NMU Offers Educational Tools for 'Great Lakes Cycle' Exhibit

"Cascade," by Alexis Rockman

Northern Michigan University is launching educational modules in conjunction with the Jan. 27 opening of Alexis Rockman’s The Great Lakes Cycle exhibit at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM). The materials are distinctive in the way they expand upon the themes illustrated in Rockman’s paintings by exploring the scientific and artistic elements.

The online educational package includes identification keys and a virtual magnifying lens to peer within each of the paintings. Other interactive features include dialogue, images and videos featuring professionals in related fields from around the Great Lakes region. Users can explore topics such as natural resources, human influence, conservation and artistic examinations of the paintings.

The GRAM commissioned Rockman to create The Great Lakes Cycle, an exhibition that celebrates the natural majesty and global importance of the Great Lakes while exploring how they are threatened by factors such as climate change, globalization, invasive species, industrial agriculture and urban sprawl. The centerpiece is a suite of five mural-sized paintings depicting separate themes that emerged during his research tour of the region. These are accompanied by several large-scale watercolors as well as monochromatic field drawings of plants and animals made from site-sourced organic material such as mud and leaves.

“I knew the Great Lakes were important at a very young age,” Rockman said. “I didn’t know a lot, but I was familiar with zebra mussels, lamprey and the collapse of the fishing industry. As I learned more, it became clearer how interesting and diverse they are. The Great Lakes system is economically and ecologically significant. But it has been transformed in the past 500 years—much more than I realized by humans. I was just amazed that it’s so huge, yet can be changed so profoundly. Northern Michigan University had a huge role in the scientific and historical accuracy of the project.”

NMU biology professors Jill Leonard and Mac Strand met with Rockman in 2014 when he passed through Marquette on his research tour. They discussed Leonard’s studies related to fish biology and general information about the Great Lakes. Last spring, Leonard began preparing online educational materials to back up the paintings in preparation for an October visit to NMU by Rockman, which she coordinated with art and design professor Taimur Cleary.

“I was obviously pretty familiar with the basic science concepts,” she said. “It’s been much more challenging to learn about the history and social science that shows up in the paintings. So I reached out to local experts, started reading completely different literature and really had to delve into some new areas. It has been a great learning experience. I am thrilled to embrace any approach that will help make science accessible. Art does this exceptionally well since it is visually arresting and allows the viewer to see things that may be challenging to see in the real world. What I love about the Rockman paintings is that they are just realistic enough to draw us into the natural world we recognize, yet stylistic enough to bring important concepts to the forefront.”

While visitors to the exhibit will be able to scroll through the educational module for the painting Cascade, those looking to spend more time with the background materials have several options. The Cascade module will be available through NMU’s Educational Access Network (EAN). The entire package, including modules based on all five major paintings and additional information on science and art, is available by subscription through NMU’s Continuing Education program. For more information on both options, visit www.nmu.edu/greatlakescycle

Rockman is known for his paintings of future landscapes depicting the impact of climate change, species extinction and evolution influenced by genetic engineering. He collaborated with Oscar-winning director Ang Lee on concepts for the Life of Pi film. His work has also been exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Camden Art Center in London and other galleries and museums around the world.

The Great Lakes Cycle will be showcased at the GRAM from Jan. 27-April 29 and will then move on to other cities throughout the Great Lakes region. For more information on exhibit dates and places, visit http://www.artmuseumgr.org/2017/04/03/alexis-rockman-the-great-lakes-cycle/

For more information on the NMU educational modules, please contact Dr. Jill Leonard at (906) 227-1619 or email at jileonar@nmu.edu.

This release was prepared by NMU student Tyler Penrod

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