About ten years ago artist Lee Tracy created a "big wall of bad news." After graduating from the School of the Art Institute in 1989 she had channeled her love of nature into minimal, abstracted landscapes. Then she began reading about the state of the environment and ended up covering a wall of her studio with news clips, stories on endangered species and global warming. Tracy decided she couldn't work in the "cozy cocoon" of a studio anymore. "As an artist, I thought I was connected to the world, then I realized I really wasn't," she says. "How could you make artwork about the world if you aren't with it?"
In 1999 Tracy hatched plans for a series of long-term, multiphase art projects. She wanted to work directly with the environment to "reveal stories" about our natural resources. For her first project, Red Trees, she covered more than 300 tree stumps in an Oregon forest with red shrouds for a year. When she removed the shrouds, in 2001, they were imprinted with the "last breath of the tree," she says.
Since the fall of 2002 Tracy has been working on World Rivers, inspired by Earth Odyssey, Mark Hertsgaard's journalistic diary of ecological degradation around the world. Part of a larger project centered on the elements earth, air, fire, water, and ether, World Rivers is "a global collaboration" to put together "a magnificent flowing curtain" from white sheets of fabric dipped in rivers by collaborators around the globe. Tracy hosted her first sewing circle in early December to join together submissions she's received so far and plans another in February. Eventually she hopes to exhibit the curtain with works devoted to the other elements, but for now, Tracy says, the project's based online (worldriversproject.com) and "free to grow and flow like water."
"The only way I can learn from any of these projects is to have them run and run for years and years," she says. "It's all about how to work within the realm of nature, of allowing for nature to take its course."
Tracy, who's 46, doesn't try to make a living off her art. "I view money as one of the biggest conceptual works on earth," she wrote in an essay on business strategies for the city-run Chicago Artists Resource Web site. "I so rarely see it." Last year she started an online business, where, with the help of several part-time employees, she sells Certaintees, eco-friendly bamboo T-shirts whose designs are based on woodcut illustrations from the 1830s and 40s. A percentage of profits go to partnering nonprofits. "I thought, if I'm going to eat, what would I rather be selling, T-shirts or paintings? It does fulfill something for me in the message department. I don't have to get it into a museum, I just have to get it on someone's back."
Tracy was born in Maine and raised outside Boston near Walden Pond. She later moved back to Camden, Maine, where she graduated from high school. When she was about two, her father became a Jehovah's Witness. He believed the world would end in 1975 and kept Tracy and her family from participating in such "American activities" as celebrating holidays, saluting the flag, and voting. She was disassociated from the church, and her parents eventually divorced. "It took me years to get over the loss of our family," she says.
Tracy credits her grandmother, who lived in the College Hill area of Providence, for teaching her how to be a "free individual." She taught pastels at the local arts club and took Tracy to museums and galleries; her neighborhood was filled with art students from Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design. Inspired by the students she saw there, Tracy decided to go to art school. She started at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, moved to the Art Institute of Boston, and eventually earned a BFA in painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The whole process took eight years. "I always got bored and wanted to leave," she says.
After graduation she worked as a freelance illustrator, as a teacher in continuing studies at SAIC, and as a youth educator for arts organizations, exhibiting her artwork—and marrying—along the way. (Tracy's husband, Joel Fromer, is a woodworker known for his frames.)
Before starting World Rivers, Tracy enlisted a friend, canoeing enthusiast Erik Newman, to test which materials would work best by dipping samples in the Chicago River—white cotton, silk, polyester. All of it turned gray. "I realized anything would work," says Tracy.
Tracy started in Mongolia in 2004. She and her friend Patricia Evans, a photographer, flew to Ulan Bator, where they met a relative of Tracy's who worked in the Peace Corps. Tracy bought nine 20-foot-long pieces of white fabric in the market and the three drove 12 hours through the steppes to the Onon River, near Siberia. "I thought I was going to see the last wilderness on earth, a place that feels like untamed nature," she says. "But there isn't any—it's gone." She soaked the sheets for a day and laid them out to dry. The fabric yellowed.
Back in Chicago—her Mongolian "curtains" tacked to her studio walls—Tracy realized she was going to need some help. She began scouring the Internet for artists interested in environmental issues, and through a friend in Sri Lanka, she was put in touch with artists in Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Other contacts led to Canada, Australia, and Bulgaria.
By the start of 2005, Tracy had about a dozen artists around the world willing to pitch in. The process, she told them, could take a few minutes or a few hours, but it had to be documented. She asked for photos and dried fabric, along with some commentary about the experience. Then she created a Web site where she'd post contributors' notes, poetry, prose, and photos.
Sandra Joran of Nimbin, New South Wales, was the first to send in a submission. Joran had sewn a white mandala onto a roughly five-by-five-foot piece of cloth and dipped it in the Mulgum River. It arrived at Tracy's door in summer 2005.
Joran, who lives in a "semi-rainforest area," paints a dire portrait of Australia: two-thirds of the country in a decade-long drought, oil slicks and sewage in rivers and estuaries, unclean and wasted drinking water, polluted oceans, and dying coral reefs, wildlife, and fish. "We just installed another tank for our drinking and water usage," she wrote in an e-mail, and said she hoped the art project "might achieve an awareness of how important water is in our lives, and if there is an alternative to polluting waterways, take it."
When Tracy's friends traveled overseas—to England, Spain, Switzerland, and India—they took fabric and dipped it for her. Others have sent submissions from the Cache River in Woodstock, Illinois, and from as far away as Tibet and Thailand. Participants have dipped fabric in the Mississippi River at Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and in the Maroochy River in Queensland, the Volga in Russia and the Vrbas in Bosnia. In the Ivory Coast, 35 students from the International Community School of Abidjan dipped cloth in the Komoe River as part of a science experiment and then sent it to her. So far Tracy has collected swatches dipped in 35 rivers in 21 countries. Many hang from a rail that runs along the 14-foot-high ceiling of her studio.
Tracy admits she's questioned the project's value at times. "I'm thinking, they're chopping down trees, they're polluting rivers—why didn't I go to school to become a biologist? I could just start taking out ads—forget the project—that say, 'Stop polluting!' Because that is what I really want to say."
But Tracy says as she gathered more pieces of fabric, photos, and stories, she realized she was tapping into a "global community." Some contributors, she says, didn't even know the project was about pollution. That made her rethink her goals. "I wondered, am I focusing on the bad news, the problem? I began to focus more on the solution, uniting people through purity and concern and care. That could create the change to save our rivers."
Soraya Pourtabib, 29, was born and raised in the western suburbs of Chicago but now lives in a small town near Tehran, where she teaches English. She dropped by Tracy's studio this summer while visiting her parents in Naperville. The two had corresponded—they'd shared the same yoga teacher—but had never met. Pourtabib brought two pieces of cotton fabric and showed Tracy a video of herself immersing them in the Babol River, in northern Iran, and then in the Khosk River, in the south.
"I saw the project as a way to educate and bring out awareness and show people the beauty of the country and the people—and how a single, American-born-and-raised girl can decide to go to Iran and have a good time there," says Pourtabib.
"The more people eliminate their fears about something, the less they judge it—the less they want to kill it."
Alice Van Housen, a freelance writer in Algonquin, learned of World Rivers while undergoing treatment for breast cancer. "My initial cynical reaction was, 'Ooh, airy-fairy! Woo-woo! Blah blah blah.'" Then she noticed some connections between the project and her personal life. A cancer survivor told her that the disease "opens up rivers of compassion," and Van Housen had just planted a river birch in her yard. "I decided I was supposed to do it," Van Housen says. She dipped her sample in the Fox River at Crystal Lake.
"Lee has created a work which connects people to their place, their waters, and to each other," says Betsy Damon, executive director of Keepers of the Waters, a nonprofit using art and science to save water resources. "It is these connections that can survive massive destruction."
"Can the world be something else? I still wake up and hope it could be something different," Tracy says. "I want to believe. Humans are so incredible—we have what it takes. I really hope there's this sudden mass movement of change, shocking change."v