GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A local gardening icon is bringing his talents to ArtPrize in a new way.
After 46 years at plant store Flowerland and 30 years hosting the “Flowerland Garden Show” radio program, Rick Vuyst is focusing on something different — sand.
His ArtPrize piece is called “ADrift,” a 28-piece photography exhibit that details the erosion of the dunes on Michigan’s western shoreline in 2019 and 2020.
During those years, the Great Lakes experienced significant rainfall that caused the lake to rise to levels that had not been seen since 1980s. A mid-October storm in 2019 brought winds that stirred up big waves, causing the lakeshore to lose yards of beach and chopping away at dunes.
“When the dunes collapsed, it left patterns in the sand that were just spectacular. I grabbed my camera and shot the pictures,” Vuyst said. “It was here today, gone tomorrow. In a matter of hours, it was gone.”
The weather patterns extended through 2020. As the water ate away at bluffs, docks were destroyed and decks and even a whole home crashed off the tops of cliffs and into the lake.
“The erosion process was very devastating for some people and it caused some real economic problems and some real hardship,” said Vuyst.
Even without the erosion, he said, the beach is a harsh place. The sand and constant winds make it difficult for animals and plants to live. One of the few plants that can thrive in those conditions is Marram grass, Vuyst said.
“Marram grass is super important. Marram grass is, essentially, the primary vegetation that grows on the dunes,” he said. “So, when the wind blows these crystals of sand, the grass almost becomes a snow fence that helps hold that sand in place. And it’s well rooted.”
But even the Marram grass could not escape the erosion of 2019 and 2020.
“With that significant, dramatic, rapid erosion, the vegetation was torn out and washed away. And without the vegetation, there was no longer what I call a ‘vegetative snow fence,’ and it cut away at the bottom of the dunes… Boy, that was dramatic to watch,” Vuyst said.
Half-buried clumps of Marram grass can be seen in the “ADrift” photos. But all hope was not lost.
“Plants, throughout history, have saved the day,” Vuyst said.
With the help of the vegetative life in the sand, he noted, the dunes are coming back.
“Now that I walk the beach and I have the chance to look back at these pictures, you know what I see happening? I see the Marram grass re-establishing. I see the area re-establishing. Nature has a way of recovering of these kinds of events and life goes on,” he said.
Vuyst referred to the erosion and restoration of the dunes as undulation.
“Undulation basically means, you know, like a roller coaster ride, up and down,” he said. “And so what happened with the dunes I think is a metaphor on life … you have your ups, your downs, your peaks, your valleys, and you have times when things just really go off the rails.”
He drew a parallel between the major dune erosion and the pandemic, both of which happened around the same time.
“Ironically, if you think about it, this erosion and these dune collapses took place during COVID. I think there is a reason that happened and it’s rather ironic,” Vuyst said.
The intricate photos, showing layers of sand cut in dramatic fashion, bear names like “Aftershock” and “Demolition.” Others have more whimsical names like “A Slice of Tiramisu” and “Feeling Sedimental.” Vuyst said he can’t help but be “punny.”
“I guess it’s just the kind of guy I am … I can’t take myself or life that seriously,” he said. “That’s life.”
The gardener moved to the lakeshore in 2015.
“Working with flowers and plants, you become a photographer,” he said. “When I moved out to the lakeshore … there are so many opportunities that you can’t help but become a photographer.”
Though Vuyst is known throughout West Michigan as a plant guru, he decided sand photos would be the focus of his ArtPrize submission because he felt it was a relatable, specific topic that held a deeper meaning.
“It’s a subject that everyone can relate to. Who hasn’t walked in our gorgeous brown-sugar sand beaches without shoes on and enjoyed it? I mean, we relate to it,” he said.
Vuyst takes a humble approach to his contest submission.
“I’m not going to win ArtPrize. I already know that. Nor do I necessarily want to win ArtPrize. I’m doing this because I know that it’s going to be a huge opportunity to connect with people,” Vuyst said. “I’m a person who loves people and plants. So, the opportunity to connect with people is going to be fantastic.”
“Adrift” is featured in the vestibule entrance of Hyatt Place on Ottawa Avenue NW near Pearl Street.