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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Artist & Educator Geo Rutherford Finds Inspiration At Milwaukee's Bradford Beach

Geo Rutherford at Bradford Beach
Susan Bence
Over a two year period, Geo Rutherford came to Bradford Beach every day she could to gather found material for her art.

Artists are influenced by the world around them. That’s a given.

But when Geo Rutherford entered the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Master of Fine Arts program two years ago, she had no idea that the Great Lakes, and especially Bradford Beach, would become all-consuming.

Susan Bence
Geo Rutherford in her Great Lakes exhibit at UW-Milwaukee's Kenilworth Studio.

Rutherford says there’s no way her art could not be influenced by the natural world.

Extended Interview with Artist Geo Rutherford

“I’m a daughter of a geologist, so my life has always been about science and my artwork has always been about the environment,” she says.

After earning her bachelor's in fine arts degree, Rutherford spent five years teaching high school art. She loved every minute — except jewelry-making.

“I would go back to that job in a heartbeat. I really loved my job, but in teaching if you want to be paid more, you have to get a master's,” she explains.

So Rutherford latched onto a UWM program “to get a MFA because it was a full ride, no student loans. I wanted to go to a school that was more authentic. The printmaking program is pretty, it’s pretty much women, great energy. The studio is ancient, I love that.”

Rutherford did not expect to fall for the Great Lakes. “I had never lived on a Great Lake before,” she says. But when she did, Rutherford poured her heart into it and made them the focus of her master's.

“So my reaction was to make my whole life about the Great Lakes for the next two years ... I visited every Great Lake and walked on every single beach I could. I did like a Great Lakes heavy intensive art residency, but my number one beach was coming to Bradford,” she says.

Rutherford came here every day she could to collect artifacts — natural and manmade — in her childhood Halloween bucket, adding to her finds from throughout the basin.

"I have these giant trays at home, and I’ve separated them by what beach I found them on. So this is Lake Superior, this is Lake Erie. But I have about 20 of them full of plastic and gross things like fish bones and birch wood and rocks and glass, obviously my number one item is plastic,” she says.

After separating the items out, Rutherford finds the items that interest her most and displays them in corked test tubes.

“For some reason, tubes have become my method of display to kind of show the organization, categorization through these vessels that are like these 360 viewpoints, collages inside of these glass tubes of plastic and found material,” she explains.

Geo Rutherford_2.2021-020_highres.jpg
Geo Rutherford
Rutherford uses clear test tubes to organize and display the items she has collected from across the Great Lakes.

While printmaking was intended to be the focal point of her thesis — that had to make room for what Rutherford calls "the trash I collected on the side" within her master’s show at the Kenilworth Square Gallery.

“There are lots of tubes. We have some giant tubes that are over two feet tall, then we have some medium sized tubes that are about five inches tall,” she says.

To be exact, there are 184.

“All the monarch wings are in one tube. All of the shells from Lake Erie are in one tube. Some of the tubes are single items. We have one that just has a Barbie head. We’ve got ring pops. We’ve got balloon string,” she explains.

But Rutherford’s exhibit is telling a bigger story here.

A series of collages artfully display the waves of invasive species that have upturned the Great Lakes ecosystem. “You have the disgusting sea lamprey with its gaping mouth of lawnmower type teeth, you have the alewives, which came in billions to the Great Lakes and died on our shores,” she says. “And then the current battle, which is with the zebra and quagga mussels."

Also included in the exhibition are nearly 200 individually screen- and block-printed boats dangle ethereally from thin string–like puppets in a marionette show.

Geo Rutherford
One of the nearly 200 individually crafted boats that hangs inside Rutherford's exhibit.

“So on the inside of the boats, each boat is a different color of blue — kind of like the surface of Lake Michigan. If you live near Lake Michigan, you know it’s a different color every day. Then the bottoms of the boats are covered with prints of invasive species. So when you’re standing next to this installation and you’re looking down, you see shades of blue, but then when you look up, you can see what the water is hiding,”she says.

Rutherford’s show won't end in Milwaukee — next to Chicago and later to Manitowoc. She hopes to find new partners and new audiences.

"I see education, I see an opportunity to help people recognize the value, importance and the current events that are impacting the Great Lakes. I just see it as a tool,” she says.

Rutherford says she didn’t expect to feel so “altered” by her two-year Great Lakes immersion. She says they all deserve attention and love.

Susan Bence
Rutherford at Bradford Beach in Milwaukee searching for inspiration with her halloween bucket.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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