Fresh Coast Creatives: Brushstrokes of local history with Liam Berigan
Traverse City is known for, among other things, a concentration of plein air artists – a style of painting where the artist leaves the studio and paints landscapes out in the open.
And while Liam Berigan, a young landscape painter himself, respects this kind of art, he’s determined to put his own stamp on the artform.
"In one way, it's interesting to see how people can reduce – look at a landscape that has a lot of variation – and pick out the most iconic parts," Liam says. "But if this is the only way this region gets represented, I feel like it's doing a disservice."
Our meeting, originally planned along the Boardman Lake, was shifted to the Traverse City District Library due to rain. Liam's enthusiasm for the space was palpable. "That's why I wanted to pick this place specifically,” Liam says. “Because I feel like it embodies that research side. I'm a studio painter.”
Liam is enrolled at Wayne State studying cultural anthropology with a specific interest in East Asian traditions. With these influences, he utilizes materials and techniques from Japan, Korea, and China to create minimalist landscapes of Northern Michigan.
While Liam’s landscapes do not look like the typical Michigan landscape painting, the stories the paintings depict are deeply rooted in local history. Take his piece "Night Rain on the Boardman River," for instance.
At first glance, the picture seems ordinary. The river runs through the center of the picture – small hills roll on either side. But on closer inspection, the hills are pockmarked with a forest of stumps and the river is filled completely with the recently fallen trees.
“When Traverse City was first founded, the writings of the area in newspapers and stuff like that were very economical and extractive,” says Liam. “You can make a lot of money if you set up a sawmill here, but eventually there came a point where this destructive process of cutting down trees caught up with all these sawmill companies.”
Another part of history Liam researches is the queer history of Traverse City. As a member of the queer community, Liam was interested in the way Traverse City popularly considered a queer friendly town and what the actual history was.
“You see a lot on websites and stuff, talking about how Traverse City is this kind of queer friendly town,” Liam said. “So I wanted to see, how far does that history go?”
Liam did some initial research but had some trouble finding any primary sources online. Most sources he found had gaps in the history. “It was like, well, Sidetraxx was founded in the 70’s, “said Liam. “And then Up North Pride was founded in the 2010’s. And then here we are today.”
Because of this, Liam started interviewing elders of the local LGBT community. Some of those stories became paintings – like "Grass River Memories" for example. In the painting Liam describes as a “typical forest scene,” trees sit in the foreground while two figures sit on the bank of the river. Liam explains the painting “represents the moment before that first kiss” and captures a moment in history when queer love was not accepted in public spaces.
Through his interviews, Liam made associations between the surrounding rivers and lakes around diversity as places for queer safety.
“I've realized through my interviews, the association of the surrounding rivers and lakes as places for queer safety,” Liam says. “Basically places like Lake Interlochen and Long Lake.”
Many of Liam's paintings have this common characteristic where the landscape initially appears ordinary until the underlying stories are told.
“I feel like it out of all my paintings that I've done,” Liam says about "Grass River Memories," “I feel like this embodies why I make art the most – because it shows those hidden stories that wouldn't be talked about, unless I painted them.”
Support for Fresh Coast Creatives comes from the Northwest Michigan Arts & Culture Network, inviting you to Fall into the Arts, and through an award from Michigan Arts & Culture Council.