The first thing you notice about Dylan Miner’s new exhibition is the smell. The gallery at the Grand Rapids Art Museum has a sharp, almost sawdust-like aroma—the first taste of a gallery that explores the relationship between the rocks, trees and water of Michigan and its native peoples.
The first room is dominated by a broad platform of old-growth white pine, which a nearby placard helpfully notes was harvested perhaps 150 years ago, before it became waterlogged in transport and sank to the bottom of Lake Huron. Bundles of pine needles hang overhead, creating a metaphorical tree—roots in the past, foliage in the present—and building a “conversation,” the museum notes, between now and then.
Many of Miner’s other works have a similar effect, or plumb similar ideas. Miner is an East Lansing-based artist and holds multiple titles at Michigan State University, where he directs the school’s American Indian Studies program. His exhibit is tucked back into the first floor of the GRAM, and it’s filled with fresh perspectives on Michigan’s indigenous and natural histories.
The exhibition, titled “Dylan Miner: Water is Sacred // Trees are Relatives,” also includes a range of cyanotypes—photographic images made with a 19th century procedure that leaves its final products a hue of blue. The museum’s notes on the exhibition point out that the “process was first used in 1842, the year that the Treaty of LaPointe was signed, the last of the eight major treaties ceding land that is now Michigan.”
Miner found his way to the GRAM in 2015 during ArtPrize, when his project “Native Kids Ride Bikes” was shown at the museum. That project, which featured decorated bicycles rich with allusions to Native American culture and history, caught museum curator Ron Platt’s eye.
“Ever since then, I had decided that I wanted to do something much more ambitious with Dylan, because he could definitely deliver,” Platt said. “I think I was aware that we probably have not shown, like a lot of institutions, much work by Native American artists, but honestly, of all of the artists that I had been meeting and getting to work with when I first got here, he really stood out.”
The exhibition, which arrived on Oct. 27, will remain at the GRAM through March 3. It’s currently accompanied by “Who Shot Sport: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present,” now on the museum’s second floor.
*Photos by Sam Easter