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Datebook: Artist's New Work Melds Science With Art At University Galleries

A Chicago-based artist ventured into the wild to gather inspiration for her latest exhibition. Plumbing the depths of lakes around the world, brainstorming with scientists and shadowing the footsteps of a renowned naturalist, she merged arts with science in an exploration of a fragile environment. 

“The Canary in the Lake” features 40 new photographic, video and audio works by Alice Hargrave. The exhibition is currently on view at University Galleries in Normal. Hargrave centers her new work on lakes and birds as she continues her foray into biodiversity and habitat, and the losses occurring in nature from climate change. 

The roots of the current exhibition can be found in previous work that Hargrave showed in Bloomington-Normal.  The artist had a solo show at University Galleries in 2017 called “Paradise Wavering.” After Hargrave took part in a panel discussion about her show, she was approached by Dr. Catherine O’Reilly, a professor of geology at Illinois State University. 

“She was wondering if there was any way to work together with her scientific data and information,” Hargrave explained. “She talked about how she was doing lake research, and I thought why don’t we do portraits of lakes? Just do a series of portraits of the global lakes using the data that she had herself and that she also had access to through her many global colleagues.” 

Hargrave admitted to a longtime interest in a bridge between art and science, so the project was a natural fit for her sensibilities. The collaboration between Hargrave and O’Reilly involved collecting and revisualizing data from lakes on each of the seven continents and how climate changes have impacted the lakes.  

Hargrave also consulted with scientists from the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network (“I was the only one in the room without five or six PhDs!”) to create her lake portraits--images from photos and patterns of scientific data imprinted on great swaths of fabric that hang in multi-layered fashion from the ceiling of the gallery, creating a “conference” between each portrait.  

This is the premiere of “The Conference of the Lakes, After Farid Attar.” The title is a nod to Farid ud-Din Attar’s 12th century poem, “The Conference of Birds.” 

“In the case of lakes, I think the transparency was quite poignant in that waters are obviously transparent, and it was a way for all the lakes to come together and harmonize together and move together and flow together,” said Hargrave.

“That transparency helps make it into this one being, as well as celebrating the difference of all the unique issues that are facing all of the lakes. There are 20 lakes in the installation right now. There’s so many diverse issues that affect lakes, and there’s cross-over between issues--there's several lakes that are all warming, several lakes have issues with glacier melt, lakes that are shrinking, lakes that are growing, invasive species. So many issues. 

“It’s been fascinating for me to learn about all these issues and meeting the people that are studying them.” 

Hargrave also incorporated historical imagery and lake lore, as well as music and spoken word recordings in her installation. 

When visitors encounter the large lake portraits hanging in the gallery, Hargrave said she hopes they have a sense of being lured in by the works. 

“Feel the color and feel the movement and hear the sound in the space," she said. "And I hope it makes them ask questions, such as, ‘Why am I looking at the bright pink piece of fabric?’ It’s because there is these hot pink, magenta algae.” 

Hargrave also blends birds into her new exhibition.

The exhibit's “Tracing Audubon 1832/2021 (last calls)” is an installation that includes wallpaper, photographs and recordings Hargrave made in the field as she followed in the footsteps of famed naturalist and artist John James Audubon, who painted the birds he saw on his exploration of Florida in 1832. Like Audubon, Hargrave ventured into the Florida Keys and the Dry Tortugas. The artist uses sound coupled with photographs to share the experience of searching for birds in the wilderness.  

“It’s hard to find birds,” Hargrave declared. “You really need to go out and look for them at dawn. There could be fields of them at dawn, if you go to the right place. But some of them are quite elusive. 

“The wallpaper installation is quite powerful for me, having the Roseate Spoonbill, which is one of my new favorite birds that I discovered in Florida.” 

It’s a large wading bird with stunning pink plumage. Hargrave juxtaposed the brilliant pink of the bird with lush green from the Everglades to create a powerful color combination that viewers can fall into and feel the landscape. 

“In terms of the ways that I photograph birds, it’s more the landscape surrounding the birds," she said. "You barely see the bird, but you see them, how you see them in real life rather than getting in super close and getting a zoom lens and really focusing in just on the bird.” 

The sound with the installation includes the 22 species that Audubon pictured in his portfolio, “Birds of the Florida Keys.”  

“The Canary in the Lake” exhibit continues at University Galleries through May 16. The Galleries will offer a selection of education opportunities for all ages, as well as virtual tours through the show.


Curator Kendra Paitz describes the educational programming that accompanies the show.


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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.