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Lisa Grossman's Art Will Make You See the Kansas River in New Ways

A new art exhibit in Kansas City about the Kansas River will help you see the Kaw in new ways. Commentator Rex Buchanan tells us more about the art and the artist, Lawrence resident Lisa Grossman.

Grossman's exhibit, called “Rivering”, is on display now at Haw Contemporary in the West Bottoms of Kansas City. The show runs through March 8.


Probably the most notable natural feature here in Douglas County is the Kansas River. And like all the things we look at all the time, sometimes we don’t see it at all.

But you may view the river differently after seeing a new exhibition by Lawrence artist Lisa Grossman. That exhibition, called “Rivering,” shows the Kaw in ways you’ve never seen it before.

The show is now on at the Haw Contemporary gallery in the West Bottoms of Kansas City and runs through March 8.

Grossman has been painting the river for a long time, often from aerial views, showing its sinuous, shimmering surface disappearing in the distance. These are almost like low-altitude photographs, often with the sun at a seemingly low angle. A large example of one of those paintings, called Navigating, is on prominent display at the Spencer Art Museum on KU’s campus.

Grossman takes all this a step farther in the new exhibit. Along with acrylic and oil paintings of the river, she explores other techniques, including a set of paintings based on LIDAR. That's a light-detecting radar technique that produces really detailed aerial images of the land’s surface. Grossman uses LIDAR images that show abandoned river channels, the bends and loops where the river used to flow but then left behind when it changed course, usually during a flood.

Some of those old meanders are visible to the eye today, like Lakeview Lake northwest of Lawrence. Lakeview, one of the few natural lakes in Kansas, is a channel that the river left behind when it cut a new path. Other abandoned channels are almost imperceptible without tools like LIDAR. LIDAR is often used for everything from flood insurance to archeology. Grossman turns LIDAR into art.

She used lasers to cut the LIDAR images into wooden panels and then painted the results. Looking at them is like viewing a history of the river’s changing course. You may not have noticed these old channels before, but the next time you fly over the Kaw or some major river, look down. You'll see 'em now.

More unusual are Grossman’s images of glacial Lake Kaw, a lake no human ever saw. When glaciers moved into northeastern Kansas about 600,000 years ago, they blocked the Kansas River and formed a dam, backing up water as far to the west as say, today's Abilene.

Grossman paints that ancient lake, again from an aerial perspective based on maps of its extent.

All of this shows her deep knowledge of, and appreciation for, the river. She spent lots of time on the river and immersed herself in the scientific literature about it.

Now, there's long been a connection between geology and art. Before photography, geologists drew outcrops, mountains, and other natural features. Because sometimes, the best way to understand something is to draw it.

I claim no expertise when it comes to art. But I’ve always figured that one reason for art was to help people see the world, and its complexity, in new and different ways. If that’s right, then Lisa Grossman’s work, focused on our own backyard, is a true artistic success.


Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer, director emeritus at the Kansas Geological Survey and sometimes art critic. He lives in Lawrence.