Journey Underneath a City
Samuel Rowlett '02 paddles the Connecticut River.
In 1726, Lemuel Gulliver washed ashore on the island country of Lilliput. In 1870, Captain Nemo and the crew of the Nautilus travelled 20,000 leagues under the sea. In 1896, Edward Prendick found himself marooned on the island of Doctor Moreau. Though these journeys may be works of fiction (they’re all nineteenth century adventure novels by Jonathan Swift, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells, respectively), the honest-to-goodness real adventure trip Samuel Rowlett ’02 recently took down an underground river is anything but.
In June 2012, Rowlett paddled down the Connecticut and Park Rivers from Northampton, MA to Hartford, CT. (The Park River, a tributary of the Connecticut, runs partly underground!) The journey was part of a longer, multi-pronged project for Real Art Ways, and represented a longer collaboration with the Nature Conservancy to “explore how art can be a medium for community engagement” and ecological education.
The project began with “Abandoned Meanders,” an ongoing performance at Oxbow Gallery, in which Rowlett constructed a wood and canvas canoe in the middle of the gallery. Visitors to the solo exhibition would see steam escaping from a steam box as Rowlett bent wood for the ash ribs of the canoe, hear the pounding of hammers and the rasping of handsaws. Rowlett’s work explored the Connecticut River watershed (the largest freshwater watershed as well as the longest river in New England) both literally and metaphorically, and played with art’s traditional relationship between art and nature. Along the walls were images and video from another ongoing project: “Landscape Painting in the Extended Field,” a piece from which is in the PNCA Alumni Exhibition.
Before launching onto the Connecticut River, Rowlett teamed up with Kim Lutz, Director of the Nature Conservancy’s Connecticut River Program, to speak of the various ways contemporary artists can and have used art to highlight ecological issues.
“I’m hoping to raise awareness about the issues affecting the river,” said Rowlett, “and get people out exploring the watershed.”
Then, the journey begins.
Rowlett set off down the river on June 9 in a handmade canoe, the first he’s ever made. Halfway down, in Holyoke, MA, Rowlett invited the public to join him around a campfire and film screening, offering s’mores in exchange for stories.
The Park River, which connects Hartford’s west side to the Connecticut River was diverted underground nearly sixty years ago by the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent city flooding. The concrete walls are covered with artful graffiti – the river’s more like a tunnel, really – and it doesn’t take very long to lose all glimmers of natural light. Echoes last far longer than usual, and refracted reflections from headlamps paint liquid patterns on the walls. Floating along it takes you on a tour of Hartford – landmarks include the State Capital, the headquarters of the Hartford Public Library, and any number of highways and byways – only thirty to fifty feet UNDER each of these. And, according to the New York Times, it may be “the most abused urban waterway in Connecticut,” essentially a three-mile, overly large sewer channel.
Rowlett’s arrival in Hartford signaled the opening of another solo show: “An Unnamed Flowing, Nowhere.”
From his artist statement:
“An Unnamed Flowing, Nowhere documents my research into the relationships between studio practice, engagement with community and the exploration of the natural world. Although at heart a painter, I often filter video, performance, sculpture and photography through the language and materiality of painting and drawing. I see my work as a hybrid, exploring the concepts and processes between sketchbook and exhibition; following the tangential nature of thoughts in a similar manner as I would explore the woods behind my house.”
Here’s a video, filmed and edited by friend and fellow adventurer Tom Adams of Reelife Productions, that gives you some idea of the project and journey:
You can read more about Rowlett’s canoe project and view his portfolio on his website and explore the collaborative map Rowlett launched of the Connecticut River. You can also listen to an interview with Rowlett on WNPR about his canoe trip.
Rowlett also recently accepted a fulltime position as Assistant Professor at Landmark College in Putney, VT. There, he’ll be heading up the Drawing and 2D Design studio and developing a new painting curriculum.