MICHIANA — Looking at the Lake Michigan shoreline in Michiana, local artist Joel Brussell sees a battle.
There are slabs of cement, worn and blasted by the waves; remnants of iron seawalls, torn apart by the action of wind and water; but mostly there are the boulders and stones, part of a contingent of battlements put out years ago to protect lakefront homes from encroaching nature.
Brussell said it reminds him a bit of the ruined battlements of Normandy Beach, where the U.S. launched the largest amphibious invasion in history during World War II.
And it’s something he’s been cataloging for about a year in photos. At first, he said, he was just interested in photographing the ice formations on the boulders near Stop 42 in Michiana, but then things changed.
“I began to notice when it warmed up they (the boulders) were a good kind of background or framing for the sunset,” he said, “and specifi cally, I had an idea to do the sunset through the splashes of water above them.”
Brussell, whose work has been shown at the Lubeznik Center for the Arts, the Box Factory, Fernwood Botanical Gardens, and the A+C Architects Gallery in Skokie, Illinois, said he’s since become obsessed with capturing the look of boulders and seawalls and other defenses as they change with the seasons. Now they’re part of the gallery of work – Songs of Erosion and Savage Sunsets – in his latest shows. He wants others to see what he sees in the uniqueness of the landscape created by this struggle.
“I think that it’s an unnatural accident that sort of created a kind of, to me, cool landscape,” he said. “Because in one sense you have complete nature and rugged nature, and then in another sense you’ve got people fighting that nature, with boulders and seawalls and whatever they’re doing, and maybe between the two of those things, it’s created something else. Again I say stumbled because I didn’t necessarily set out to do this.”
He said a lot of people didn’t notice or appreciate how different the boulders look at different times of the year. Photographing them became more about capturing moods or personalities, or different universes.
“I just was intrigued with the boulders and at first the prehistoric-like feel they had when covered in ice,” he said.
“The winter feels timeless, but spring and summer are a bit more like a painted dramatic landscape. ... I was intrigued with the sunsets around them as seen through a splash. It took time to set in that this was the same set of boulders.”
But there was more for Brussell.
When he posted some of this work online, people started commenting about how the landscapes could be from a million years ago, “as opposed to down the street at your beach this afternoon,” he said.
“And in fact, people have said, when they see the pictures, ‘Oh, is that Maine?’ ‘The East Coast?’ And I go, ‘No, that’s Lake Michigan.’ Because you don’t generally see big boulders, you don’t see rock formations in Lake Michigan.
“It looks like a sort of rugged East Coast coastline. Or West Coast. You know, we live in the Midwest, which of course is flat, and Lake Michigan doesn’t have a rocky coastline, so this is kind of an artificial creation of that.”
He also started juxtaposing the primordial-looking landscapes with people, namely cellist Melissa Dittman, to emphasize some of the “softness” he sees. “Maybe [this is about] opening eyes to the beauty of something they wouldn’t naturally think of,” he said. “I’m a firm believer in accidents rather than intentions. And this was an accident.”
For more information on Brussell’s work, visit brussellphotography.com.