‘Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle’ is a must-see art exhibit for Great Lakes lovers

Paintings reveal the hidden life beneath the beautiful inland seas.

If you love the waters and creatures of the Great Lakes, you won’t want to miss the chance to see the Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle exhibition at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. But don’t delay — the magnificent art exhibit is nearing the end of its three-month run and will only be in town through April 29, 2018. After that Michiganders will have to wait until 2020 for the paintings to return to the state.

The art museum commissioned the artist to research and create five mural-sized paintings depicting the past, present, and future of the Great Lakes. Over the course of four years, Rockman traveled the Great Lakes region, met with scientists and other experts, and created this special display. Included in the exhibit are murals, watercolors, and field drawings.

Detail of a Lake Trout from Forces of Change panel

Rockman’s five mural-sized paintings are filled with information and detail. His paintings have been described as “visual essays” and indeed tell a story which invokes wonder, appreciation, and also apprehension for the future of these critical waters. It’s an important story for all of us to learn and know.

A critical resource

The Great Lakes — Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, and their connecting channels — form the largest surface fresh water system on earth. Environmental stewardship, sustainable economic development, and responsible use of the Great Lakes are crucial components of keeping the lakes and the region vibrant. Rockman’s exhibit challenges viewers to remember how actions and decisions often have ripple effects on the lakes. Several of the large panels can be “read” from left to right, telling the evolutionary story and showing scientific and cultural timelines. Reading these paintings, one can’t help but wonder what’s next for these important waters and be challenged to be a better steward of them for future generations.

For the museum visitor, drawing keys help tell the story and identify each element contained in the large panels. The museum has also created a Great Lakes bingo game to capture the imagination of children and adults, but also impart facts and knowledge. Playing the game encourages real study of the individual elements of the panels.

watercolor of wood duck with sand embelishments

The watercolors and field study drawings are magnificent as well. In the field studies, Rockman has included sand, dirt, and other elements he collected during his travels around the region. For example, his Common Snapping Turtle includes sand from Pictured Rocks, and his rendering of a wood duck includes sand from the Cuyahoga River.

Book a bonus you won’t want to miss

To add to the experience of viewing Rockman’s paintings, be sure to pick up a copy of the exhibition catalogue, which was published by the art museum in association with Michigan State University Press. The book’s essays, descriptions, and beautiful photographs make it a perfect way to enhance — and remember — the experience of standing in front of one of Rockman’s beautiful paintings. The catalogue was written by Dana Friis-Hansen, director of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, with contributions by Jeff Alexander and Thyrza Nichols Goodeve. One suggestion would be to order and read the book first, then see the exhibit. At the very least, grab one at the museum store to study at leisure. The book also includes the detailed keys that explain each element of the large panels.

After leaving Grand Rapids, the exhibit will tour the Great Lakes region. The tour schedule will wrap up back in Michigan in 2020 with its visit to the Flint Institute of Arts. For more information, visit the Grand Rapids Art Museum’s website at www.artmuseumgr.org or contact Visitor Services at (616) 831-1000 or info@artmuseumgr.org.

Exhibition Touring Schedule: