“Rivers are among the most dynamic and sensitive features on earth, responding to environmental changes over intervals of time ranging from minutes to millennia.
Wakefield Dort, Jr., Professor Emeritus of Geology, University of Kansas.
RIVERING refers to my adventures and explorations of the Kansas River, or Kaw, as it is known locally, over the last couple of decades. But it also describes the river itself which makes its winding way in the act of rivering through vast stretches of time in all the expressions and manifestations of its unique sandy, grassland river-self.
I first encountered the term rivering in River Horse, William Least Heat Moon’s 1999 tale of crossing America by boat, where he thoughtfully engaged with the myriad waterways he traveled.
The Kaw shimmered into my awareness in 1996 after I moved from the river town of Kansas City—which sits at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers—to the town of Lawrence, 52 river miles upstream. The river seemed utterly inaccessible other than a few boat ramps along its 173 miles. It beckoned me then as it has ever since.
This exhibition includes not only contemporary views of the Kaw but also work that imagines the ancient and evolving Kansas River Valley. These include imagery of floodplain scrolls—scars left behind from old river channels—the ancestral Kaw Lake, and the evidence of ancient life along the Kaw. I’ve written an additional statement for each area of inquiry. I offer artistic interpretations of these investigations that are based on scientific sources and inspired by my first-hand experiences. My rivering involves plying the waters of the Kaw by kayak, combing sandbars, exploring riparian trails, studying aerial views of its 173 miles from a small plane and drone, and, of course, painting.
The work is informed by conversations with scientists, the paddling community, and many others who are connected with the river. Also, it draws on more than 20 years of involvement with Friends of the Kaw, the only nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to protecting and preserving the river. I also rely on historic maps and modern mapping technologies such as Google Earth, GIS (Geographic Information Systems), and LiDAR, (Light Detection and Ranging) imaging. For the first time, I have incorporated digital and laser-cutting technology as a basis for painting and creating printmaking blocks.
The oil paintings are primarily views of the river from above, using footage I’ve taken from a small plane flying at 500-1000 feet overhead or drone footage up to 400 feet in altitude. These paintings continue my exploration of the ceaseless windings of sand and water over time, the ever-evolving channels unfurling across the riverbed. In them, I marvel at how the river offers up such dynamic and naturally pleasing compositions.
The two large works, WATER + SAND + TIME and FLUX.FLOW, were inspired by river segments that attracted me because of their untamed character–complicated and intricate arrangements of water-carved sand. There are long reaches in the middle sections that have what are called “indefinite boundaries,” meaning the river is less stable and liable to escape its banks and spill across the floodplain during high-water events. I’m drawn to these places where the river is acting out its essence and where beautiful floodplain meander scars reveal a deep history of exuberant rivering.
In another work, a painted laser-cut on panel, I borrowed “An Everywhere of Silver,” from Emily Dickinson’s poem of the same title. This piece revels in the river’s mercurial surface as seen while paddling my kayak on the river.
The print panels presented an opportunity to bring several aspects of the geological and historical river together—the ancestral Kaw Lake, the floodplain meander scars, and evidence of ancient life on sandbars. I worked around the idea that the past is present and searched for ways to represent that evidence of the river’s longer story that is written in the language of fluvial processes across the floodplains, on the sandbars, and in the geological record. All the while, I acknowledge that my view is only a glimpse over the course of time and a couple of hundred river miles.
ANCESTRAL KAW LAKE - STATEMENT
According to publications by the Kansas Geological Survey, Northeast Kansas and northern Missouri are what is known as the Glaciated Region. During the Pleistocene, between 2.6 million and 11,700 years ago, at least two major glaciers overran this region, with one reaching as far as the Kansas River Valley.
The Kansas River Valley existed in some form prior to the advancement of these great ice sheets that ground their way south from the polar region. Incredibly, the farthest advancing glacier, (not the most recent), the Independence Ice Sheet, advanced as far as the current Kansas River Valley and overlapped it in a few places such as present-day Kansas City, Lawrence, and Topeka. These geologic processes helped shape the current Kansas River Valley. The ice sheet was likely only 30-50 feet thick at the edges but soared up to 300-500 feet thick farther back. It gouged out those great pink quartzite boulders from the current day southwestern Minnesota region, carried them south, and deposited them along a line from west of Wamego, Kansas, to southern Lawrence, Kansas, as the ice melted and receded.
At the Independence Ice Sheet’s maximum around 700,000 years ago, it impounded waters draining from the north and west to form the great ancestral “Kaw Lake,” named by Kansas geologist J. E. Todd in 1918 and sketched later by R. C. Moore. A map of Kaw Lake was created by Professor Wakefield Dort in 1987 with a description of how it might have formed. The massive lake filled the valleys, representing the northern Flint Hills region, to the west past Abilene and up to Randolph, Kansas. It had a shoreline elevation a hundred or so feet higher than the present-day pool levels of Milford and Tuttle Lake reservoirs. Viewing the reservoirs helped me envision the much vaster ancestral lake even though it likely drained and filled many times.
I tried to imagine this great temporal lake. What might it have looked like from the air with the entire north-northeastern horizon dominated by a vast continental glacier? What would be familiar to us today other than the daily cycles of the sun, moon, and night skies, the sun glinting off frozen lakes and tundra-like topography, the deep red, brilliant spectrum of winter sunset? I recalled the winter sunsets I’d experienced on the prairie along with the glaciers I had encountered in Alaska several years ago to jump-start my imagination. Oh, to see that horizon of ice—here. Ultimately, I had to work out my vision through the painting process itself and allow images to emerge. No one knows what it looked like, of course, and I could feel my mind expanding with an unfamiliar sense of freedom. I did not have to consider human presence or impacts on the land, for once. Homo Sapiens emerged in Africa only 300,000 years ago after all! Only Ice Age vegetation was present and inconceivable creatures such as mastodons, giant bison and beaver, staghorn moose, and many others walked this place. We find their bones today on the river’s sandbars, and they fill the wonderful basement displays of the University of Kansas’s Natural History Museum.
I was enthralled by Wakefield Dort’s map of the ancient lake and searched for contemporary version. Apparently, one had never been created, so I asked Brian Parr with KC Mapping and GIS in Kansas City to create a map using the same parameters—a sort of flood simulation at the estimated high water level of 1165 feet in elevation. He came up with a digital map similar to the original drawing but with much more detail. I am not a geologist and know that it would require much field work and research to create a scientifically accurate map, but it served my artistic purposes in envisioning the ancient lake and was quite beautiful in itself.
I converted Brian’s map to an Illustrator file that I could layer in Google Earth Pro over the aforementioned region. In this 3D version, I could virtually fly over the lake from any height or angle. I took screenshots of a variety of views and translated them into acrylic paintings, sketching out what the ancient lake might have looked like. In the fall of 2022, I was able to fly in a small plane along the Kansas River and made sure to swing around Tuttle Lake reservoir for inspiration, as this would have been one of the ancestral lake’s major arms.
FLOODPLAIN SCROLLS - STATEMENT
The floodplain scroll works are painted laser-cuts that use LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) map images of the Kansas River floodplain. LiDAR is a remote sensing method that uses light laser pulsed from an airplane to measure exact distances from earth’s landforms. The images eliminate vegetation which makes them very useful for revealing the hidden history of river systems.
For this show, I was searching for a way to artistically interpret the floodplain scrolls. These old meander scars from where the river once flowed are incredibly beautiful and intriguing but difficult to paint believably. Years ago, on the floodplain north of Lawrence, I’d sometimes paint these gently bowed wetland swales not realizing what they were. Farmers annually attempt to plow them under to increase cropland acreage but the scars persist, and they always seem to revert back to wetlands. Now, when I’m driving across the floodplain on I-70 at Lawrence, for example, I can see the undulating banks and swales, especially in raking light, and I know what I’m seeing.
Geologic testing of river terrace soils indicates that the scrolls formed over the last 1900 years, not over thousands of years as one might think. They tell the story of the river’s wilder ancient self freely unfurling, its channel migrating across the floodplain, which is as much as four miles wide in places. This much more sinuous river was some 60 miles longer only a few centuries ago. Every time a bend is cut off, the river is shortened. You can see the town of Silver Lake, Kansas, in one of my laser panels, which was established on a river bend that was later cut off in 1898. The resulting oxbow lake is now nearly dry. Lake View, which you can see in two laser panels, is another oxbow near Lawrence that is actively maintained as a lake. The oldest scrolls may go back to 1900 years ago, and the most recent oxbow cutoff occurred near Wabaunsee, Kansas, during the 1993 flood.
To make the panels, I used publicly available LiDAR maps through ArcGIS Online, and searched the Kansas River floodplain for interesting sequences of scrolls and oxbows. I Photoshopped screenshots of them into black-and-white compositions for 9 x 9-inch wood panels that I made using the big laser cutter at Metropolitan Community College’s Fab Lab in Kansas City, originally planning to use them as printmaking plates. However, I began experimenting with painting them directly with black and metallic acrylic paint. The LiDAR imaging reveals subtle details in the evolution of channel changes in the Kansas River Valley more clearly than anything I could paint by hand. I decided to let the laser image be a laser with all of its fascinating, intricate detail of the land as it is today.
PRINT PANELS STATEMENT – Ancestral Kaw Lake, Meander Scars, Evidence
Printmaking frees me up to play with time and motion, as I approach it in a spontaneous, painterly way. I like to put static images into sequences that convey a span of time, transitions of light and weather, and especially aspects of the river’s story that exist in the realm of imagination like floodplain evolution, centuries of climactic shifts, and even invasions of ice sheets.
The print panels bring together several themes I’m exploring in this show. The ancestral Kaw Lake is portrayed in a variety of perspectives and atmospheric conditions. I made series of blue floodplain scroll sequences with the laser-cuts of LiDAR imagery to convey their evolution over time. I’ve also included imagery that represents the evidence of the ancient river valley. Standing on a river sandbar can connect one immediately with deep time and the ancient life and processes of the place. Everywhere, one will see fossils, bones from great Pleistocene beasts, artifacts, and boulders deposited by glaciers along with recent tracks from otters or a heron. I’ve included a pistol grip mussel shell I found on the river that hadn’t been reported in 30 years, and a point that is likely 8,000 years old. It is humbling to think of the Ice Age peoples living out their lives in this place at least as far back as 12,000 years ago and I honor this homeland for millennia of their ancestors, to the contemporary tribes of the Kaw, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Ioway, Sac and Fox, Delaware, and others.
With a little imagination one might picture the materials that make up the composition of the sand and silt coming from distant volcanoes, the glacier-ground bits of rock originating in the Canadian Shield and Rockies, the very minerals and elements of the early formation of Earth itself exploded out from the great supernova whose stardust composes humans and everything they know.