GVSU visual studies project helps explore key Holland location as leaders consider future

A community-based Grand Valley visual studies project has helped broaden the past and present view along Lake Macatawa in Holland as city leaders consider future waterfront development.

The idea stemmed from Sara Alsum-Wassenaar, communications resource specialist for Production Support Resources in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a part-time visual studies faculty member for the Visual and Media Arts Department. One aspect of visual studies is that students are actively engaged with the community.

The effort, named Macatawa Strata, has had a goal of using research and different forms of artistic media for a site-based exploration, Alsum-Wassenaar said. She said she was also able to obtain funding to work with undergraduate students on the project.

This work had most recently focused on the city's decommissioned power plant, which had piqued Alsum-Wassenaar's interest as she regularly drove by it. She said she was intrigued by the dichotomy of the "iconic" structure that is so prominent in the city, yet sits on property with environmental concerns.

"I thought it would be interesting to bring people to the space to investigate and think about the future," Alsum-Wassenaar said.

A person holds a circular clay form. Several other circular clay forms are on a table under a tent. Several other people are near the table.
Sara Alsum-Wassenaar leads the event where plates were created for use later.

After Alsum-Wassenaar obtained permission to be on the power plant property, she and the students interacted several times with community members to help create the site-based art, including: Asking people to map different things they saw on the grounds of the plant, such as vegetation; having participants use a film camera to photograph something of interest to them, then rewinding the film and using it again for a second round of photos; and working with those at a local festival to create coasters and napkins.

There also was an event to invite people to create a plate by pressing a circular piece of clay against the building or on the ground and placing it on a mold to be fired later.

Alsum-Wassenaar has hopes to use the plates, coasters and napkins for a meal with city leaders. She hopes the site-based art will resonate with anyone who works with it or encounters it.

"I hope people will understand the layers of the space," Alsum-Wassenaar said. "Ultimately we're asking people to look around them and notice things and think about the complexity of those things."

One person stands and one kneels amid vegetation. A decommissioned power plant is behind them.
A holds a clay mold in one hand while using the other to place vegetation onto the clay.
Two people look at a camera. Several other people are in the background.
A number of art forms have been used as part of the project.

Holland Mayor Nathan Bocks said this work to help understand the complexity of the power plant property is valuable as city leaders carry out their planning for Waterfront Holland. The waterfront, and the power plant's unique design, is a central part of Holland's rich and long history, Bocks said.

"I think it's a great idea to capture the history of that location in a lot of different ways, allowing us to maintain that history and also plug into it," Bocks said.

Exploring the layers of history was on the mind of Tess Clark, a studio art major with an emphasis in visual studies. Clark led the photography activity of taking two sets of photos on rewound film to create a double exposure that showed two different people's views and experiences at the site.

Clark said this project is at the heart of what makes visual studies compelling as an artist.

"Visual studies is so great at connecting art practices with social, cultural and political issues in the contemporary world and exploring various concepts through various art forms to communicate," Clark said. "It's a very interdisciplinary-based field, which is great. With my own art, I come from multiple disciplines and multiple art forms. You can have this concept first and then use whatever art form best communicates your ideas."


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