton That Turns Water into Jelly Pollutes Canadian Lakes,” IFL Science, accessed May 3, 2017, http://www /canadian-lakes-need-harden/.


Thousands of rivers and streams are key to keeping the Great Lakes healthy and refreshed. Watershed (2015) dramatically illuminates the shift between a pristine river environment and the disruption of these water systems when modern agriculture and urban development encroach. The Great Lakes region has been deeply affected by overflow from our farms and cities, including phosphorus fertilizers and urban sewer runoff. Rockman packs the untouched riverscape on the painting’s left with an array of life, including insects, fish, birds, bivalves, turtles, wild lilies, and iris, even freshwater sponge. In its rendering, Rockman imparts an air of undisturbed clarity. At the proverbial “bend in the river,” there is a dramatic change in the scenery and stability of the environment, which is immediately noted as the dominant blue hues shift to an acid-bright, greenishyellow tint, indicating algae bloom in the water and polluted haze hovering over the city. As the reshaped waterway recedes toward the metropolis, agriculture parallels the riverside. Distorted farm animals parody the future promise of high-tech farming, recalling Rockman’s earlier work exploring genetic engineering, The Farm (2001) (fig. 30). In this painting, he has developed a genetically modified corn that mimics the colors of the video game Candy Crush. He also added a drone that surveils the crops. In recent decades, efforts to protect our water systems have improved conditions and lowered risks considerably, but there remain warning signs such as the summer 2014 algae bloom in Toledo.15 The creeping fingers of green algae fronds, which cause the suffocating bloom, reach from the lower right corner. Floating nearby is a highly


Watershed, 2015. Oil and alkyd on wood panel, 72 × 144 inches. Collection of Jonathan O’Hara and Sheila Skaff.

magnified Salmonella cholerasusis bacteria, which is spread via the waste of swine and known to cause severe blood poisoning in humans. Some of Rockman’s more subtle imagery points toward the complexity of the contemporary ecologies in the Great Lakes region. Tucked into the lower left corner is one of the simplest organisms present—the freshwater sponge—which serves as food for a variety of other aquatic invertebrates. Although this sponge is of little importance to people, it is a very good indicator of water pollution, and its ability to locate aquatic threats is why the sponge is not endangered.16 Nearby is the once-prevalent snuffbox freshwater mussel, whose numbers are now shrinking due to habitat destruction, siltation, pollution, and competition with invasive species.17 Hovering menacingly above the open sewer pipe is an Asian tiger mosquito, an invasive species spread through the transport of goods—specifically rubber tires—and international travel. Rather than living naturally in wetlands, this daytime feeder has adapted to live closely with humans and is a dangerous transmitter of many viral pathogens, including yellow and dengue fevers, and the Zika virus.18 Scanning from primeval riparian environment to industrialized agriculture and megacities, Watershed warns of the unintended, invisible dangers to our rivers and lakes.

1 2 3 4

5 6 7 8 9

10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Yellow Cow Lilly Nuphar polysepala Common Green Darner Anax junius Spongefly Sisyridae sp. Red Winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus Asian Tiger Mosquito Aedes albopictus Holstein Cow Bos taurus Western Painted Turtle Chrysemys picta Blue Flag Iris Iris versicolor Karner’s Blue Butterfly Lycaeides melissa samuelis Prothonotary Warbler Protonotaria citrea Green Heron Butorides virescens Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias Pig Sus scrofa domesticus Drone Corn Zea mays Chicken Gallus gallus domesticus


18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32

Ulvophyceae (green algae) Cladophora sp. Vexans Mosquito Larvae Aedes vexans Mosquito Fish Gambusia affinis Shortnose Gar (immature) Lepisosteus platostomus Giant Water Bug Belostomatidae Blackstripe Topminnow Fundulus notatus School of Fingerling Bowfin Amia calva Bowfin Amia calva Midge Pupa Chironomidae Common Backswimmer Notonectidae Warmouth Lepomis gulosus Brown Water Scorpion Ranatra fusca Black Crappie Pomoxis nigromaculatus Common Cattail Typha latifolia Largemouth Bass Micropterus salmoides Golden Shiner Notemigonus crysoleucas

33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50

Brown Bullhead Ameiurus nebulosus Mudpuppy Necturus maculosus Pirate Perch Aphredoderus sayanus Crawling Water Beetle Haliplus flavicollis Coontail Ceratophyllum Snuffbox Epioblasma triquetra Predaceous Diving Beetle Dytiscidae Virile Crayfish Orchonectes Virllis Fathead Minnow Pimephales promelas Fishfly Larvae Chauliodinae Northern Pike (immature) Esox lucius Hairworm nemotomorpha Green Darner Nymph Anax junius Southern Naiad Najas guadalupensis Pig Salmonella Salmonella choleraesuis Freshwater Sponge Spongilla lacustris Mobile Logperch Percina kathae Spongefly Larvae Sisyridae sp.

NOT ES 15. See Jeff Alexander’s essay in this volume. 16. “Freshwater Sponges,” Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation, accessed April 30, 2017, /freshwater-sponges/.

17. “Epioblamsa triquetra,” Wikipedia, accessed April 29, 2017, https://en _triquetra.

18. “Aedes albopictus,” Wikipedia, accessed April 29, 2017, /wiki/Aedes_albopictus.



Forces of Change

Today’s Great Lakes and the interconnected waterways that surround them were created by enormous and powerful forces, both natural and human, that occurred across millennia. The Laurentide Ice Sheet covered the region until 10,000 years ago when the movement of melting glaciers formed the lakes and shaped the surrounding water and land topographies. The original human inhabitants touched the wilderness lightly, but westward migration from the Eastern seaboard led to settlements, agriculture, industry, cities, and the engineered extension of the lakes in all directions. Rockman begins with the natural and human history shaping the area of Buffalo, New York, at the confluence of the Niagara River, the Erie Canal, the railroads, and Lake Erie. Forces of Change (2017) is a composite built from multiple sites and historic periods, with Niagara Falls, as Frederic Church painted it in 1857, dominating the upper left, while fish native to the Niagara River swim in the foreground. Important for their natural beauty and status as an international tourist destination, the falls are also a natural ecological barrier as the Niagara River drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario and destinations beyond. The Buffalo River, shown in the foreground flowing toward the right, drains into Lake Erie and is an essential connection to the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825 to allow the passage of goods across northern New York state, connecting to the Hudson River, New York City, and the Atlantic. At the far right, Rockman depicts the town of Lockport, New York. Thirty miles from Buffalo, it is the site of a famous series of stepped locks dubbed “The Flight of Five.” They are the greatest series of high-lift locks in the shortest distance of any canal in the United States.19 Rockman’s rendering of the small town and its civil engineering landmark was inspired by the Precisionist style of Charles Sheeler


Forces of Change, 2017. Oil and acrylic on wood panel, 72 × 144 inches. Collection of Jonathan O’Hara and Sheila Skaff.

(1883–1965), who celebrated early twentieth-century American vernacular architecture, including agricultural and industrial buildings such as barns, grain elevators, and factories, most notably Detroit’s Ford River Rouge Plant. At the center, Rockman positions a postindustrial river view in transition. Aging cement storage buildings, relics of the city’s golden industrial age, are threatened by a swinging wrecking ball. The dock, once busy loading massive lake freighters, is silent now, and crumbling. Along the river’s edge, mechanical dredging units lift sediment from the river onto barges, part of a public-private partnership to transform the Buffalo River into a recreational, economic, and community resource.20 Rockman punctuates the underwater scene with red Rotavirus, blue Hepatitis C, and green Sarcina Bacteria. From within the sediment of the Buffalo River—which tests show has long been contaminated with mercury, lead, PCBs, and PAHs from industrial dumping21—the tentacles of a metaphorical monster emerge, threatening the cleanup. Rockman’s allusion might be to the insidious environmental damage and invisible health threats caused by factory pollution, a reference to a 1904 political satire of industrial monopolies as an octopus-like monster, or both.22 In many threatened locations, important environmental remediation actions are being taken by citizens, organizations, and local, regional, and national governments to restore these vital natural sites and preserve them for future generations. At center stage of this painting, on the forlorn, crumbling promontory, is what might be a sign of hope: three slender trees have emerged from the rubble to remind us of the resilient power of nature and that the Great Lakes have been, and will continue to be, changing.





Frederic Edwin Church, Horseshoe Falls and Goat Island from the Canadian Bank, 1856, oil on canvas, 28 × 531/8 inches. Private Collection Terrapin Tower, 1850–60, Goat Island, Niagara Falls State Park, 332 Prospect St., Niagara Falls, New York 14303 Flight of Five, 1825, City of Lockport, One Locks Plaza, Lockport, New York 14094 St. Mary’s Cement Elevator, 1917, (formerly Spencer Kellogg Elevator / Schaefer Brewing) 389 Ganson St., Buffalo, New York, 14203




8 9

10 11 12 13

ConAgra Grain Elevator, Huron, Ohio, 44839 Manitowoc Crane (Built 1992) 230 Ton Crawler, 4100W Series II Heavy Lift, 200 foot boom and 60 foot jib Watermaster Dredger Classic V, Aquamec Ltd., Finland, 2016 Tree of Heaven Ailanthus altissima Giant Hogweed Heracleum mantegazzianum E. coli Kraken Trash and Debris Hepatitis C Virus Sarcina Bacteria


Conservation, accessed May 7, 2017, http://

22. “The Image of the Octopus in Cartoons, 1882–1909,” National Humanities Center, accessed May 8, 2017, http:// /gilded/power/text1/octopusimages.pdf.

15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25

Norovirus Walleye Sander vitreus Brook Trout Salvelinus fontinalis Lake Trout Salvelinus namaycush Atlantic Salmon Salmo salar White Bass Morone chrysops Muskellunge Esox masquinongy Rock Bass Ambloplites rupestris Channel Catfish Ictalurus punctatus Emerald Shiner Notropis atherinoides Herring Gull ( juv.) Larus argentatus Barge

NOT ES 19. “Flight of Five Locks,” American Society of Civil Engineers, accessed May 7, 2017, -of-five-locks/. 20. “Buffalo Restoration Project,” New York State Department of Environmental

21. Eileen Buckley, “Progress Being Made on Buffalo River Dredging,” WBFO, accessed May 8, 2017, /progress-being-made-buffalo-river -dredging.

This Is Who I Am Alexis Rockman at Work Thyrza Nichols Goodeve



I have done a good deal of skying. —J O H N CO NSTABLE 1

How something is painted is a metaphor for how to be a person. —MICH AEL W ILLIAMS 2


apologizes for the mess as we pass through a dark, cramped corridor into his basement studio. The space is stark, no-nonsense, and large in the measure of a downtown 1980s industrial space but by no means extravagant. There is not a whiff of the material opulence or studio-as-showplace one finds in Architectural Digest’s spreads of artists who share Rockman’s reputation and lifetime of productivity. Clearly, this is a workspace. It is all function and efficiency—only the tools necessary for that day’s work are at hand. As I get to know him, I think of John Constable on his back formulating a verb to describe watching the sky and think, Rockman should have his own verb too, something that evokes the force of his selfassurance and follow-through—his absolute resolve. There is a painting on the wall, Forces of Change (2017), midway through production. It exudes the harsh acrid palette of sulphur and rust. There is a piece of plastic and blue tape across the middle. A simple office chair sits next to a folding Rubbermaid office table with brushes on top. On the floor to its right, a deep blue, glistening, ghostly canvas, Pioneers (2017), is drying. Against L E XI S ROCKMAN


FIGURE 34¯Studio view, April 2017.

the wall behind us, leaning on the bookshelf and cabinets just outside Rockman’s tiny office, is another 6 × 12-foot panel painting, the finished Spheres of Influence (2017). I say, “But you know, as painting studios go this is hardly messy.” Rockman replies, “Not for me. I’m very OCD.”

ĊŚĊŚĊ What follows is a journey into the wilds of Rockman’s process, which turns out to be not so wild, for he is methodical, straightforward, driven, abrupt, and to the point. Unlike his paintings—which explode with the collision of scientific research, fantasy, popular culture, and the majesty of geologic time; ecologically charged worlds within worlds; and creatures and spaces of credible impossibility where the monster from John Carpenter’s The Thing is as likely to meet a 1950s cover of Field and Stream as it is a study by Frederic Church—there is about Rockman the aura of the American pragmatist. Here is the painter as laborer, as doer, as overseer of a stripped-down studio without assistants where



he has made paintings for thirty-two years. The only distraction is his phone, which rings periodically as we talk. He answers, but no call lasts more than a minute. When he finishes a call, he turns to me and says, I start like a journalist. I ask questions, and I figure out what is the interesting thing going on. Then I find out who knows about it, and then I try to talk to them. Before I begin, I’ll go out to see things firsthand. I never start off with an idea of what I want it to look like.3

ĊŚĊŚĊ While the story of a painter’s process—of how a painting is made—would customarily follow the making of preliminary sketches and hours of painting from beginning to end, for Rockman, the journey begins here (fig. 35): After spending more than a month in his studio, I began to understand that by the time Rockman executes a painting what appears in the weeks or months until its completion is an in situ explosion of three years of research. In his studio are folders titled Invasive Animals, Industry, Fish, Glaciers, Harmful Algae, and Geology, which open into source images and even more folders: Fish contains Yellow Perch, Whitefish, Walleye, Steelhead, Pike, Muskie, Lake Sturgeon, Invasive Fish, then Salmon: Silver Carp, Common Carp, Round Goby, Eurasian Ruffe, Lamprey, Bighead Carp, Alewife, and so on. Facts, source photography, and references cascade—evidence of scientific rigor that supports Rockman’s imagery. While his paintings may evoke the kind of speculative fantasies of dystopian fiction or Hollywood monster movies, every detail has a relationship to fact. At one point, I suggest including images of mutant fish from the files. Shocking and evocative, the photographs vividly illustrate the havoc various human pollutants and toxins have wrought on certain populations of fish. But he corrects me: “Mutations are mostly a response to human-made chemicals like DDT, Atrazine, and other issues like population decline and more generalized stresses. I’m focusing on bacteria, botulism, and E. coli which are also a problem.” In fact, when I ask what is most surprising about what he has learned over the three-year period, he points to Spheres of Influence (p. 74) and the imagery of dead birds riddled with botulism. As I move through the folders and files I am struck by how Rockman’s process as an artist is the inverse of my own as an art writer. While the art writer’s challenge is ekphrasis—to find a precise and fitting verbal description of visual material—Rockman’s concerns working through pictorial solutions based on expeditions; itineraries; meetings with scientists, anthropologists, and archeologists; web searches; and screenshots—in other words, mounds and hours of research. I think of Stephen Jay Gould’s reference to Rockman’s paintings as “visual essays,” or Jonathan Crary’s point that the history of landscape painting is the history of our distance from nature, set in motion by the twin forces of the



FIGURE 35¯Alexis Rockman’s research files for The Great Lakes Cycle.

industrial revolution and modern capitalism, when lakes, rivers, mountains, and streams become sources of commerce and speculation: Landscape in the West has been a sign of distance or alienation from nature. . . . The art of nature is an urban, cosmopolitan art, inevitably the product of loss for which the landscape image becomes an imaginary figuration.4

ĊŚĊŚĊ Rockman is painting the cycles of geologic, human, and environmental change that the Great Lakes have encountered from the time of the glaciers to the present. This is history painting as epic critical essay, speculative history painting as environmental activism.

ĊŚĊŚĊ I find a stunning image of a sketchbook in his folders and think it is his own. It exudes the dreamy atmosphere of the artist in the field with pens and watercolors, but to my amusement and chagrin it does not take long to see it cannot



be Rockman’s since the sketches are of North Africa and Moorish architecture. It must be Delacroix’s. I am taken aback by my desire to romanticize Rockman’s production, a process his persona and files defy. Like his studio, these files— which are his digital sketchbook—are weighted with the specificity of objective information. They represent hours of web searches, screen shots, and “thick” holdings of imagery such as the collection of Michigan Indexical posters. I ask to see his sketchbooks. When he hands me his own, I am astonished. There is only one. It is small, thin, compact. “Just one notebook for three years?” I inquire. “Yes. I wish they looked like Delacroix or Church or the drawings from William Beebe’s expeditions,” he says in passing. The reference to Frederic Church and the early twentieth-century naturalist, ornithologist, marine biologist, entomologist, and explorer William Beebe makes me think of Alexander von Humboldt, the singularly influential geographer, explorer, philosopher, writer, and nineteenth-century originator of the notion of nature as an ecosystem. Von Humboldt’s unprecedented mapping of South America and the subsequent volumes of research, maps, and field drawings he published (including the gorgeous Naturgemälde, also known as the Chimborazo Map) inspired Church’s own journeys to South America in 1853 and 1857. Church’s detailed pencil drawings of trees and plants from these journeys take on the feeling of a naturalist’s sketchbook. In fact, Beebe’s collection of wild and fanciful drawings, produced under his direction by a group of mostly women artists (Else Bostelmann, Isabel Cooper, Jocelyn Crane, Gloria Hollister, Ruth Rose, and Helen Damrosch Tee-Van), have served as inspiration for artists such as Rockman and his long time friend Mark Dion.5 In the spring of 2017, Dion co-curated an exhibition of drawings from Beebe’s

FIGURE 36¯Alexis Rockman photographing a diorama, Bell Museum of Natural History, University of Minnesota, January 13, 2015.



FIGURE 37¯Studio view, April 2017.

Department of Tropical Research laboratory at the Drawing Center in New York City. [The set of drawings] mirrors the two salient stages of the Department of Tropical Research’s investigations: jungle field station work and floating laboratories for marine biology—revealing that artists and scientists worked closely and productively in the near past and that scientists once understood art as a valuable tool for promoting ecological thinking to a broad public.6 Rockman’s notebook for The Great Lakes Cycle is clearly not about such aesthetic rendering.7 It is functional and utilitarian. The sketches are simple line drawings, referencing possible composition of images and scale. The lists are of people he has met or should meet, such as the ichthyologist Dr. Jill Leonard. But I love a simple cartoonish lamprey and the stunningly detailed pencil study of a composite monster (fig. 39).




FIGURE 38¯Artist visiting Sea Lamprey Control Worksite, U.S. Fish & Wildflife Service, Marquette, Michigan, June 10, 2014.

FIGURE 39¯Sketchbook detail, April 2017.

Contained within the folders on invasive fish are collections of empirical natural history horror stories such as that of the lamprey. Rockman has known about the lamprey since he was a teenager. It has appeared in earlier paintings but is a major player in the catastrophic cycle of invasive species in the Great Lakes. As I read about this creature, the notion of the horror movie shifts from a metaphoric and theatrical figure to a terrible fact.8 Singular for its grotesque anatomy, the lamprey is a primitive, eel-like fish that survived four of Earth’s five mass extinctions. Its body can grow to 24 inches and the head is all sucker-mouth—hideous and jawless. Using its teeth to cut through the soft tissue of its prey, the lamprey attaches itself and sucks blood. It is a being of pure quease and grotesquerie untouched by the gothic romance of the vampire. In the files, there are photos of Rockman visiting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sea Lamprey Control, in Marquette, Michigan. As singularly unpleasant and ruinous as the lamprey is, the ultimate problem—and key to the cycle of Rockman’s paintings—is not any one species (see Jeff Alexander’s essay in this volume). The ultimate offenders are the nonindigenous fish, invertebrates, algae, and microorganisms that arrive in the ballast of transatlantic ships. Among the unwelcome fellow travelers that hark from the far-off Baltic Seas is the proliferate zebra mussel, which attach in great numbers to everything from dock pylons, abandoned anchors, rocks, and even such recent additions to the Great Lakes fauna as golf balls and quarters. The lamprey and the zebra mussel, as well as the spiny water flea, are not just key figures in Rockman’s monumental tableaus, they also represent the perpetual cycles of infiltration, transformation, colonization, and intervention that define the Great Lakes. In this sense, as you stand before any one of Rockman’s five paintings, you are not witnessing a singular story or moment but rather the collective and perpetual temporality of cycles of environmental change and dynamism over millennia.




FIGURE 40¯Flight of Five Locks Postcard source images.

In the folder “Great Lakes Ideas,” I discover several documents of typed phrases and ideas—one for each painting. So, this is how it begins: Forces of Change Glacier, Geology and Human engineering that shaped the lakes Glaciers recede, timber, power plant . . . the future? Geology, glaciation, and giant industrial scale projects by humans Great Lake water wars—Long Lac and Ogoki, Niagara Falls The reversal of the direction of rivers Dams (which ones?) Erie Canal, Niagara Falls Please name other projects that affected the lakes? Mutated invaders I find a document in another folder with the same list, but material has been added, including comments by Dr. Jill Leonard. Rockman tells me one of the turning points in the project took place during a seventeen-day road trip around



the Great Lakes. On June 9, 2014, he met with Dr. Leonard in a Starbucks in a strip mall in Marquette, Michigan. Rockman recalls, “We banged out the five ideas in about half an hour. She just kept asking me questions. My answers created what the five paintings were about.” As I sift through the saved documents filed away inside the computer, discovering evidence of dialogues between painter and scientist, historian, anthropologist, and archeologists—where the scholars’ annotations add references and comments, or suggest readings—I realize this is the accretion of language and information that Rockman has absorbed over three years. But how does he transform this blunt, base information into the fantastic and meticulous pictorial majesty of his paintings?

ĊŚĊŚĊ I make diagrams and digital sketches using Photoshop. In the case of Forces of Change I knew I needed to have references to geology and engineering, but had yet to start planning. When Burchfield Penney museum said they were interested in taking the show and were hoping one of the works related to Buffalo, I was happy to include Lockport, New York with the Flight of Five Locks that connected the Erie Canal to Lake Erie for the first time and Niagara Falls. FIGURE 41¯Digital sketch for Forces of Change, April 2017.

I was unfamiliar with what “Flight of Five” refers to, but there is something about Rockman’s demeanor, his intense focus on the work of that day, and the very act of getting it done that keeps me from interrupting to ask for an explanation, as if to do so would be a waste of time. Referring to the computer in his lap, Rockman states, “Here are the visual references for The Flight of Five.” He impatiently clicks through several dozen images from the nineteenth through twenty-first centuries until the detail of his own painting appears. Rockman explains, “Here it is sprayed with transparent white and light yellow. Look at the light and atmosphere.” He sounds relieved, as if the original reference is too shrill. The solvent softens the documentary effect of the original imagery, transforming it alchemically into a zone of pale, hazy light of time past. As Rockman described in an interview: I have always seen the background, or the space behind whatever I’m painting in the foreground, as a piece of history. You could see it as a diorama background or just the wall behind the object, but I’ve never really believed it as space. It’s always a placeholder for a slice



FIGURE 42¯Painting sequence for Forces of Change, January–March 2017.

of time. That’s why the background in my paintings can appear to be a Hudson River School painting, a Color Field painting or even a photographic blur.9

ĊŚĊŚĊ In a way, the history of a painting’s creation is not unlike the evolution of the natural habitats to which Rockman is drawn. Both are experienced at the moment of encounter, in a location bounded by the temporality of our attention—a museum, gallery, or lakeshore habitat. Yet each is the product of unfathomable amounts of experience and time, of hidden forces and processes of evolution. Painting is a geologic process—striations and sedimentations of labor, material, and ideas.




FIGURE 43¯Forces of Change, in process, February 14, 2017.

I watch as Forces of Change emerges in stages over a period of a few weeks. At each visit, it is just Rockman and his paints, brushes, and razors, working out one section at a time. Forces of Change was painted with oil except for one very fluid area that was executed in acrylic. I ask why, expecting a painterly answer that illuminates what Crary calls “the palpable viscosity and humidity of his surfaces and spaces.”10 At first, his answer is existential: “Because I don’t want to fucking poison myself to death.” After over three decades of sustained production, Rockman is all too aware of the toxicity of his own vocation. He then clarifies, and as he does, another layer of investment and expertise is revealed: “This is a very special type of acrylic I developed with Golden Artists Colors in upstate New York for this project and it has wonderful swirling alchemical properties I haven’t seen in any other types of paint.”




When he paints a section that requires precision and meticulous attention to detail, he sits on his office chair with his back straight. Rockman grasps a number 8 sable round brush with a latex glove–covered hand and outlines with exactitude the edge of the dredge. He explains, This whole area on the right is about time travel, and the history of the Buffalo area, the past being the furthest away and the front being the future. The landmarks and industrial areas are not geographically accurate. I rearranged them to create a timeline. One of the many challenges is to create a coherent space using the architectural rendering tradition of Albertian perspective. While he is working on the bottom section where the tentacled E. coli monster and diseases will be, Rockman takes a razor blade to the oil paint on the lower left of the canvas, scrapes away paint to smooth out the surface, and says, “This is a good place for the rainbow trout to go.” Layers. Improvisation. Although he knows what will go where from the composites he has made in Photoshop, it is the moment at hand that shapes the line, the perspective of the fish, and the texture of the surface. I wonder what happens between the production of the digital sketch and the actual painting. How does the finished painting differ? Does it? What about mistakes or missteps? I ask if there are parts that did not work out or had to be reworked. Rockman replies, “No, it doesn’t work that way.” I ask what he means. “It is what it is. You have to respect the process like a force of nature or alchemy. You prepare and do what you can to usher the painting into the world but it definitely has a mind of its own and in the end, it’s never what you think it’s going to be.” I inquire, “Then, how do you know when you’re finished?” Rockman responds, “When I’m going to do something else to it that is going to ruin it.”


FIGURE 44¯Forces of Change (detail), 2017.

There is a moment in Forces of Change that rivets me to the surface gestures of the painting. It is on the far right, below the Flight of Five where the sharp lines and bright green of the barge meet the pile of garbage that the dredge has pulled from the water. The mound of waste is painted as if it were an abstraction— volumes of dirty browns and muddy blacks are sliced and layered with gouges of white in a geometry of frenzied but deliberate scads and gobs of paint. The actual elements—a plastic bag, the dreck of fermenting detritus, plastic bottles, an old bicycle wheel offset by a patch of green caught at the edge—are mere ghosts, shapes meant to allude, not to describe or illustrate. The materiality and brushstrokes reiterate the very abstraction we humans undergo when confronting the subject of garbology—what Edward Humes describes as “our dirty love affair with trash.”11 Rockman recalls,



I spent two weeks just planning that area. Then I painted it in an afternoon. But it’s really a little Manet. I wanted it to be like one of his flower paintings. The apotheosis of the bourgeoisie versus the real-world consequences of pollution and garbage that everyone is currently so afraid of. Next to it, the slurpy brown edge of the dirt wall appears almost to weep. The paint, poured while the 6 × 12-foot panel of wood is on the floor, drips like filthy tears streaming into the smutty water below.

ĊŚĊŚĊ A microcosm of Rockman’s overall process comes into view on my third visit to his studio. The top portion of Forces of Change is finished—from Niagara Falls on the top left as it wraps around to the Flight of Five Locks on the right. The sea bottom is only a vertical line of mostly cerulean blue on one side and acrid ochre on the other. In between, the figures of abandoned cement plant ruins from the Buffalo area rise from a haunted derelict ship and dock morphed into the visual tropes of a monster. The dock’s wooden posts appear almost as gills or a rib cage; the blood red crane rises in a diagonal, clashing in space and time against the soft, pale flow of Niagara Falls (based on a painting by Frederic Church). But at that moment, he is at work on another painting, which lies flat on the floor (fig. 46). Rockman says, “I did that all yesterday.” It is the early stages of Pioneers where the fluid, hazy ghost shipwreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald emerges from the murky waters below. Pours of cobalt blue tonalities and black swirl into the body of a creature, taking on the aura of a zombie. Rockman explains, “It all had to be done in one session.” I remember this is the same thing he said about the pouring of brown and beige sludge in Forces of Change. As he repeats himself—emphatic and almost strident—I think of Michael Williams’s statement “How something is painted is a metaphor for how to be a person.”12 For Rockman, to be is to execute. There is no room for hesitation or second-guessing. This is the painter at the top of his game, where the possibility of making a misstep is just unthinkable. And yet, I cannot help but ask, “What if the ship didn’t come out right?” He looks at me and then at the painting and replies, But it has to. It’s like sports. You’ve been doing drills for years, you’re either going to miss or not. You just have to shoot the ball. The worse thing that can happen is to get nervous or scared. To second-guess yourself. You have to just do it. This is what I do. I’m prepared. This is who I am. It can’t go wrong.



FIGURE 45¯Pioneers, in process, April 12, 2017.


N OT E S 1.

John Constable to John Fisher, October 23, 1821, quoted in Louis Hawes, “Constable’s Sky Sketches,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 32 (1969): 344–365, accessed May 1, 2017,


Michael Williams, quoted in Dan Nadel, “Luck of the Draw,” Artforum (April 2017): 188.


Alexis Rockman, quoted in Claudia Dreifus, “Alexis Rockman Bridges the Gulf between Art and Science,” New York Times, April 18, 2016, accessed May 1, 2017, https://www.nytimes .com/2016/04/19/science/alexis-rockman-bridges-the-gulf-between-art-and-science .html?_r=0.


Stephen Jay Gould, “The Face and Guts of Nature,” in Alexis Rockman, (New York: The Monacelli Press, Inc., 2003), 17; Jonathan Crary, “Between Carnival and Catastrophe,” in ibid., 9.


Bensozia, “Frederic Church’s Sketchbook,” November 1, 2016, accessed May 2, 2017,


The Drawing Center, “Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions,” April 14–July 16, 2017, accessed May 8, 2017, http://www See also, Joanna Klein, “They Mixed Science, Art and Costume Parties to Reveal Mysteries of the Sea,” New York Times, March 27,


2017, accessed May 8 2017, -beebe-department-of-tropical-research-illustrations.html?=undefined&_r=0. 7.

For a more fitting comparison, see the drawings he made for Ang Lee’s film Life of Pi. The Drawing Center, “Drawings from Life of Pi,” July 4–October 12, 2014, accessed May 8, 2017, /alexis-rockman/.


There are thirty-eight known species. Only eighteen are bloodsuckers, but the bloodsucker variation is the most well-known.


Dan Tranberg, “Alexis Rockman,” Art in America, December 1, 2010, accessed May, 2, 2017,

10. Crary, “Between Carnival and Catastrophe,” 11. 11. Edward Humes, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash (New York: Avery Publishing, 2012). 12. Michael Williams, quoted in Dan Nadel, “Luck of the Draw: The Art of Michael Williams,” Artforum (April 2017): 188.



The Great Lakes Cycle: Works on Paper



Rockman is best known for his large-scale panel paintings, his works on paper have been an important parallel practice. Rockman has been making watercolors since 1988. Some are meticulous studies of specimens, others are evocative and verge on the abstract. Very important to The Great Lakes Cycle body of work are the Weather Drawings (2005–10), larger oils on gessoed paper (up to 4 × 6 feet) (fig. 47). They were created with a looser, more flowing approach than that of his earlier paintings to capture the stormy energy of dramatic climate events and catastrophes, such as tornadoes, lightning, forest fires, landslides, and calving glaciers. Working with thinned oil paint, Rockman poured, sprayed, dripped, brushed, and scraped the pigment onto the surfaces to form images. He has a different set of ambitions when working on paper. Rockman explains, “For both watercolors and Weather Drawings, I look for opportunities that can suspend the disbelief between the alchemy of the materials and the miracle of the image. I used these strategies in parts of the paintings for The Great Lakes Cycle.”1 When Rockman was commissioned to explore cinematic visual treatments for Life of Pi, a water-based medium was the natural choice for the deep-sea sequences, gouache on black paper became an effective medium that was HI L E


later used in the series Bioluminescence (2013) (fig. 46). Focused on the “beautiful strange creatures . . . glowing and bursting with color,” pigment is shaped into pools and passages that dry into glowing forms exaggerated by their dark substrate.2 Rockman has created a dramatic suite of watercolors for The Great Lakes Cycle. His mastery of this medium distills an atmospheric energy and brings a lively spontaneity to the forefront; in many of these works he adopts an unexpected, immersive point of view, articulating an intimate understanding of both his subjects and technique in this medium. FIELD DRAWINGS

FIGURE 46¯Untitled (Drape Octopus), 2013. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 44 × 30 inches. Carolina Nitsch, New York.


Rockman’s field drawings, created since 1994, are monochrome animal and plant studies made from site-sourced organic material mixed with acrylic polymer, usually on notebook-sized paper sheets. During his travels, Rockman collects dirt, sand, mud, coal, leaves, and other materials, then uses them to create carefully modulated drawings of key flora and fauna in the ecosystem, which he sees as “diaristic and intimate.”3 His earliest field drawings were created out of necessity, at the end of a six-week field expedition in Guyana, when the artist’s pencil had run out of lead. Rockman recalls, “The first ones were just mud and water, and after they dried, the mud flaked off the paper. I had some matte acrylic medium that I mixed in with the mud, and that worked to hold the pigment to the paper. I made a drawing of a mosquito and I liked how that looked. I could see the possibilities—and the prohibition—of using an Earth Art strategy to make a pictorial image. To me, this gave a fresh, new meaning to the idea of Earth Art.” 4 The Great Lakes Cycle features field drawings that emphasize Rockman’s observational and expressive talent, conveying both accurate physical description and vitality. Rockman sees this practice as the antithesis to his paintings, explaining, “they are so immediate . . . Because I am using soil or sand as the pigment, the outcome is so unpredictable. I never know how the drawing is going to come out.”5 The field drawings encompass a wide variety of species, sites, and materials. Fauna ranges from barely visible zooplankton like the 1/4-inch spiny water flea Bythotrephes longimanus (an invasive crustacean with a long, sharp, barbed tail spine) or mussels, and the flying Lake Huron locust to turtles, waterfowl, and large fish. The sources for his pigments include sand


FIGURE 47¯Fire, 2006. Oil on gessoed paper, 50 3/4 × 743/4 inches. Hall Collection.

from Presque Isle, and Sleeping Bear Dunes, and coal dust from the Grand Haven Power Plant. Despite their name, the field drawings are not actually created in the field, nor are they made from actual observation. According to Rockman, “I made them in the studio while reflecting on my field visits . . . [The field drawings have] more to do with the research and the specific material from which the works are made than it does with a traditional notion of scientific field studies.”6 In preparation for making field drawings, Rockman studies a variety of images of the species he selects from research about the sites he visits, then presents a synthesized, idealized view of each species, usually a flattened vantage point mimicking the language of traditional botanical prints. For example, Lake Huron Locust (2017) is presented with its wings wide and body centered, as a pinned-down specimen. There are also more dramatic, active compositions, such as the Coaster Brook Trout (2017), which thrashes within the boundaries of the paper, and the Spiny Water Flea (2017) settled into the corner of the page. Each drawing shows how Rockman focused deeply on the details that make each species unique. N OT E S 1.

Alexis Rockman, in email to the author, May 3, 2017.


Introduction to Alexis Rockman: Bioluminescence (New York: Carolyn Nitsch Project Room, 2016), n.p.


Alexis Rockman, interview by Denise Markonish, in Badlands: New Horizons in Landscape (North Adams: Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 2008), 68.


Alexis Rockman, quoted in Sultan, East End Field Drawings, 55.


Ibid., 57.



Unless otherwise noted, all works on paper are courtesy of the Artist and Sperone Westwater, New York.




Upper Peninsula, 2017. Watercolor, ink, and acrylic on paper, 74 × 52 inches. Collection of Jonathan O’Hara and Sheila Skaff.

Ice Fishing, 2017. Watercolor, ink, and acrylic on paper, 741/4 Ă— 52 inches.



Drop of Water, 2017. Watercolor, ink, and acrylic on paper, 741/8 Ă— 52 inches.

Bubbly Creek, 2017. Watercolor, ink, and acrylic on paper, 731/2 Ă— 52 inches.



Trillium, 2017. Watercolor, ink, and acrylic on paper, 74 Ă— 52 inches.

Chimera, 2017. Watercolor, ink, and acrylic on paper, 733/8 Ă— 52 inches.


Wood Duck, 2017. Sand from Cuyahoga River, Whiskey Island, and acrylic polymer on paper, 9 × 121/2 inches.

Raccoon, 2017. Sand from Cuyahoga River, Whiskey Island, and acrylic polymer on paper, 9 × 121/2 inches. 110

E. Coli Bacteria, 2017. Sand from Cuyahoga River, Whiskey Island, and acrylic polymer on paper, 121/2 Ă— 9 inches. 111

Common Loon, 2017, Coal dust from Grand Haven Power Plant and acrylic polymer on paper, 9 × 121/2 inches.

Sea Lamprey, 2017. Coal dust from Grand Haven Power Plant and acrylic polymer on paper, 9 × 121/2 inches.

Common Carp, 2017. Coal dust from Grand Haven Power Plant and acrylic polymer on paper, 9 × 121/2 inches.


Spiny Water Flea, 2017. Coal dust from Grand Haven Power Plant and acrylic polymer on paper, 121/2 × 9 inches.

Korvis Blue Butterfly, 2017. Sand from Manistee and acrylic polymer on paper, 9 × 121/2 inches.

Pollinators, 2017. Sand from Manistee and acrylic polymer on paper, 121/2 × 9 inches.

Silvery Salamander, 2017. Sand from Manistee and acrylic polymer on paper, 9 × 121/2 inches.

Round Goby, 2017. Sand from Manistee and acrylic polymer on paper, 9 × 121/2 inches.


River Otter, 2017. Sand from Pictured Rocks and acrylic polymer on paper, 121/2 × 9 inches.

Wood Frog, 2017. Sand from Pictured Rocks and acrylic polymer on paper, 9 × 121/2 inches.

Lake Sturgeon, 2017. Sand from Pictured Rocks and acrylic polymer on paper, 121/2 × 9 inches.

Common Snapping Turtle, 2017. Sand from Pictured Rocks and acrylic polymer on paper, 121/2 × 9 inches.

Yellow Perch, 2017. Soil from Presque Isle Park and acrylic polymer on paper, 9 × 121/2 inches.

Coaster Brook Trout, 2017. Soil from Presque Isle Park and acrylic polymer on paper, 121/2 × 9 inches.

Walleye, 2017. Soil from Presque Isle Park and acrylic polymer on paper, 9 × 121/2 inches.


Double Crested Cormorant, 2017. Sand from Saugatuck and acrylic polymer on paper, 9 × 121/2 inches.

Bald Eagle, 2017. Sand from Saugatuck and acrylic polymer on paper, 9 × 121/2 inches.

Zebra Mussel, 2017. Sand from Saugatuck and acrylic polymer on paper, 121/2 × 9 inches.


White Pine, 2017. Sand from Sleeping Bear Dunes and acrylic polymer on paper, 9 × 121/2 inches.

Lake Huron Locust, 2017. Sand from Sleeping Bear Dunes and acrylic polymer on paper, 9 × 121/2 inches.

Piping Plover, 2017. Sand from Sleeping Bear Dunes and acrylic polymer on paper, 9 × 121/2 inches.

Cope’s Tree Frog, 2017. Sand from Sleeping Bear Dunes and acrylic polymer on paper, 121/2 × 9 inches.


American Eel, 2017. Sand from Toronto Power Plant and acrylic polymer on paper, 121/2 × 9 inches.


Plankton¤/¤Phytoplankton, 2017. Sand from Toronto Power Plant and acrylic polymer on paper, 121/2 × 9 inches.

Largemouth Bass, 2017. Sand from Toronto Power Plant and acrylic polymer on paper, 9 Ă— 121/2 inches.


Exhibition Checklist



Cascade, 2015 Oil and alkyd on wood panel 72 × 144 inches 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

Works on paper are courtesy of the Artist and Sperone Westwater, New York, unless otherwise noted.

Watershed, 2015 Oil and alkyd on wood panel 72 × 144 inches Collection of Jonathan O’Hara and Sheila Skaff Spheres of Influence, 2016 Oil and alkyd on wood panel 72 × 144 inches Collection of Jonathan O’Hara and Sheila Skaff Forces of Change, 2017 Oil and acrylic on wood panel 72 × 144 inches Collection of Jonathan O’Hara and Sheila Skaff Pioneers, 2017 Oil and acrylic on wood panel 72 × 144 inches Courtesy of the Artist and Sperone Westwater, New York


Bubbly Creek, 2017 Watercolor, ink, and acrylic on paper 731/2 × 52 inches Chimera, 2017 Watercolor, ink, and acrylic on paper 733/8 × 52 inches Drop of Water, 2017 Watercolor, ink, and acrylic on paper 741/8 × 52 inches Ice Fishing, 2017 Watercolor, ink, and acrylic on paper 741/4 × 52 inches Trillium, 2017 Watercolor, ink, and acrylic on paper 74 × 52 inches

Bald Eagle, 2017 Sand from Saugatuck and acrylic polymer on paper 9 × 121/2 inches Coaster Brook Trout, 2017 Soil from Presque Isle Park and acrylic polymer on paper 121/2 × 9 inches Common Carp, 2017 Coal dust from Grand Haven Power Plant and acrylic polymer on paper 9 × 121/2 inches Common Loon, 2017 Coal dust from Grand Haven Power Plant and acrylic polymer on paper 9 × 121/2 inches Common Snapping Turtle, 2017 Sand from Pictured Rocks and acrylic polymer on paper 121/2 × 9 inches

Upper Peninsula, 2017 Watercolor, ink, and acrylic on paper 74 × 52 inches Collection of Jonathan O’Hara and Sheila Skaff

Cope’s Tree Frog, 2017 Sand from Sleeping Bear Dunes and acrylic polymer on paper 121/2 × 9 inches

American Eel, 2017 Sand from Toronto Power Plant and acrylic polymer on paper 121/2 × 9 inches

Double Crested Cormorant, 2017 Sand from Saugatuck and acrylic polymer on paper 9 × 121/2 inches

E. Coli Bacteria, 2017 Sand from Cuyahoga River, Whiskey Island, and acrylic polymer on paper 121/2 × 9 inches

Sea Lamprey, 2017 Coal dust from Grand Haven Power Plant and acrylic polymer on paper 9 × 121/2 inches

Korvis Blue Butterfly, 2017 Sand from Manistee and acrylic polymer on paper 9 × 121/2 inches

Silvery Salamander, 2017 Sand from Manistee and acrylic polymer on paper 9 × 121/2 inches

Lake Huron Locust, 2017 Sand from Sleeping Bear Dunes and acrylic polymer on paper 9 × 121/2 inches

Spiny Water Flea, 2017 Coal dust from Grand Haven Power Plant and acrylic polymer on paper 121/2 × 9 inches

Lake Sturgeon, 2017 Sand from Pictured Rocks and acrylic polymer on paper 121/2 × 9 inches

Walleye, 2017 Soil from Presque Isle Park and acrylic polymer on paper 9 × 121/2 inches

Largemouth Bass, 2017 Sand from Toronto Power Plant and acrylic polymer on paper 9 × 121/2 inches

White Pine, 2017 Sand from Sleeping Bear Dunes and acrylic polymer on paper 9 × 121/2 inches

Piping Plover, 2017 Sand from Sleeping Bear Dunes and acrylic polymer on paper 9 × 121/2 inches

Wood Duck, 2017 Sand from Cuyahoga River, Whiskey Island, and acrylic polymer on paper 9 × 121/2 inches

Plankton/Phytoplankton, 2017 Sand from Toronto Power Plant and acrylic polymer on paper 121/2 × 9 inches

Wood Frog, 2017 Sand from Pictured Rocks and acrylic polymer on paper 9 × 121/2 inches

Pollinators, 2017 Sand from Manistee and acrylic polymer on paper 121/2 × 9 inches

Yellow Perch, 2017 Soil from Presque Isle Park and acrylic polymer on paper 9 × 121/2 inches

Raccoon, 2017 Sand from Cuyahoga River, Whiskey Island, and acrylic polymer on paper 9 × 121/2 inches

Zebra Mussel, 2017 Sand from Saugatuck and acrylic polymer on paper 121/2 × 9 inches

River Otter, 2017 Sand from Pictured Rocks and acrylic polymer on paper 121/2 × 9 inches Round Goby, 2017 Sand from Manistee and acrylic polymer on paper 9 × 121/2 inches



Selected Exhibition History and Bibliography

EXHIBITION HISTORY Solo 1988 1992–93

1997 1998

2000 2001 2004–05



The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, curated by David Joselit “Forum: Alexis Rockman,” The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh “Alexis Rockman: Second Nature,” curated by Barry Blinderman, Illinois State University Galleries, Illinois State University, Normal; Portland Art Museum, OR; Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills (1996); Tweed Museum of Art, Duluth (1996); Cincinnati Art Museum (1996) (catalogue) “Dioramas,” Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston (catalogue) “Alexis Rockman: A Recent History of the World,” The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield, March 21–May 23 “The Farm,” Creative Time, DNAid Billboard, Lafayette & Houston St., New York “Future Evolution,” Henry Art Gallery at University of Washington, Seattle “Manifest Destiny,” Brooklyn Museum of Art, April 17–September 12, 2004; Grand Arts, Kansas City, MO, January 14–February 26, 2005; Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA, March 12–June 5, 2005; Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, RI, June 17–October 2005; Mural version, Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH (catalogue) “Baroque Biology: Tony Matelli and Alexis Rockman (Romantic Attachments),” Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati (catalogue)





“The Weight of Air: Works on Paper,” Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, Waltham, MA (catalogue) “Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow,” curated by Joanna Marsh, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, November 18, 2010–May 8, 2011; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH, September 29–December 31, 2011 (catalogue) “Alexis Rockman: Drawings from the Life of Pi,” The Drawing Center, New York, September 27– November 3, 2013; New Orleans Museum of Art, July 4–October 12, 2014 “Alexis Rockman: East End Field Drawings,” Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, NY, October 25, 2015– January 18, 2016 (catalogue)

Group 1985 1989


“From Organism to Architecture,” curated by Ross Bleckner, New York Studio School, New York “The Silent Baroque,” curated by Christian Leigh, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg, Austria (catalogue) “The Unique Print: 70’s into 80’s,” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston “Not So Simple Pleasures: Content and Contentment in Contemporary Art,” curated by Dana Friis-Hansen, M.I.T. List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, MA (catalogue) “Slow Art: Painting in New York Now,” curated by Alanna Heiss, P.S.1 Museum, Long Island City, NY “American Drawings Since 1960,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles










“Transgressions in the White Cube: Territorial Mappings,” curated by Joshua Decter, Usdan Gallery at Bennington College, VT XLV Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy, Aperto 1993: Emergency, curated by Achille Bonito Oliva (catalogue) “On the Human Condition: Hope and Despair at the End of This Century,” curated by Dana Friis-Hansen, Spiral/Wacoal Art Center, Tokyo, February 1–20 “Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away,” curated by Damien Hirst, Serpentine Gallery, London, May 4– June 12, 1994; Nordic Arts Centre, Helsinki, Finland, August 6–September 11, 1994; Kunstverein Hannover, Germany, September 24–November 6, 1994; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, January 14–March 12, 1995 (catalogue) “Concrete Jungle,” curated by Klaus Ottman, Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery at Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT (catalogue) “Gothic: Transmutations of Horror in Late Twentieth Century Art,” curated by Christoph Grunenberg, The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, April 24–July 6, 1997; Portland Art Museum, OR (catalogue) “Get Together, Kunst als Teamwork,” curated by Marion Piffer Damiani, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (catalogue) “Desert & Transit,” Schleswig-Holsteinischer Kunstverein, Kunsthalle zu Kiel, Germany; Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig (catalogue) “Small World: Dioramas in Contemporary Art,” curated by Toby Kamps, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (catalogue) “Paradise Now,” curated by Marvin Heiferman and Carole Kismaric, The Museum of Art at The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Exit Art, New York; The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, September 15, 2001–January 6, 2002 (catalogue) “Into Me¡/¡Out of Me,” curated by Klaus Biesenbach, P.S. 1 MoMA, New York; KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; MACRO Museo d’Arte Contemoranea Roma, Rome “Failure,” Landes Galerie Linz, Austria (catalogue) “Surrealism, Dada and Their Legacies in Contemporary Art,” Israel Museum, Jerusalem “Molecules That Matter,” The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY; Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia

2008–09 2011







“Badlands: New Horizons in Landscape,” curated by Denise Markonish, Mass MoCA, North Adams, MA “Prospect. 2, New Orleans,” curated by Dan Cameron, New Orleans (catalogue) “Oceanomania: Souvenirs of Mysterious Seas—from Expedition to Aquarium,” conceived by Mark Dion, co-curated by Sarina Basta and Cristiano Raimondi, Nouveau Musée National de Monaco (catalogue) “The Smithson Effect,” curated by Jill Dawsey, Utah Museum of Fine Art at Utah State University, Salt Lake City “Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art, 1775–2012,” curated by Barbara Matilsky, Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA, 2012; El Paso Museum of Art, June 1–August 24, 2014; Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, September 27, 2014– January 4, 2015; McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Toronto, January 31–April 26, 2015 (catalogue) “Beyond Earth Art,,” curated by Andrea Inselmann Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, January 25–June 8 “Back to Eden: Contemporary Artists Wander the Garden,” curated by Jennifer Scanlan, Museum of Biblical Art, New York, June 27–September 28 (catalogue) “Contemporary Art from the Permanent Collection,” Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC “Gyre: The Plastic Ocean,” The Anchorage Museum, February 7–September 6, 2014; David J. Sencer CDC Museum, Atlanta, January 26–June 19, 2015; Fischer Museum of Art at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, September 2–November 21, 2015; Natalie & James Thompson Art Gallery at San Jose State University, CA, January 28–April 1, 2016 (catalogue) “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Visualized,” curated by Barry Rosenberg, Contemporary Art Galleries, School of Fine Arts, University of Connecticut, Storrs, February 4–April 25 “DUMP! Multispecies Making and Unmaking,” Kunsthal Aarhus, Denmark, June 26–September 20 “Naturalia,” curated by Danny Moynihan, Paul Kasmin Gallery and Sotheby’s, New York, January 19– March 4 (brochure and e-catalogue) “Future Shock,” curated by Irene Hofmann, SITE Santa Fe, New Mexico (catalogue) “Nature’s Nation: American Art and the Environment,” curated by Karl Kusserow and Alan C. Braddock, Princeton University Art Museum, NJ (catalogue)



BIBLIOGRAPHY Articles 1987

1989 1990



1995 1996 1997


1999 2000 2001 2003 2004



Martin, Richard. “Alexis Rockman: An Art Between Taxonomy and Taxidermy.” Arts Magazine, October 1987. (cover) Saltz, Jerry. “A Thorn Tree in the Garden.” Arts Magazine, September 1989. Kimmelman, Michael. “Alexis Rockman at Jay Gorney Modern Art.” The New York Times, January 12, 1990. “Concrete Jungle: Dialogue with Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman.” The Journal of Contemporary Art, 4.1, no. 24 (Spring 1991). Pagel, David. “Alexis Rockman: Unholy Alliance of Disney, Bosch.” The Los Angeles Times, January 16, 1992. Smith, Roberta. “Alexis Rockman.” The New York Times, January 17, 1992, C28. Rimanelli, David. “Alexis Rockman, Jay Gorney Modern Art.” Artforum, April 1992, 94–95 Searle, Adrian. “Tense? Nervous? It Might Be Art.” The Independent, January 3, 1995. Dunn, Katherine. “Eden Rocks: The Art of Alexis Rockman.” Artforum, February 1996, 72–75, 109. Smith, Roberta. “Realism With a Vengeance.” The New York Times, June 13, 1997, C18. Schjeldahl, Peter. “Yuck Stop: Alexis Rockman.” The Village Voice, June 10, 1997, 85 Quammen, David. “Planet of Weeds: Tallying the Losses of Earth’s Animals and Plants.” Harper’s Magazine, October 1998. (cover) Rockman, Alexis. “Fragments of the Forest.” Natural History, special issue, July–August 1998, illus.: cover, 36–37, 40–41, 44–45, 47, 50–51. Hoban, Phoebe. “The Frog Prince.” ARTnews, September 1999, 138–141. Bernard, Sarah. “Jungle Boy.” New York Magazine, October 16, 2000, 49. Spears, Dorothy. “Drawing on Extinction.” On Paper, January–February 2001, 26–27. “Alexis Rockman.” Modern Painters, Summer 2003, 123, 124. Searle, Adrian. “Tomorrow’s World.” The Guardian Limited, April 27, 2004. Yablonsky, Linda. “New York’s Watery New Grave.” The New York Times, April 11, 2004, 1, 28AR. (cover) Paumgarten, Nick. “Salesman.” The New Yorker, October 17, 2005, 144–151, 153–155.

2006 2007 2008


2011 2012




McKibbon, Bill. “The Present Future.” Orion, January–February 2006, 28–37. Weschler, Lawrence. “Fevered Imagination.” The Nation, May 7, 2006, 1–4. Kroner, Magdalena. “Alexis Rockman, Es Ist Sehr Unwahrscheinlich, Dass Gott Die Dinge Fur Uns Lost.” Kunstforum, no. 189, January/February 2008. McGuigan, Cathleen. “Painter Alexis Rockman Pictures Tomorrow.” Smithsonian Magazine, December 2010. Tranberg, Dan. “In the Studio: Alexis Rockman.” Art in America, December 2010. (cover) Lawrence, Sidney. “An Illustrative Career Depicting Dystopias.” The Wall Street Journal, October 2011. Lau, Maya. “Zoo Station: Alexis Rockman’s Visual Inspiration for ‘Life of Pi.’” The New York Times Magazine, November 25, 2012. Neil, Jonathan T.¡D. “In Conversation–Alexis Rockman with Jonathan T.¡D. Neil.” The Brooklyn Rail, October 3, 2013, 16–19. (cover) The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “The Artist Project: Alexis Rockman on Martin Johnson Heade’s Hummingbird and Passionflowers.” Video. December 7, 2015. Sheets, Hilarie. “Alexis Rockman Uses New York City Soil to Depict 360 Million Years of Its Wildlife.” (Artsy), March 30, 2016. Dreifus, Claudia. “There’s a Science to His Art.” The New York Times, April 19, 2016, p. D3. Belcove, Julie L. “Profile: American Painter Alexis Rockman.” (Financial Times), April 29, 2016.

Solo Exhibition Catalogues and Monographs 1992



Alexis Rockman. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Jay Gorney Modern Art; Los Angeles: Tom Solomon’s Garage, 1992. Blau, Douglas, Index (see also: updated “Index” published in Alexis Rockman: Second Nature). Alexis Rockman: Second Nature. Exhibition catalogue. Normal: University Galleries at Illinois State University, 1994. Texts by Douglas Blau, Barry Blinderman, Stephen Jay Gould, Prudence Roberts, and Peter Douglas Ward. Alexis Rockman: Guyana. Monograph. Santa Fe: Twin Palms / Twelvetrees Press, 1996. Texts by William Beebe and Katherine Dunn.


2002 2003







Haraway, Donna, and Mark Dion, Alexis Rockman, et al. Concrete Jungle: A Pop Media Investigation of Death and Survival in Urban Ecosystems. New York: Juno Books, 1997. Future Evolution. New York: Henry Holt, 2002. Text by Peter Douglas Ward. Alexis Rockman. New York: Monacelli Press, 2003. Text by Jonathan Crary, Stephen Jay Gould, and David Quammen. Interview by Dorothy Spears. Alexis Rockman, Wonderful World. London: Camden Arts Centre, 2004. Foreword by Jenny Lomax. Texts by Frances Ashcroft, Dan Cameron, and Francis Fukiyama. Alexis Rockman: Manifest Destiny. Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2004. Texts by Maurice Berger and Robert F. Kennedy. Alexis Rockman: Big Weather/American Icons. New York: Leo Koenig Inc. and Baldwin Gallery, 2006. Introduction by Dorothy Spears. Text by Robert Rosenblum and Bill McKibben. Alexis Rockman: The Weight of Air. Waltham: Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, 2008. Text by Michael Rush, Helen Molesworth, and Brett Littman. Marsh, Joanna, Kevin J. Avery, and Thomas Lovejoy. Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow. Washington, DC: Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with D. Giles Limited, London, 2010. Alexis Rockman: Drawings from Life of Pi. Monograph. New York: The Drawing Center, 2014. Interview with Jean-Christophe Castelli. Alexis Rockman: East End Field Drawings. Exhibition catalogue. Water Mill, NY: Parrish Art Museum, 2015. Interview by Terrie Sultan.







2005 2008

Group Exhibition Catalogues and Books 1986 1989 1990


Saltz, Jerry. Beyond Boundaries. New York: Alfred Van Der Marck Editions, 1986. Leigh, Christian. The Silent Baroque. Exhibition catalogue. Salzburg: Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, 1989. The (Un)Making of Nature. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, Downtown at Federal Reserve Plaza, 1990. Oliva, Achille Bonito, Kontova, Helena Venice Biennale: Aperto ’93, Emergency.



Hirst, Damien. Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away . . . Exhibition catalogue. London: The Serpentine Gallery; Helsinki: Nordic Arts Centre; Hannover: Kunstverein Hannover; Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; New Orleans: Louisiana Museum of Contemporary Art, 1994. Friis-Hansen, Dana, and Fumio Nanjo. On the Human Condition: Hope and Despair at the End of This Century. Exhibition catalogue. Tokyo: Spiral/ Wacoal Art Center; Ashiya: Ashiya City Museum, 1994. Pasternak, Anne R., and Ellen F. Salpeter. Garbage! Exhibition catalogue. New York: Thread Waxing Space, 1995. Grunenberg, Christoph. Gothic. Exhibition catalogue. Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; Portland, OR: Portland Art Museum; Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1997. Cappellazzo, Amy. Wild/Life, or The Impossibility of Mistaking Nature for Culture. Exhibition catalogue. Greensboro: Weatherspoon Art Gallery, 1998 Rosenblum, Robert. On Modern American Art: Selected Essays by Robert Rosenblum. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999. Wilson, Stephen. Information, Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003, 140–143. Crewdson, Michael, and Margaret Mittelbach. Carnivorous Nights. New York: Villard Books. Heartney, Eleanor. Art & Today. New York: Phaidon, 2008, 448. Page, Max. The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008, 280. Giguere, Raymond J., ed. Molecules that Matter. Saratoga Springs: Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College and the Chemical Heritage Foundation, 2008. Markonish, Denise, ed. Badlands: New Horizons in Landscape. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008. Texts by Gregory Volk, Tensie Whelan and Ginger Strand. Godfrey, Tony. Painting Today. New York: Phaidon, 2009, 448. McDaniel, Craig, and Jean Robertson. Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art after 1980. 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, 352. Wilson, Stephen. Art + Science, Now. London: Thames & Hudson, 2010, 208.





Brennan, Susan, Dan Cameron, and Miranda Lash. Prospect.2 New Orleans, the Prolific Group. New York and New Orleans: U.S. Biennial, 2011, 162. Dion, Mark. Oceanomania. London: Mack Books, 2011, 192. Castelli, Jean-Christophe. The Making of Life of Pi: A Film, A Journey. New York: Harper Design, 2012, 160. LeMenager, Stephanie, Teresa Shewry, and Ken Hiltner, eds. Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Routledge, 2012, 94–95.


Robertson, Jean, and Craig McDaniel. Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. McHale, Brian. The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Strosberg, Eliane. Art & Science. 2nd Edition. New York and London: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2015, 166. Myers, William. Bio Art: Altered Realities. London: Thames & Hudson, 2015, 124–127.

Suggested Reading and Resources

To provide a broader context for The Great Lakes Cycle, Alexis Rockman and the writers and advisers were invited to share key readings and resources for readers to pursue for further action. Books The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey, 1975 Pandora’s Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence Seaway, Jeff Alexander, 2009 The Great Lakes Water Wars, Peter Annin, 2006 The Late, Great Lakes: An Environmental History, William Ashworth, 1987 Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, 1962 On the Brink: The Great Lakes in the 21st Century, Dave Dempsey, 2004 The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas, Jerry Dennis, 2003 Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond, 1997 The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, Dan Egan, 2017 The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History, Stephen Jay Gould, 1980 Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, 2010 A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There, Aldo Leopold, 1949 The End of Nature, Bill McKibben, 1989 The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, Michael Pollan, 2001 Freshwater: Women Writing on the Great Lakes, edited by Alison Swan, 2006


Song of the Dodo, Island Biogeography in the Age of Extinctions, David Quammen, 1997 The Once and Future Great Lakes Country: An Ecological History, John L. Riley, 2013 End of Evolution, Peter Douglas Ward, 1994 Newspaper articles /series A Watershed Moment: Great Lakes at a Crossroads, Dan Egan, Milwaukee Journal- Sentinel, /news/wisconsin/great-lakes-268550802.html Websites Great Lakes Information Network, Great Lakes ECHO, Great Lakes Today, Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, Alliance for the Great Lakes, National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center, Freshwater Future,

Grand Rapids Art Museum Trustees

Board of Trustees 2016–2017

Foundation Board of Trustees

Tamara R. Bailey President

Lauretta K. Murphy President

Christopher Rosmarin Vice President

Eddie T.L. Tadlock Secretary/Treasurer

Eddie T.L. Tadlock Secretary/Treasurer

Tamara R. Bailey Thomas A. Demeester Meg Goebel Greg Hooks Barbara Jackoboice Jane Boyles Meilner Janet Nisbett Douglas Padnos Douglas Williams

Bruce Bailey Patricia Betz Marilyn Crawford Sam Cummings Rick Devos Sydney Devos Joseph Doele Diane Griffin Kurt Hassberger Dirk Hoffius Christopher Hufnagel Ritsu Katsumata India Manns Sarah Meijer Tom Merchant Jane Boyles Meilner Lizbeth O’Shaughnessy Kathleen Stewart Ponitz Carol Sarosik Mark J. Wassink Mitchell Watt Meg Miller Willit

Honorary Life Trustees Margaret Bradshaw Anita Carter Pamella Devos Marilyn Q. Drake David G. Frey Mary Ann Keeler Luci King Mary Loupee Mary Nelson Kate Pew Wolters

List denotes Board of Trustees as of September 30, 2017


Grand Rapids Art Museum Staff

Eana Agopian, Museum Store Associate Brandon Alman, Preparator Elly Barnette-Dawson, Director of Advancement Corey Barton, Special Events Coordinator Allison Bazaire, Volunteer Services Manager Arthur Bowman III, Digital Media Coordinator Robert Branch, CFO/COO James Broe, Museum Store Associate Christopher Bruce, Director of Learning & Creativity Laura Bull, Donor Relations Manager Karen Carpenter, Special Events Manager Dianne Carroll Burdick, Visitor Services Associate Dan Carwile, Learning & Creativity Associate Crystal Chesnik, Studio Experience Manager Matthew Clark, Visitor Services Associate Lane Collins, Museum Store Associate Julie Conklin, Registrar Susan Coombes, Museum Store Manager Nick Cummins, Preparator Courtney Daman, Museum Store Associate Maria Davis, Director of Human Resources Kristin Duimstra, Museum Store Associate Spencer Everhart, Visitor Services Associate Dana Friis-Hansen, Director & CEO John Graveline, Facility Services Supervisor Joshua Hilton, Facility Services Associate Tom Hilzey, Facility Manager Kristen Hoeker, Group Experience Manager Rik Horoky, Visitor Services Associate Brian Howland, Visitor Services Lead Associate Emily Jarvi, School Experience Manager Lynn Jones, Learning & Creativity Associate Jonathan Kloote, Preparator Jeffrey Kraus, Preparator Brooke Krupiczewicz, Lead Accountant


Walter Magee, Facility Services Associate Sara Markman, Campaign & Advancement Manager Jolie Masters, Administrative Assistant—Executive Office Marnie McGuire, Manager of Corporate Partnerships & Fundraising Events Aimee Metchikoff, Visitor Services Associate Kimberly Mills, Studio Lead Associate Miquel Moreno, Visitor Services Associate Juliana Nahas-Viilo, Membership Manager Kate Neckers, Manager, Executive Office and Strategic Initiatives Ed Norman, Facility Services Associate David Otis, Lead Preparator Elizabeth Payne, Communications Manager Ron Platt, Chief Curator Stephanie Price, Special Events Lead Associate Lisa Radeck, Visitor Services Coordinator Steven Rainey, Preparator Kim Reed, Visitor Services Associate Lucas Schurkamp, Design and Production Manager Wendy St. John, Catering & Beverage Manager Emily Stephen, Visitor Services Brad Ter Haar, Grant Writer Ed Tolliver, Security Chief Brett Townsend, Visitor Services Lead Associate Ann Trube, Museum Store Associate Dan Van De Steeg, Collections Manager, Works on Paper Jennifer Wcisel, Curatorial Assistant Tianna Wierenga, Learning & Creativity Associate Richard Wieth, Preparator Anne Wyatt, Learning & Creativity Associate Jessica Wycoff, Learning & Creativity Associate

Staff list as of September 30, 2017