MILWAUKEE — Geo Rutherford has been spending a lot of time at the beach.
Over the past couple of years, she’s road-tripped to every one of the Great Lakes. But she hasn’t just been taking in the sights: She’s spent her time staring down at the sand at forgotten roadside beaches, scouring for bits of material on the shore.
“Once you start collecting plastic, you get kind of hyped about stuff,” Rutherford said. “You get way too excited about things that you should not be getting excited about.”
Her lakeshore visits — and the “insane amount of trash” that has piled up in her studio — have all been part of her artistic process. Rutherford, an MFA student at UW-Milwaukee, is finishing off her graduate program with an art show all about the Great Lakes.
Her show, “On the Threshold of the Great Lakes,” focuses on the margin between the “known” space of the shore and the “unknowable” expanse of the water. It’s on display at a UW-Milwaukee gallery space this weekend, along with the work of other students in her graduating class.
“From standing on the shore, it's impossible to know what's really happening with the Great Lakes as far as their health and wellness,” Rutherford said. “Like, that's 20% of the world's available, unfrozen freshwater in our backyard. And we treat it not kindly, on a grand scale.”
Rutherford has long had an interest in the natural world. Growing up with a geologist mother — who’s also the one who gave her the nickname Geo, short for Georgina — she said she spent a lot of her childhood at natural history museums, hiking and generally appreciating the world beyond her backyard.
But going to art school in Milwaukee, with Lake Michigan just a few blocks away, Rutherford said she felt a new connection to the Great Lakes.
“There's actually a really wide audience of people who love and care about the Great Lakes,” Rutherford said. “And so, knowing that my passion and love for the Great Lakes is felt by many, many other people is why I really got into this.”
For the show, Rutherford sorted a lot of the goodies she picked up from the beach into a series of tubes, trying to tell the story of the Great Lakes. It’s a story made up of many different shapes and sizes: Mussel shells, monarch butterflies, Barbie arms, buttons, cigarettes, crayfish claws, syringes, even a little plastic spider that she said was “the highlight of my whole week.”
The show also uses prints to explore the problem of invasive species in the lakes — from the trout-killing sea lamprey, to the overpopulating alewives, to the current crisis of quagga and zebra mussels. Rutherford said printmaking was the perfect medium to demonstrate the idea of “things coming in multiples, things exploding in population.”
One wall of the gallery is decked out in an arc of printed paper boats hanging over a tiny “beach” of sand and mussels. When people walk along the fake shoreline, the mussels get stuck on their shoes and spread around the gallery, mimicking the boats that brought invasive species into the lakes hundreds of years ago, Rutherford said.
And Rutherford’s art has already reached an audience beyond the gallery walls. She’s posted videos of her work on her TikTok account — which these days has more than 680,000 followers and more than 25 million views.
Her TikTok rise got off to a “bombastic” start when one of her early videos from last summer, showcasing one of her artist books, racked up more than a million views.
“I liked the idea that I could post something that could be in both worlds,” Rutherford said. “Where it can educate, bring awareness, be scientifically motivated, but be an art thing. And people on TikTok love art things.”
Since then, Rutherford has kept growing her profile, expanding to create hundreds of educational videos about lakes around the world. From dead zones to volcano snails to an entire month of “spooky lakes” in honor of Halloween, any topic that sparks her interest is fair game. Some of her most popular videos focus on Lake Baikal, a huge, ancient Siberian lake that’s 28 million years old and as big as Belgium.
While she never really expected to go viral, Rutherford said she’s excited to have an audience to share her work — and her love of lakes.
“Great Lakes education deserves a platform,” she said. “Especially for people in Milwaukee or Cleveland or Detroit, or any of these other cities that have a huge impact on the waters and the waters have a huge impact on them.”
In her art as well as her videos, Rutherford, who’s also a former high school teacher, said her goal is for her work to be accessible. She wants anyone to be able to walk in off the street, with no artistic background, and be able to learn something from her show.
And with the power of millions of TikTokers behind her, she’s been able to help a wide audience learn about and appreciate the lakes she loves.
“Even if they never see my show in person, even if they never buy a piece of artwork, even if I'm never a famous artist, it doesn't matter,” Rutherford said. “Because bringing awareness is what's the most important thing.”
The show, which features Rutherford’s work, as well as art from five other MFA students, is open this Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 2155 N Prospect Ave.