nelson on a tug boat

Steve NelsonSteve Nelson

Both a long-time maritime industry and literal and figurative journey are explored in “Tug: A Great Lakes Odyssey,” a photographic study by Steve Nelson of the Hope College art faculty that will be featured in the college’s De Pree Art Center and Gallery from Wednesday, Oct.. 9, through Friday, Nov. 8.

Nelson will deliver an artist’s talk on Friday, Oct. 11, at 4 p.m. in Cook Auditorium in the De Pree Art Center, with a reception following.

The public is invited to the exhibition, artist’s talk and reception.  Admission is free.

The exhibition centers on the tugboat fleet of the Great Lakes Towing Company, which was founded in the 19th century and today operates in more than 40 U.S. ports throughout lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior.  Nelson began the project in the spring of 2018, and across the past year-and-a-half has chronicled operations and moments from Duluth, Minnesota, in the west, to Buffalo, New York, in the east; from dry dock, to guiding domestic and foreign-flagged cargo carriers, to icebreaking; from the scrapping of old vessels to the construction of new.

While on one level Nelson hopes to draw the viewer into the world of the tugboat industry — one display will even simulate the view from within a wheelhouse — he notes that he’s not a documentarian but is seeking through his work to consider the nature of experience.

“The range from intimate to distant perspectives in my photography reflects a search for clarity and understanding,” he explains in the artist’s statement developed for the exhibition.  “Within this search, questions arise about the nature of what is seen. Where does the image exist — simultaneously before us, seen with our eyes, is it both witnessed and remembered? What lies between the conscious and subconscious where moments of clarity and wakefulness are surrounded by doubt and uncertainty?  It is the tension between these moments that I seek to illuminate in my photographs.”

“Tug: A Great Lakes Odyssey” represents the third elemental epoch — water — in a multi-year exploration by Nelson of current and former industry that has also included earth and sky.  His past photographic projects have focused on various post-industrial environments, representing earth via “The Gardens of Industry,” which deals with abandoned mining sites throughout Michigan, and sky through “Guardian and Angels,” which documented rooftop iconographic forms from a paper mill in Plainwell that is no longer operational.

He traces his interest in tugboats and their operations to his childhood in Muskegon.

“While growing up in a port city on Lake Michigan, I was captivated by commercial shipping operations of the area,” he said. “The ships entering and leaving port were impressive in scale, as they towered above my neighborhood near the channel. Their passage punctuated time, breaking the monotony of routine daily activities and activating my imagination of distance places.”

Nelson is an associate professor of art at Hope, where he has taught photography since 1989.  He earned his BFA in photography from Western Michigan University and his MFA in art media studies from Syracuse University.

His photographs have been exhibited widely, including a two-person exhibition, “Ripple Effect,” in 2016 at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids that focused on the post-industrial complex of the Plainwell paper mill and the surroundings.  The work was previously installed on the mill site in abandoned manufacturing spaces as a collaborative installation project with sculptor Sarah Lindley of Kalamazoo College with the support of a Great Lakes Colleges Association Collaborative Initiatives grant.

Nelson’s talk and the reception on Friday, Oct. 11, are scheduled in conjunction with the college’s Oct. 11-13 “One Big Weekend: Homecoming and Family Weekend” celebration.  

Audience members who need assistance to fully enjoy any event at Hope are encouraged to contact the college's Events and Conferences Office by emailing or calling 616-395-7222 on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

The De Pree Art Center and Gallery is located at 275 Columbia Ave., between 10th and 13th streets.  The gallery is open Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.