Land Conservancy of West Michigan Executive Director Joe Engel’s mother can remember what was once a source of great pride for Muskegon, Pigeon Hill: the massive sand dune that towered a couple hundred feet above the western shores of Muskegon Lake and drew tourists from across the country in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
But by the time her son was growing up in Muskegon, the dune that was named for the thousands of passenger pigeons that would congregate around its peak was gone. Mining operations began there in 1926 and, by 1938, it had been reduced to a series of sandy bumps.
For Engel, it’s that story of loss he does not want to see replicated—here in Muskegon, and throughout our region.
“When natural lands are gone, they’re gone,” Engel said. “We don’t typically get those back. At Flower Creek [Dunes Nature Preserve in Muskegon County], for example, where we have 2,000 feet of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline, if you put 30 cottages there and decimate the dunes, we’re not going to get that back.”
And while something like Pigeon Hill is forever lost (well, at least the sand dune is—the brewery is here and thriving), there remain vast amounts of land throughout Muskegon and West Michigan worth preserving and fighting for, Engel emphasized.
“Muskegon has some phenomenal resources,” Engel said. “It has one of the most beautiful ports on the Great Lakes. The factories are gone; you no longer smell the paper mill. We’ve pretty much rebuilt the shoreline on the south side. They’re doing a phenomenal job of restoring the area. The more you do that, the more people appreciate what they have and why it’s important to protect it going forward.”
It’s that drive for appreciation and protection that is bringing Engel back to his hometown of Muskegon this Thursday, Oct. 3 for the Land Conservancy’s opening of the “Preserved!” art exhibition at the Frauenthal Center. A collaboration between the Land Conservancy of West Michigan and 16 local artists who have spent the past eight months capturing the natural areas the organization has helped to protect, the “Preserved!” exhibition showcases works from painters, photographers, ceramicists, and fiber artists who’ve created pieces inspired by our natural surroundings.
The exhibition’s opening reception at the Frauenthal Center will be held on Thursday, Oct. 3 from 5-8 pm, and the exhibit itself will run from Oct. 3 through Oct. 8. The show will then move to the LaFontsee Galleries in Grand Rapids.
Proceeds from both the Muskegon and Grand Rapids shows will support the Land Conservancy’s mission of keeping nature nearby for future generations. For more than 40 years, the Land Conservancy has worked with individuals, families and communities to protect and care for land in eight West Michigan counties: Muskegon, Allegan, Kent, Ottawa, Newaygo, Oceana, Mason, and Lake. To date, the group has worked to protect nearly 150 properties in the region—including such local spaces as Lost Lake in Muskegon State Park, the Flower Creek Dunes Nature Preserve, Whitey’s Woods in Lake Harbor Park, and Meinert County Park.
Artists participating in this year’s Preserved! include: Justin Kellner, Kathleen Kalinowski, Randi Ford, Teresa O’Brien, Anne Corlett, Sally Jenks, Kathy Mohl, Thomas Hegewald, Cayla Tinney, Yolanda Gonzalez, Jean Allemeier Boot, Michael Pfleghaar, Susan M. Rose, Shilin Hora, Jane Everhart and 17-year-old youth ambassador Ellie Iorio.
“It’s an honor to be a part of ‘Preserved!,’ said Mohl, a Caledonia-based artist. “It’s such a perfect match for me. I’m a contemporary landscape painter; I love to paint on location. For this cause, I realized I could use my talents and help protect these lands, too.”
For Mohl, protecting those lands holds a special place in her heart: an Ohio native who moved to West Michigan 20 years ago, the artist said it was this area’s natural surroundings that “opened my eyes to painting the landscape.”
“Originally, I was a graphic designer and illustrator, but 20 years ago it shifted to fine art—and that coincided with moving to West Michigan and being out in the beautiful landscapes we have here,” Mohl said. “For ‘Preserved!,’ I was painting on the Saugatuck dunes overlooking Lake Michigan. It’s like no place on earth. It’s magical.”
In addition to being a fundraiser for the Land Conservancy, the art show aims to further connect individuals with the importance of preserving nature—particularly as we face climate change.
“The more we can maintain a good tree canopy and create grasses that sequester carbon, that makes the land more resilient to climate change,” Engel said.
After all, Engel emphasized, we have the chance now to preserve our natural spaces while they’re still here, instead of relegating formerly majestic places, like Pigeon Hill, to memory.
“The development pressures on lands throughout West Michigan are pretty significant,” he said. “While we have the opportunity to protect those incredible lands and make them available to the public to enjoy, we need to do that.”
The opening reception for “Preserved!” will be held at the Frauenthal Center (425 W. Western Ave. in downtown Muskegon) on Thursday, Oct. 3 from 5-8pm. Admission to the opening reception costs $50; to register, click here. The exhibition will remain at the Frauenthal Center from Thursday, Oct. 3 through Wednesday, Oct. 8. The opening reception for the LaFontsee Galleries exhibition will be held Thursday, Oct. 17 from 5-8pm. It will remain on display at the Grand Rapids location through Saturday, Oct. 19. For more information about “Preserved!,” please click here.
Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Images courtesy of the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.