Love Canal Exhibit On Display

DUNKIRK – Artist Tricia Butski invites the public to examine her interpretation of some very important local history.

Through Thursday, Butski is offering a show of her artwork – mostly paintings – at the Adams Art Gallery, 600 Central Ave., in Dunkirk.

The title of the exhibit is ”The Love Canal Revisited,” and it is testimony to how rapidly times pass that many viewers of her show have never heard the ominous words ”Love Canal.”

In the 1890s, an enterprising man named William T. Love attempted to build a canal, from the upper Niagara River to Lake Ontario. His goals were either to use the rush of water to power turbines, and thus produce a wealth of electric power, or to create a shorter and easier passage between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, expecting to produce an economic rush for the community of Niagara Falls, at the same time.

When Love’s plans failed to be accomplished, he sold the mile-long portion of the canal which had been created to the firm which eventually came to be known as the Hooker Chemical Company, which is now part of the Occidental Petroleum Corporation. The chemical company, and the city of Niagara Falls used the abandoned canal as a dump site for wastes, including an estimated 21,000 tons of toxic waste, largely in large, metal barrels.

In 1953, with World War II recently over, Niagara Falls needed new neighborhoods to deal with a burst of population growth. The city school district created a plan in which it could build two new schools atop the chemical dumping grounds, and turn the rest into small homes which would pay property tax to help support the city’s education system.

The chemical company tried not to sell the land, concerned about the waste lying below its surface, but when threatened with having the land taken by the city, they sold the entire parcel of land for $1, insisting that it be included in the deed that the school board had been warned about the land’s history.

In 1976, the Niagara Falls Gazette launched an investigation to reports of high incidence of cancers and other illnesses, in certain neighborhoods of the city. In 1978, the enormity of the situation was determined, and a large area was fenced in, and all the residents were required to move elsewhere. An additional area of land was declared polluted, and the residents were strongly warned to move, but were not required to do so.

Ms. Butski’s mother was born to parents who lived inside the fence, and lived there until required to evacuate. Her paintings show endless rows of barrels, seen through rusted fence. One series of paintings show her mother’s home, starting as an attractive home and gradually being boarded up, and finally demolished.

There is one large wall, entirely made up of a giant collage of items which she simply picked up, while walking along the Love Canal Fence. Twisted pipes, warped doors from kitchen cabinets, a section of picket fence and other exhibits demonstrate the destruction of people’s lives and dreams.

The largest painting in the exhibit was made from obtaining a satellite photo of the neighborhood, and creating a painted version of the photo, with a red line demonstrating the location of the fence. To me, the most shocking element of the exhibit was the fact that literally adjacent to the eastern edge of the fence, there are still a large number of private homes, clearly still inhabited.

In another room, Ms. Butski has made a series of paintings of her younger brother, made from photos of him, taken during his hospitalization for a brain tumor, at the age of four. She has taken other photos of her family and transformed them into paintings making an eloquent statement about her history.

The style and technique of the paintings is not exceptional, but its testimony to history is certainly exceptional.

The Adams Art Gallery is only open to the public from 1:30-3:30 p.m., on Thursdays and Fridays. Whenever staff members are inside, they often open the doors and put out a ”gallery open” sign. Individual appointments can be made to view the exhibit by emailing Rarely do art and life coincide so strikingly.