• Jenny Xu

The Great Lakes: Alexis Rockman

Updated: Apr 19, 2020

Alexis Rockman is a contemporary painter who was born and lives in New York. He studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and the School of Visual Arts. known for his dystopian painting of the environment. His art tackles ecological issues like animal extinction and climate change. As an artist and activist, his paintings of animals in their changing environments confront pressing social issues. He believes in “the idea that art can make a difference in terms of political change.” As an artist, he has become known for his skilled use of combining a journalist’s curiosity and an artist's vision into his artwork.

In 2013, Rockman began a new series of paintings of the Great Lakes in Michigan. The series depicts the region considers the developments, present ecosystems, and endangered futures of the bodies of water. To create the series, Rockman was commissioned by the museum to travel around the region for research. He spoke to experts from the recreational fishing industry, anthropologists, ichthyologists, and representatives from the Department of Fisheries. Using what he learned, he painted the environmental issues, like invasive sea lamprey and toxic algae blooms, that haunt the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem.

The Great Lakes Cycle is a five-painting series that is in the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Each canvas does not correspond to an individual lake but narratives on broad themes. “Cascade” focuses on the human exploitation of the Great Lakes for resources. Half of the painting contains wildlife such as caribou in nature, and the other half shows mine waste, iron ore, fur trappers, a coal plant, and other harmful industries.


The “Forces of Change” depicts the lower Niagara River emptying into Lake Eerie. The characters in this painting have transformed the region. There are microscopic bacteria, the Tree-of-Heaven, and E. coli in the form of a kraken.

Forces of Change

Rockman’s series was incredibly difficult due to the abstract and un-mappable quality that the area has. “Spheres of Influence” tackles this quality by tracing the impact of migration routes. It carefully depicts the movement of boats, airplanes, migratory birds, insects, pollution, invasive species, and airborne contaminants. This painting visualizes small-scale relationships and demonstrates how they can lead to major devastation.

Spheres of Influence

The series also covers plagues, like ones shaped by urban development. In “Watershed,” there is sewer runoff, salmonella, and genetically mutated animals.


Through Rockman’s series, viewers are provoked to think about the future of the Great Lakes, and, for that matter, the world. Although he does not provide a solution, his painting clearly persuades people in a call to action.

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