Chicago artists imagine Great Lakes without the water

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Logo for Great Lakes Nation, a workshop held by Chicago Art Department and Archeworks. Image: Stacy Peterson

By Thea Hassan

Imagine if the Great Lakes claimed negligence and abuse and left the region.

An exhibit at a Chicago art gallery recently explored this question.

Great Lakes Nation” premiered this month at the Chicago Art Department gallery. It is the final project of a workshop held by in partnership with Archeworks, a school that teaches students to incorporate environmental concerns, such as storm-water flow, into their architecture designs.

Artist Andy Holck, was impressed with the ability of the artists and speakers to work together to use art to create environmental awareness. “I didn’t know designers and artists could be at the forefront of this issue, but they are,” Holck said.

He enjoyed the workshop because it brought together artists who were interested in environmental issues. But not all of them had environmental consciousness on their mind.

Sandi Chaplin should have been the last person to attend a workshop on Great Lakes sustainability, she wrote in an e-mail.  But she was relieved that she did.

Artists attend Great Lakes Nation workshop to learn about sustainability from presenter. Photo: Stacy Peterson.

“The experience created a whispering campaign within my own conscience,” she said.  “Am I now an environmentalist? Am I now actively fighting for Mother Earth? No. But I am considering the impact of my NOT being one.”

Projects include paintings, ceramics, illustrations, photography and wood working. Pondering their loss made the artists really appreciate the Great Lakes. All of the pieces emphasized the importance of water.

Among the pieces was a “water—a-wear” dress. The pale blue and grey garment has layered cut outs, creating a water droplet feel.

Artist Sandi Chaplin models “Water-A-Wear” dress for Great Lakes Nation exhibit. Photo: Stacy Peterson.

Artist Tanya Galin painted each lake, emphasizing their vibrancy and life.   Holck illustrated Chicago, emphasizing the landscape and water in the forefront with the city as a small speck in the back.

Exhibit coordinator Stacy Peterson started thinking about water sustainability in the region after working on another water project with Archeworks. She realized that a lot of people don’t think about where water comes from or where it goes. In a region surrounded by water, we often ignore that water isn’t inexhaustible, she said.

Participating artists met three hours once a week for a month to learn about Great Lakes environmental issues. Speakers discussed sustainability, water management and the exploitation of natural resources. Artists proposed solutions to the problems faced by the watershed and also imagined region without the water body.

“It’s a serious issue, but we don’t want to force it on anyone,” Peterson said. Instead, exhibition attendees could contemplate their lives without the water, and conclude for themselves the causes of its departure.

The class was a good start, but the region needs a large media campaign to bring the issues of water management, preservation and conservation to light, Holck said.

Artist Andy Holck’s depiction of the Chicago skyline for Great Lakes Nation exhibit. Image: Stacy Peterson.

Art is a good alternate form of communication for encouraging awareness, Galin said.

“I feel like we are constantly bombarded by the media and science telling us what is wrong and what we need to do,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong, they are important, but if we can find other ways to artistically show people and get our point across, it may reach more people.”

This is the first time the Chicago Art Department has done an exhibit of this nature. Peterson expects about 500 to 700 people will attend by the time it concludes on Sunday.

The Chicago Art Department is open for exhibitions and special events only. To see the Great Lakes Nation art exhibit, schedule an appointment by emailing Stacy Peterson at

Front page image courtesy of Tanya Galin.

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