Using Art to Explore Our Relationship with Water

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Sarah Bearup-Neal is the Glen Arbor Arts Center’s Communications/Gallery Manager. She graduated from Michigan State University in 1978 with a BFA in Studio Art and has maintained an active studio practice focused on fiber art since 1999. Sarah lives in Benzie County.


Each year, the Glen Arbor Arts Center mounts a “New Views” exhibition in which we identify an issue of local and regional concern, and dig into it. This year we focused on water. Exhibitors were asked to look deeply at their relationship with the water around us, and create a work of 2D or 3D art that expressed a new view of that relationship. The exhibition “New Views: Water = Life = Art” showcased the work of 25 painters, sculptors, photographers, printmakers, and mixed media practitioners from June 1–August 4.

The GAAC’s “New Views: Water” show also offered four different companion programs that explored the exhibition’s theme from the platforms of the visual and performing arts, literature, poetry, and science; through panel discussion (FLOW Founder Jim Olson was one of three water activists who sat on this July 15 panel); question and answer sessions; and lectures. Each of the programs provided a different way into the subject, and made it possible for a wider array of people to partake of the exhibition.

It is one of the great delivered truths that the arts “matter”; that they elevate – almost through osmosis – the human spirit. But the one thing the arts do really well – and for which they are not often credited – is to provide us with powerful tools for looking at difficult issues. The arts allow us to consider even the most spirit-crushing realities in ways that pure fact cannot. Data have their place, but they are by no means unfailingly persuasive. To whit: Picasso’s Guernica. This mural-sized oil painting was created in response to the bombing of a Basque country village in Northern Spain by the Nazis and Italian Fascists at the request of the ruling Spanish Nationalists. Upon completion in 1937, Guernica was exhibited at the World’s Fair in Paris, and then at other world venues. The touring exhibition was used to raise funds for Spanish war relief, and focused the world’s attention on the Spanish Civil War.

Guernica mobilized the world in a way that data could not. Picasso synthesized the horror and gave it new, albeit fully recognizable, form. Viewers didn’t require the photographic realism of blood, guts, and dismemberment that follow a days-long bombing campaign to persuade them of its depravity. Instead, Picasso depicted the bombing through painted, abstracted figures of splayed cows and villagers, and left no doubt about what happened. Without watering down the facts, Picasso provided the viewer a way to begin to consider this shattering violence. This is the essence of the arts: They’re like a raft on top of which one lies and floats around the sometimes-challenging waters of ideas and events. The arts don’t provide operating instructions. Instead, the arts engage — the senses, the body and the mind — and make the world palpable. And this felt feeling may spur thinking, engagement, and even action.

Tacit and central to the GAAC’s “New Views: Water” exhibition is the fact that everyone in Glen Arbor has a relationship with the local lakes and rivers. These waters are definitive natural features, and form the community’s sense of self. That collective affection and relationship brings people to the gallery to view the exhibition. We use the artwork as a springboard to launch related discussions, to shift the focus to other aspects that are less pleasing, but no less a part of the water that is our world up here: about the conflict between a healthy lake and green, riparian lawns; about Line 5 leaking 200 miles north of Glen Arbor; and why bottled water is a violation of the public trust. The arts create ways to connect dots; but more than that, the arts are pack mules, capable of doing the heavy intellectual and emotional lifting that is change making.


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