Artists collaborate on exhibit that highlights threats to Champlain Basin
By Karen Bjornland
Ask David Fadden about water pollution and he shares a story from his childhood in Onchiota.
When he was about 7, he went walking with his father, a Mohawk who grew up at the Akwesasne territory on the St. Lawrence River, and tossed a stick into a stream.
“You know that will end up in the ocean,” his father said.
“It hit me, the concept that it’s all connected. It goes to the Saranac River, which empties into Lake Champlain, which goes up into the St. Lawrence, which goes out to the ocean.”
Water pollution happens the same way, Fadden said. “If we throw garbage in there, it’s going to end up somewhere else. It will seep into the ground or go into a spring or end up in a river. And it has negative effects. Not just on human life but all life.”
In June, in Saranac Lake’s BluSeed Studios, awareness of our precious water is the focus of a science-infused art exhibit, “Multi-Cultural Interpretations on How Pollution Impacts the Lake Champlain Watershed.”
The project was funded with a grant from the Lake Champlain Basin Program, which organizes and supports efforts to protect the natural and cultural resources of the watershed: 8,234 square miles within New York, Vermont and Quebec, home to more than half a million people.
New works were created by five artists: Carol Marie Vossler, founder and director emeritus of BluSeed; Martin Akwiarnoron Loft, a First Nation photographer and printmaker who was born in Kahnawake, Mohawk Territory near Montreal; Katsitsionni “Junie” Fox, a Mohawk filmmaker from Akwesasne; Steven Kostell, a papermaker and University of Vermont professor; and Fadden, a Mohawk painter and storyteller.
Curt Stager, a professor at Paul Smith’s College, is the science adviser. A paleontologist and climatologist, Stager is co-host of “Natural Selections” on North Country Public Radio and author of “Still Waters: The Secret World of Lakes.”
For nearly a year, the artists and Stager have conversed.
“I showed them pictures of some of the key molecules that are causing the pollution instead of just giving them a name and a formula,” Stager said. “Under a microscope, they’re beautiful, like diamonds and emeralds and green necklaces.”
Phosphorus, from excess farm fertilizer and leaky septic systems, is a major polluter, triggering algae and cyanobacteria blooms in Lake Champlain that are harmful to fish and can be toxic.
“You can’t go in the water or you can’t use it for drinking,” Stager said. “If pets or livestock drink it, they can be hurt. If you add the stronger storms we are getting due to climate change, you wash more of this stuff into the lake too. It’s a global issue, happening in lakes all over the world.”
The BluSeed project packs “more of an emotional impact than a straight science report,” Stager said. “If you see something that moves you, it goes into your soul and it affects how you think and feel. It motivates people to do things. “
Vossler, a papermaker and sculptor who brought BluSeed to life in an old warehouse in 2002, was artistic director when the arts center applied for funding.
“How many people even know, even in Saranac Lake, that Lake Champlain is our watershed? That’s what inspired me to come up with the idea for the grant, and it just made sense to invite the Indigenous, Native American and First Nation artists to lead the idea.”
— Carol Vossler, artist and founder of BluSeed Studios
Vossler created an abstract work that’s mostly printmaking, on paper made of leftover fiber from local farm crops and invasive plants she collected.
“I’m interested in the microorganisms in the ground or the water or the soil, what is hidden beneath the surface,” she said.
The installation includes round clay forms she imagined after learning about core sampling of lake sediment from Stager.
Vossler’s mission is to make individuals aware that “what we do or may not do on a daily basis” affects “the water quality, the biodiversity and habitats of the Lake Champlain watershed. When something is presented in an abstract or semi-abstract mode, it allows for an uninhibited discussion.”
She has been shuttling that message to students. This spring, she talked about protecting the water during hands-on papermaking workshops at a high school in Plattsburgh and Adirondack Educational Center in Saranac Lake.
Fox, an award-winning filmmaker, is known for documentaries showcasing the strength and power of Native women. PBS aired her 2017 film “Under the Husk,” about a Mohawk woman’s right of passage, and in 2020, “Without a Whisper,” the story of how indigenous women influenced New York’s suffragist movement.
For BluSeed, Fox created a large pottery bowl that represents Mother Earth. A video projected inside the vessel illustrates the lesson of the Haudenosaunee “Dish Belt,” a symbol that her ancestors used to warn against taking too much from the Earth.
“The pollution of Lake Champlain Basin is an example of this delicate reciprocal relationship,” her artist’s statement said. “We often don’t think about the effects we have, individually and collectively, that will affect future generations.”
For Fadden, art making and an intense awareness of the natural world have been passed down through his family. Since 1954, three generations have run the Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center, formerly called the Six Nations Museum, in Onchiota.
At BluSeed, Fadden’s painting depicts a Native American woman cupping water in her hands against a backdrop of lake, mountains and sky. Fadden’s mosaic technique is revealed in the leaves and grass behind the figure. As in pointillism, there are dabs of paint but in his version, images and designs, an inch or two in size, appear inside outlined shapes.
“Every blade of grass, every leaf, is a different color with a Native design, and also a scientific aspect of pollution, whether it be phosphates or different road salts, nitrogen,” he said. “You have to really study the painting to find these graphics and images of different chemical compounds and formulas.” In a bit of whimsy that children adore, even a few “Star Wars” characters appear.
The title, “Water Is Life,” is an homage to the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, a spoken ritual integral to the six Iroquois nations.
“At any gathering of people, whether it be political, whether it be a wedding, a funeral, they always say these words first before business takes place,” Fadden said. “The idea is that you talk to and address every part of creation .”
Plants, rivers, streams, trees, animals, birds, sky, wind, stars, sun and moon.
“Each part is spoken at length and it’s an expression of gratitude,” Fadden said.
Kostell, who lives minutes away from the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, is a maker of paper both as an artist and at his job.
An assistant professor at UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, he instructs students in the BioFiber Paper Lab, where they engage local farmers and research how fiber waste from crops could be used to micro-manufacture paper in rural communities.
Paper is “one of the most ubiquitous materials in society,” and making it from farm waste instead of trees would be more sustainable and less harmful to the environment, Kostell said.
For BluSeed, Kostell created a panel of handmade paper from hemp grown in Vermont. Its rough surface, colors and round marks show how the water interacted with the fiber and pigments.
While making the paper, Kostell, an avid outdoorsman, questioned how his own manicured lawn affects the watershed. “Is it really necessary to use fertilizers or pesticides or herbicides?”
Stager, the scientist, said the exhibit’s message is simple: “Don’t pollute the water.”