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UB artist finds terrible beauty in Niagara Falls’ toxic past

Artistic renderings of photocopied, declassified documents line the walls of artist Joan Linder’s home studio in Buffalo. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

By LAUREN NEWKIRK MAYNARD

Published July 30, 2015

“I’m using traditional materials like pen and ink, but there’s always a contemporary anxiety and sense of wonder there, something personal and political behind what I’m doing.”
Joan Linder, associate professor
Department of Art

Wielding a pen, a Geiger counter and her artistic sense of curiosity, Joan Linder is documenting a haunting legacy.

Just a few miles north of campus, Linder, an associate professor of art, has spent countless hours this past year sketching the brownfields and hidden (or not-so-hidden) toxic waste sites she has visited in and around Niagara Falls, the Tonawandas and Love Canal.

Yes, that Love Canal: The environmental disaster of the late 1970s and 1980s. The abandoned housing development in Niagara Falls, N.Y., now officially deemed safe, that nobody talks much about anymore, although signs of it still linger.

Supported by a UB Humanities Institute fellowship and UB’s Technē Institute for Arts and Emerging Technologies, Linder has crisscrossed the area near Love Canal, parking along chain-link fences, on dead-end, crumbling streets and overgrown urban meadows. She’ll peer closely at the dirt and even sit among scrubby weeds and roadside flowers to capture their shape on paper, or take photos so she can spend hours recreating the landscapes in her home studio.

In one large drawing, a meter square, she painstakingly outlines the shapes of ground flora, coloring in some leaves, a flower petal or stamen here, a pebble there. But the ground itself she mostly leaves blank or faintly crosshatched, perhaps to represent the huge questions that remain beneath it.

“In all of my work, I tend to be interested in the negative space as much what’s there, what’s solid,” she says.

Art professor Joan Linder pauses at her pen and ink drawing of a Western New York toxic waste site. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

Linder came to Buffalo in 2004 after completing a BFA at Tufts University and an MFA at Columbia University, and now she teaches drawing at UB. A nationally recognized artist known for her meticulous brand of realism, she’s honed her observations in classrooms, exhibits and galleries around the country. She creates large-scale panoramas as well as smaller, intimate domestic tableaux and life drawings, most on a 1-to-1 scale.

Many of her subjects are pulled from her own life, and are drawn with a critical eye toward the passing of time and how things appear to change, or not.

She often gives the personal and political meanings behind her work a touch of light humor, tackling hot-button issues including sexual identity, technology and family. One critically hailed show, “Sink,” included sketches of the contents of her own 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.

Detail of Joan Linder's work "Ground," 2014, ink on paper, 44" x 44". Photo: Biff Henrich, IMGINK

She’s sketched human cadavers in UB’s Gross Anatomy Lab. She’s drawn all of the knickknacks and paraphernalia behind the bar at one of Buffalo’s most infamous watering holes, the Old Pink.

“I’m using traditional materials like pen and ink, but there’s always a contemporary anxiety and sense of wonder there, something personal and political behind what I’m doing,” she says.

Sitting on the ground in her own backyard in Buffalo’s Elmwood Village, Linder imagines what lurks beneath it.

“I think it’s all still surfacing,” she says, referring to the environmental damage incurred as part of the wartime activities of the infamous Manhattan project to develop the atom bomb — which resulted in radioactive waste being dumped and buried in Niagara County. She took the Geiger counter around on a few visits, noting with some alarm how the numbers jumped in a few areas. “Most of the radiation was background level — normal— but some, well, wasn’t,” she says.

Linder’s work includes an entire wall of 9-by-12-inch drawings, half-traced, half-painted, of photocopied, declassified documents related to Buffalo’s environmental history, including Love Canal, the nuclear waste-dumping and other industrial byproducts.

She is especially fascinated by the typewritten fonts (“I love the Courier type”) and redacted sections of the memos she digs up in local and national archives, including UB’s own Love Canal Collections. There are hand-drawn copies of aerial maps marking radioactive storage sites; memos on human uranium injections; and other formerly hush-hush documents filled with details that are sometimes trivial, other times surreal and unbelievable.

Whether it’s a capped waste dump one week or a buried field of nuclear refuse tanks another, Linder is trying to capture them in two dimensions.

Some of Linder’s work tackles three dimensions as well. She’s currently sketching the massive chain link fence that wraps around the Hooker Chemical 102nd Street landfill site implicated in the Love Canal disaster. Link by link, the drawing will take up six separate sheets of a cream-colored, folded booklet, each sheet 6 inches tall by 9 feet long.

In April, she exhibited the first batch of her plant sketches at a solo show, titled “Ground,” at the Nina Freudenheim Gallery in Buffalo. A larger collection will open in New York City at the Mixed Greens gallery in October.

“You know what they say, an art project is never done, only abandoned,” Linder says. Eventually, she hopes to exhibit this entire body of work somewhere local. “It’s about this area, so I feel it should be available here at some point, to help educate the local community about its present, past and future.”

On occasion, Linder has run into some resistance from local and state officials who realized where she was going and what she was doing. While the anxiety comes back, it also spurs Linder on.

“The awe and wonder I first felt about this material holds me, still,” she says. “It’s simply endless.”