Lake Erie matters in the terroir of Cleveland.

The French word refers to wine, the natural environment grapes grow in, including soil, geography and climate. Michael Gill, the executive director of Cleveland’s Collective Arts Network (CAN), thinks the word also makes sense for artists.

Which is why water emerged as a theme in the first-ever CAN Triennial art exhibit, Gill said.

“I think that there is something in the water,” Gill said. “Being from a place informs what the art scene is.”

CAN formed in 2011 to unite and help Northeast Ohio’s visual arts community. The first CAN Triennial is a massive display of 90 Northeast Ohio artists, exhibiting work at 78th Street Studios from July 7 through 29, overlapping with the big FRONT Triennial contemporary art exhibition across the region.

About seven of the 90 artists chosen for CAN Triennial focused on water and Lake Erie.

    • Rebecca Cross, who bound rocks in silk
    • Lori Kella and Michael Loderstedt, who depicted the strangely lit landscape of a frozen Lake Erie
    • Susan Danka, who showed the environmental changes due to global warming in painted and cut paper
    • Ron Shelton, who made cylinders of 3-inch plastic squares and wire
    • Cleveland Skribe Tribe, who are painting a mural of Chief Thunderwater
    • Christine Mauersberger, who painted transparent mylar with brilliant shades representing toxic blue-green algae

Christy Gray of Gray Haus Studios fine art consulting noticed the theme of water quality, pollution and environmental impacts to the lake while organizing the site-specific installations.  

On Friday, she walked me through the works, spread throughout the public spaces of five interconnected buildings once home to Baker Electric Car Factory and American Greetings.

“This place is going to be rocking all month long,” Gray said.

In the stairwell hangs “Our Plastic World” sculptures and “Poisonous Beauty,” representing Lake Erie’s harmful algal blooms.

Mauersberg called her work a “call to action.”

“When I was invited to participate in the CAN Triennial, I thought, I wanted to do something that had a sense of place, and what my concerns are,” Mauersberger said. “My idea was let me make something beautiful. Then you’ll realized this is something dangerous to us.”

About 540 artists applied to be part of CAN Triennial. The end result is a $300,000 undertaking, supported by Cleveland City Council members, the Cleveland Foundation and more. The event features new artists and big names, includes film and music events, and commercial art fairs July 14-15 and 20-22.

“It’s great to see people jump in,” said Gill

As for the water theme? Mauersberger said, “We’re artists who live right on the lake. We’re concerned about our health and the health of our fellow citizens.”