Mixed Media

Terrible Beauty

UB artist Joan Linder finds her muse in Niagara Falls’ toxic past

“Ground I,” 2014, ink on paper, 46 x 46 inches (detail).

“Ground I,” 2014, ink on paper, 46 x 46 inches (detail).

Joan Linder, associate professor of art.

Joan Linder, associate professor of art. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

By Lauren Newkirk Maynard


Joan Linder is documenting a haunting legacy. The associate professor of art has spent countless hours this past year sketching brownfields and toxic waste sites in and around Love Canal, the location of one of our country’s worst environmental disasters.

Known for her meticulous realism, Linder creates large-scale panoramas as well as intimate domestic tableaux that tackle such hot-button issues as sexual identity, technology and family. One critically hailed show, “Sink,” included sketches of the contents of her own kitchen sink during the years she was home with two children. “Those dirty dishes seemed to echo the ‘women’s work’ I was immersed in at the time,” she says.

For her current project, Linder has crisscrossed the area near Love Canal, parking along chain-link fences on crumbling, dead-end streets. She has sat among scrubby weeds and roadside flowers to capture their shape on paper, or taken photos so she can later painstakingly recreate the landscapes in her home studio.

The first batch of sketches appeared in a Buffalo gallery last spring, followed by a larger show in New York City in October. Eventually, she hopes to exhibit the entire body of work locally, but when that will be is unclear. “It’s all still surfacing,” she says of the environmental damage, but may as well be referring to the project. “You know what they say—an art project is never done, only abandoned.”