Living in Holland, Michigan, it’s unfortunately easy to become familiarized with what lies around us, the things we are privileged to experience whenever we want. One such thing is just ten minutes to the west, and it’s called Lake Michigan. This is why “Tug: A Great Lakes Odyssey,” hits so hard. This exploratory new exhibit in the DePree Art Center focuses on the tugboat industry and gives visitors the chance to fall in love with the Great Lakes all over again.
This exhibit was created by Steve Nelson, Associate Professor in the Art and Art History Departments here at Hope. Growing up in Muskegon, Nelson formed an intimate attachment to Lake Michigan, port cities and tugboats at a young age. “I remember carving a tugboat from a piece of wood and then painting it.” Nelson recollects. “I’ve always felt like the tugboat represents the ‘little engine that could’; it’s this small form that moves big things. It has this enduring power. And they’re fascinating forms, this low-slung, weird wheelhouse. They look like a storybook character,.I can just imagine a mouth painted on it.” This exhibit completes a trio of Nelson’s projects that intertwine the ruinous tragedy of industry with the complexity of nature. The first, entitled “The Gardens of Industry,” dealt with abandoned mining sites and was featured in the DePree Art Gallery in 2011. The second, “Guardians and Angels,” captured the element of air through an abandoned paper mill. “I wanted to do a third project somehow related to water,” Nelson explains. “This opportunity became available because I’m related to the person who operates this tugboat company.” For this project Nelson explored many themes such as dreamscapes, the subconscious and cycles of rebirth. Through the creative process, he stumbled upon the complex history and significance of these industrial vessels.
Tugboats were first introduced to North America in the early 1800s and have since become indispensable upholders of trade and business. Some of the boats Nelson has photographed have been in use for 125 years. The importance of the tugboat is what partly motivated him to take these photos. He says, “I think if you can understand things at a micro level, you’re going to understand them at a macro level. So I’m trying to zoom in and bring in the experience of this tugboat industry, specifically, but also trying to help people see the broader context for how industry operates in the Great Lakes.”
Nelson gave an Artist’s Lecture last Friday, in which he discussed much of his past work and inspirations. Artists such as Tokihiro Sata and Ko Yomada (whose art was shown in DePree, in 2004) ingrained in him a fascination with lightbox techniques, which concurrently sparked his interest in metaphors of memory and dreams. This and his natural curiosity in ruins, whether of old English abbeys or dilapidated plants in Muskegon, have granted Nelson a distinct, sentimental perspective. His photography turns old wrecked buildings into classic portraits displaying what life used to be like. His work also subtly preaches why these places and practices should be remembered. “There’s a whole fleet of ships that are made specifically for transporting goods in the Great Lakes,” he explains. “And we think of industry as having a destructive impact, but this one [the tugboat industry] is fairly green. They provide one of the greenest forms of transportation for raw materials, including iron ore, grain and other products. That opened up my eyes to the fact that these serve a very important function, not only in the Great Lakes for our economy but to world economies, because of the number of international ships that come into the Great Lakes and need to be escorted and are served by the tugboat fleet. We are connected to the world through our shipping industry. The Great Lakes are a unique feature because they reach well into the heartland, where you can extract ore and transport it efficiently.” Nelson’s lecture opened with the three concepts that “Tug: A Great Lakes Odyssey” embodies: the Artefact, the Apparatus and the Experience.
While looking for these ideas, experiencing how they flow together through each photograph like water, I encourage you to get lost in the narrative, through which Lake Michigan shines. It reaffirmed my love for the Great Lakes, a love which brought me to Holland in the first place. I invite you to feel this admiration for the first time, or the second time, or even the millionth time. No matter how many times you’ve felt it, there’s still quite nothing like it.