Western Massachusetts-based artist Samuel Rowlett believes art can be a medium for community engagement and is putting that belief into action with an exhibition that documents his explorations of the Connecticut River and investigates the relationship between art and nature.
We talked with Rowlett about his work, his history with the river and his new project with The Nature Conservancy.
“To succeed – whether in art or in science – you need a vision of what you want to accomplish. The Nature Conservancy has that.”
– Samuel Rowlett
When did your fascination with the Connecticut River begin?
I was born in England, but we settled in northern Vermont when I was 13, in a town that bordered the river. For me, the river was a destination for swimming, paddling and fishing, but two huge dams – Moore and Comerford – were also nearby. They transformed the landscape from a series of waterfalls to a series of concrete walls. Still, I was struck by the tremendous beauty remaining there.
How did you get the idea for this project?
When my family moved to Western Massachusetts a few years ago, we discovered our closest river was the Mill River, a tributary of the Connecticut. I started to ask people how they felt about the river, and they didn’t know much about it. Many described the river as an obstacle or barrier. But others I met, like the Conservancy’s Connecticut River director Kim Lutz, were trying to save it.
Talking with Kim, I realized how essential it is to physically reconnect the river so that fish can migrate and water can nourish floodplains. I also began to feel that it was equally important to bring people back to the river.
This summer you connected with the Connecticut River by paddling a length of it?
Yes, as part of my exhibition, I built a canoe in the Oxbow Gallery that I paddled downriver from Northampton, Massachusetts to Hartford, Connecticut. On the way, we surveyed the river, noting plants and wildlife, shared stories around campfires and even explored an urban and subterranean stretch of the watershed in Hartford. The trip was a gesture about connecting with the river and an attempt to explore how art can complement science.
What is it about the Conservancy’s work in the watershed that inspires you?
What attracts me to the Conservancy is its vision of saving nature. To succeed – whether in art or in science – you need a vision of what you want to accomplish. The Nature Conservancy has that. From my perspective, restoring floodplain forests and removing dams are ways of moving toward a healthier and more beautiful watershed.
Do you see yourself as part of a certain artistic tradition?
When I’m hiking around with a canvas on my back, I feel the same spirit of discovery and exploration that inspired painters from the Hudson River School, like Church, Durand and Cole, who were searching for spiritual and philosophical meaning from nature. The Connecticut River has in effect been “lost” for a century due to its industrial past. We now have a chance to rediscover it.
On July 25, join Rowlett and Kim Lutz, director of the Conservancy’s Connecticut River Program, for a special talk on art and conservation at Real Art Ways in Hartford. Rowlett’s exhibit, “An Unnamed Flowing, Nowhere,” can be viewed at the gallery June 21-Sept. 9.
Get Involved: Contribute your videos, artwork, research, photos and stories to Rowlett’s interactive map project with The Nature Conservancy, and help create a community portrait of The Connecticut River.
Kate Frazer is a writer for The Nature Conservancy.