Lake Michigan plays an integral role in the life of Chicagoans and other Midwesterners. Our beautiful lake, its sandy beaches, wildlife, and the sky above are an ever-changing collage of colors and motion: fiery orange and red sunrises and sunsets, crashing waves, migrating birds such as Purple Martins and Chestnut-Sided Warblers in the air and on its shores, and trout, salmon, and other creatures below its surface. The lake serves as a destination for recreational activities such as fishing, sailing, kayaking, and swimming; provides relief from the heat during the summer; and offers a place to de-stress from modern life in any season. Most importantly, Lake Michigan—which is the fifth-largest lake in the world—provides water to 10 million people in the Midwest.
Many of us take this beauty and the health of Lake Michigan for granted as we walk its beaches, swim in its cool depths, and, of course, drink its water. But underlying this beauty is the danger Lake Michigan, its entire ecosystem, and humans face because of ongoing pollution and environmental degradation. Human waste, microbeads used in cosmetics and other products that kill fish and other animals, algae from farm fertilizer runoff, invasive species, global warming, and toxic chemicals dumped by oil refineries are just a few things that negatively affect the health of Lake Michigan.
This message of beauty, yet danger to our environment, is conveyed in the stunning and thought-provoking photographic exhibition, Surface Tension: Beauty and Fragility in Lake Michigan, by photographers Ted Glasoe and Nelson Armour. The exhibition consists of 11 side-by-side presentations of photographs taken by Glasoe and Armour—juxtaposing the natural wonders of the lake and its surrounding environs (Glasoe’s images) with the environmental dangers that lurk beneath the waves and in the sand and air (Armour’s images, which are also quite beautiful at times).
Glasoe’s “Red Wagon” and Armour’s “Overflow v2” (featured above) are good examples of this effective presentation strategy. In “Red Wagon,” a family plays in the distance on Lee Street Beach in Evanston. The sun hovers overhead as if it will never set, and a red wagon awaits its owners on the boardwalk in the foreground. It’s high summer in Chicago, a time when the beach should be packed with people escaping the heat, building sandcastles, playing in the water, and forgetting the cold, dark days of winter. Yet despite the beauty of the moment, the few beachgoers can go no farther than the edges of the sand due to high levels of bacteria in the water. A storm hit Chicago the night before, and the city released human waste comingled with storm water into the lake. Armour’s “Overflow v2” amplifies the issues hinted at in “Red Wagon”—depicting a river of human waste entering the lake. “Most of my images are subtler,” explained Armour at a discussion about the exhibit on Saturday. “But sometimes subtlety is not the way to discuss an issue. This photo was a way to confront the viewer directly with the effect of human waste on the lake.”
In another image, “Inbound to O’Hare” (featured below), Glasoe uses a long exposure to capture airplanes (which look a bit like meteor streaks) heading toward O’Hare International Airport around 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. The clouds look like cotton candy, and soft ethereal light from a full moon (not pictured) is cast on the surface of the water and the rocks. In its counterpart, “Unseen v2″ (featured below), Armour covers his image of a beautiful winter sunrise with the chemical formulas for methyl mercury and the chemical models for dioxin and polychlorinated dibenzodioxin. Despite their toxicity to humans and wildlife, these chemicals are currently being discharged into Lake Michigan by the BP oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana, causing great environmental harm.
These juxtapositions continue throughout the exhibition—which first attracts lovers of nature via Glasoe’s vivid, often colorful images, then educates them about the terrible effects of pollution and industrialization via Armour’s photos.
I highly recommend Surface Tension: Beauty and Fragility in Lake Michigan. This is a timely and necessary exhibition—especially at a time when President Trump and others are questioning the need for the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental regulations are being dismantled, and, a small, but vocal, percentage of the U.S. population (some, unfortunately, in positions of power) deny the facts of global warming and climate change. Surface Tension is completing a nearly three-month run at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum on Chicago’s North Side but, if you hurry, you can view it at the museum through April 16. Admission to the museum allows visitors access to the exhibition. For those who can’t visit before then, Surface Tension can be viewed at the 33 Contemporary Gallery in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood from May 17 to June 30, 2017, and at the Evanston Art Center from July 7–30, 2017.
Some may ask if art can really make a difference in educating people about environmental hazards and changing the way people think or act. I believe so, and so do Glasoe and Armour. During Saturday’s presentation, both cited the great artworks created during President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, as well as the Barack Obama “HOPE” poster (designed by artist Shepard Fairey), as works of art that educated and inspired past and more recent generations. “Both Nelson and I care for Lake Michigan, and want to do something to educate people about its beauty, but also the challenges it faces,” said Glasoe. “We hope that we can follow in the footsteps of these artists.”
Let’s hope the photographs in Surface Tension do just that: educate and inspire the next generation of environmental activists—as well as the average person—to appreciate and protect our vital, yet fragile, lake.
Click here to learn more about the exhibition.
To learn more about protecting the Great Lakes, contact:
Center for Great Lakes Literacy
Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes
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