CANTON — Inside Traditional Arts in Upstate New York’s Main Street building Friday morning, a pair of local artists worked with TAUNY staff to set up one of several exhibits in the monthlong North Country Art, Land and Environment Summit.

SUNY Potsdam graduate Blake Lavia and St. Lawrence University graduate Tzintzun Aguilar-Izzo, both members of the Class of 2015, returned to the north country from Massachusetts about two years ago and started planning the summit in September 2019. The summit is designed to facilitate conversations about north country land history, the St. Lawrence River Watershed and Haudenosaunee Territory, relationships to water and how art can ignite environmental action. Events and exhibitions are largely virtual due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“We use our art as a catalyst for environmental conversations,” Aguilar-Izzo said.

The summit’s online portal contains links to work from local visual artists, ceramicists and filmmakers, including Lavia and Aguilar-Izzo, who collaborate on multimedia projects as the Talking Wings Collective. The portal also includes an interactive exhibit, sponsored by TAUNY and narrated by local environmental historian and educator Tom B. VandeWater. Titled As the Grasse Talks, the exhibit explores the history and path of the Nikentsà:ke, or Grasse River, from the Adirondack Mountains to the Akwesasne Nation, where its waters join the Kaniataro’wanneneh, or St. Lawrence River.

The installation at TAUNY features three ceramic water pots crafted by Akwesasne artist Katsitsionni Fox, and a looped film created by Lavia and Aguilar-Izzo. Composed of a series of dances performed in area rivers, including the Grasse and Raquette, the film is visible through TAUNY’s window and can be viewed by passersby through Oct. 2.

The ongoing film screening at TAUNY is part of a segment of the summit called “Water and Origin: Honoring and Protecting the First Storyteller.” Earlier this month, a film exploring the sacred waters of the St. Lawrence River Watershed was screened for students and faculty outside SLU’s Owen D. Young Library.

TAUNY Director of Research and Programs Camilla P. Ammirati said continued conversation about north country land and water is crucial as environmental degradation is “a matter of major concern.”

Though the summit was initially planned as a month of in-person events and gallery showings at SLU’s Richard F. Brush Gallery, Lavia said, the shift to virtual platforms encouraged artists’ creativity in form and presentation.

“In a way, it forced everyone, including the galleries, to be more experimental and break the rules of a white wall gallery,” Lavia said.

Weekly panels feature community members, artists and scientists who discuss topics each Wednesday through Sept. 30. Rivers, Water and Life, the first Wednesday panel, covered the past, present and future of the region’s rivers. This week’s panel addressed food sovereignty and global industrialized food production. About 80 people have tuned in each week, with the videos garnering more than 100 additional views in the days following the live streams.

Sept. 23 panelists will consider Environmental Justice in the North Country, and the Sept. 30 panel will close out the series with The Environmental Future of the Watershed.

The Oct. 2 debut of Lavia and Aguilar-Izzo’s documentary series Burning or Breathing concludes the summit.

“Art is a form of communication and it invites the audience to see another approach to environmental crises,” Lavia said. “Change doesn’t just come from scientific or historical points of view. Art is a form of communication that speaks to people in ways other fields can’t.”

The roughly $20,000 summit was funded in part by Humanities New York, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and SLU. Collaborators include the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, Akwesasne Cultural Center, Bittersweet Farm, Clarkson University, Extinction Rebellion UK, Grasse River Heritage, North Country Public Radio, Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, The Rivers Institute, St. Lawrence Land Trust, St. Regis Mohawk Tribe Environment Division, SUNY Potsdam, Talking Wings Productions, TAUNY and the Weave News.

A full schedule of events and links to panels and online exhibitions are posted to the North Country Art, Land and Environment Summit website, nocoenvironment.org.

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