Learn about Lake Erie through watercolor art


A panel from Ariel Aberg-Riger’s story, “You Made Me. And I’m Coming for You.” Image: Ariel Aberg-Riger.


By Natasha Blakely

A Buffalo artist has brought to life the costs and consequences of lake pollution in her eerie comic about Lake Erie.

As part of the CityLab series on wastelands, artist Ariel Aberg-Riger created a watercolor story of Lake Erie’s decades-long struggles with pollution and its dead zone — the depleted oxygen in the depths of its basin. CityLab is a publication from The Atlantic that focuses on issues and ideas of metro areas and neighborhoods around the world.

The story, “You Made Me. And I’m Coming for You.,” dramatizes the pollution and problems Lake Erie faces, expressed through striking watercolor art. The paintings depict the shifting conditions of the lake with fluid colors and swooping brushstrokes.

“It’s this huge, beautiful part that really shaped so many of the people around it,” Aberg-Riger said. “I’m a kid who grew up on both coasts, and so much of my landscape was the ocean. When I moved to Buffalo, I was impacted by how much the lake plays a role in Buffalo.”

So much of the time spent thinking about rebuilding Buffalo is focused on what happens above ground, she said. Efforts to make the city more environmentally friendly are centered around factories and parks and not so much the water, let alone what happens below the water.

Aberg-Riger moved to Buffalo with her wife and son in 2012. They visit the lake and go swimming there, she said. Then she learned about the dead zone and was intrigued by it and Lake Erie’s history.

“I think I tend to write about things I am fascinated by or interested in,” Aberg-Riger said. “This one was about water and science and all sorts of things about the area, and in my process of understanding these issues, I first try to understand them myself.”

She read Wikipedia pages and watched YouTube videos to start. She attempted to understand Lake Erie’s struggles without having a scientific background, which inspired her to create the piece.

“It can be hard for someone to access the understanding without that background, and watercolor was representative, a good way to show how these things spread,” Aberg-Riger said. “You can read an article, but sometimes if you see things represented in a different way than you’re used to, it wakes up new ideas and a new way of seeing things.”

She warns that her work is primarily art and story, though it is based in research. She doesn’t consider herself a journalist, she said.

“In general, for me, I have a lot of fun with these,” Aberg-Riger said. “Turning them into these visual stories, visual essays, it gives me an outlet. It’s about getting people to connect emotionally to topics that I find very interesting and worthy of discussion.”

Read Aberg-Riger’s Lake Erie story on CityLab’s website.

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