Artists collaborate on an exhibit highlighting threats to the Champlain Basin
By Karen Bjornland
Ask David Fadden about water pollution and he shares a story from his childhood days in Onchiota.
When he was about 7 years old, he was walking his father, a mohawk who grew up in the Akwesasne Territory on the Saint Lawrence River, and threw a stick into a stream.
“You know this is going to end up in the ocean,” his father said.
“It hit me, the concept that everything is connected. It goes to the Saranac River, which empties into Lake Champlain, which rises into the St. Lawrence, which empties into the ocean.”
Water pollution happens the same way, Fadden said. “If we throw garbage in there, it ends up somewhere else. It will seep into the ground, or flow into a spring, or end up in a river. And it has negative effects. Not just human life, but all life.”
In June, at Saranac Lake’s BluSeed Studios, awareness of our precious water will be the focus of a science-inspired art exhibition: “Multicultural interpretations of how pollution affects the Lake Champlain watershed.”
The project was funded with a grant from Lake Champlain Basin Programorganizes and supports efforts to protect the natural and cultural resources of the watershed: 8,234 square miles in 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 graphic artist who was born in Kahnawake, in the Mohawk Territory near Montreal; Katsitsionni “Junie” Fox, a Mohawk filmmaker from Akwesasne; Steven Kostell, papermaker and professor at the University of Vermont; and Fadden, a Mohawk painter and storyteller.
Curt Stager, Professor at Paul Smith’s College, is the Scientific Advisor. A paleontologist and climatologist, Stager is the co-host of Natural Selections on North Country Public Radio and the author of Still Waters: The Secret World of Lakes.
The artists and stagers have been talking for almost a year.
“I showed them pictures of some of the key molecules that cause pollution, instead of just giving them a name and a formula,” Stager said. “They’re beautiful under the microscope, like diamonds and emeralds and green necklaces.”
Phosphorus from excess agricultural fertilizer and leaky sewage systems is a major pollutant, triggering algal and cyanobacteria blooms in Lake Champlain that can be harmful and toxic to fish.
“You can’t go in the water or use it to drink,” Stager said. “If pets or livestock drink it, they may be injured. When you add in the stronger storms we’re getting due to climate change, you’re washing more of this stuff into the lake, too. It’s a global problem happening in lakes all over the world.”
The BluSeed project has “more of an emotional impact than a pure science report,” Stager said. “When you see something that moves you, it goes into your soul and 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 cultural center applied for funding.
“Even in Saranac Lake, how many people know that Lake Champlain is our watershed? That 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, which is primarily printmaking, on paper from fiber remnants of local agricultural crops and invasive plants that she collected.
“I’m interested in the microorganisms in the soil or in the water or in the soil, what’s underneath the surface,” she said.
The installation includes circular clay shapes that she came up with after learning about core sampling of lake sediments from Stager.
Vossler’s mission is to make people aware that “what we may or may not do every day” impacts “the water quality, biodiversity and habitats of the Lake Champlain watershed.” When something is presented in an abstract or semi-abstract manner, it allows for uninhibited discussion.”
She passed this message on to the students. This spring, she spoke about water conservation during hands-on papermaking workshops at a high school in Plattsburgh and at the Adirondack Educational Center in Saranac Lake.
Fox, an award-winning filmmaker, is known for documentaries that show the strength and power of local women. PBS aired her film Under the Husk in 2017, about a Mohawk woman’s right of passage, and in 2020, Without a Whisper, the story of how Indigenous women influenced the New York City suffragist movement.
For BluSeed, Fox created a large ceramic bowl that represents Mother Earth. A video projected onto the ship illustrates the lesson of the Haudenosaunee “Dish Belt,” a symbol that warned their ancestors not to take too much of the earth.
“The pollution of Lake Champlain Basin is an example of this delicate two-way relationship,” her artist’s statement reads. “We often don’t think about the impact we are having, individually and collectively, that will impact future generations.”
For Fadden, creating art and an intense awareness of the outdoors were passed down through his family. Since 1954, three generations have directed the Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center, formerly called the Six Nations Museum, in Onchiota.
At BluSeed, Fadden’s painting depicts a Native American woman holding water in her hands against a backdrop of lake, mountains and sky. Fadden’s mosaic technique is evident in the leaves and grass behind the figure. As in pointillism, there are pops of color, but in his version images and designs an inch or two tall appear in outlined shapes.
“Every blade of grass, every leaf has a different color with a native design and also a scientific aspect of pollution, be it phosphates or various road salts, nitrogen,” he said. “You really have to study the painting to find these graphics and images of different chemical compounds and formulas.” In a little whim that kids love, even a few “Star Wars” characters make an appearance.
The title “Water Is Life” pays homage to the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, a spoken ritual that is an integral part of the six Iroquois nations.
“At any gathering of people, whether it’s political, whether it’s a wedding or a funeral, they always say those words first before any business happens,” Fadden said. “The idea is that you talk to and reach out to every part of creation.”
Plants, rivers, streams, trees, animals, birds, sky, wind, stars, sun and moon.
“Each part is spoken at length and is an expression of gratitude,” Fadden said.
Kostell, who lives just minutes from the east shore of Lake Champlain, is both an artist and a papermaker by trade.
As an assistant professor at UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, he teaches students at the BioFiber Paper Lab, where they engage local farmers and explore how fiber waste from plants could be used to micromanufacture paper in rural communities.
Paper is “one of the most ubiquitous materials in society,” and making it from agricultural waste rather than trees would be more sustainable and less polluting, Kostell said.
For BluSeed, Kostell created a plaque made from handmade paper made from hemp grown in Vermont. Its rough surface, colors and rounded markings show how the water interacts with the fiber and pigments.
While creating the paper, Kostell, an avid nature lover, wondered how his own manicured lawn would affect the watershed. “Is it really necessary to use fertilizers or pesticides or herbicides?”
Scientist Stager said the exhibit’s message was simple: “Don’t pollute the water.”