The Life of a River: An Interview with Joel Sheesley

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Photo Credit: Joel Sheesley, "Fox River, Les Arends Forest, October 19"

Can you tell us about your project about the Fox River?

For the last two and a half years, I’ve been working with the Conservation Foundation on a project called “Art of the Fox.” I’m painting Illinois landscapes of the Fox River watershed, from West Dundee in the north, down to Ottawa where the Fox joins the Illinois River. It’s a stretch of river approximately sixty-five miles long that meanders through urban, suburban, and rural Illinois. I’m painting on site in all seasons, so I’ve learned to paint from my canoe, standing on sandbars in the river, out on the ice in winter, and looking out from shore.

Five Islands, Duerr Park, Fox River

How has painting from different perspectives and during various seasons transformed the way you view life on the river and the life of the river itself?

Since I’m dealing with the watershed, and not just the river itself, I’ve become much more aware that the river cannot be separated from the land that feeds it. The river is what it is by virtue of all the named and unnamed tributaries, all the little rivulets and the larger streams that flow together to become the Fox River. Working across the Fox River Valley, I’ve begun to feel the pull of gravity down the gentle slopes. I’ve begun to sense how the river and the land interact. A topographic map would show you this, but patient observation on the ground and moving with the current in a canoe puts this information into your bones in a visceral way.

Painting in all seasons, of course, gives you an awareness of how weather affects a river’s life. The amount of water that can come down the Fox River during a flood simply defies the imagination. It is astounding to stand on the riverbank and see high water marks above your head and then imagine the broad spread of that water. During the flood of July 2017, there were days when the low-head dams along the Fox nearly disappeared as the torrents of rushing water below them were nearly at the same level as the water above the dams. Likewise, the sight and sound of ice breaking up, colliding with the shore, tearing off huge chunks of earth, to see whole trees swept along in the current—these things assert the dynamic power of flowing water. Of course you also experience idyllic moments when it’s easy to imagine an unchanging river.

Indian Creek & Fox River Confluence

How do you think of the Fox River now compared to before you started the painting project?

Before I began this project, I have to admit that the Fox River was primarily an obstacle to cross. Everyone who travels through a Fox River town knows how the road dips down to the bridge that carries you over. Then you rise up on the other side and continue on your journey. You are forced into a kind of tunnel vision on this crossing and maybe catch just a glimpse of the river as you drive across. But now I’ve been able to walk down to the river through undeveloped land. I’ve felt the spread and fall of the land as I come to a point on the riverbank where no bridge is visible. There my walk is arrested. My only move is a lateral one, with the river itself. So I would say that my perspective has changed. I now think of the river as an axis to travel along rather than an obstacle to cross.

Five Islands, Duerr Park, Fox River

Can you tell us about any surprise encounters or creature-related experiences that stand out?

When you’re standing quietly in one place for two or three hours, as I do when I’m painting, there is a chance that you can become part of the landscape. River creatures oblivious to your presence sometimes emerge from the water right at your feet. One shivering cold morning, a dark-eyed muskrat came swimming right up to my easel. Another time, a mink worked his way on the water’s edge no more than eighteen inches below the raised bank on which I stood.

Eagles are now common on the Fox River, and there’s nothing like watching a couple of these great birds wing their way overhead while you’re painting. There are also several heron rookeries that evoke a prehistoric feeling as these great birds come and go from their platforms high in the tops of the trees.

Many times, my encounters are with the aftermath of animal survival struggles. Once, while painting in thick reed canary grass along a small Fox River tributary, I was overwhelmed by a dead animal smell. Close by I found fresh fragments—the remains of a deer that I presume had been recently killed by coyotes. One winter day, I came across a turkey wing surrounded by red splotches in the snow and the prints of a fox or possibly a coyote.

When you look at your paintings, do they recall any specific experiences you had in the field that were transformative or mind-opening?

When I look at the paintings as a collection, I sense that a quiet testimony of sorts begins to emerge from them. Each painting takes me back to the particulars of a unique place and moment, but it is the overall awareness of the living river that keeps coming back to me. I’m always aware, while painting and then when I look at a finished work, that I have really missed the mark. I haven’t even begun to get at the richness of the scene before me. So out of this, there is a kind of opening of my mind to a realization that there is always so much more.

Bluff Springs Fen, October 31

One of the best things about painting outside is the silence that surrounds you. Of course you can hear all kinds of things, but at the same time you can be caught up in a great silence. That, in itself, is transformative. Later, when I reflect on that silence, it is always connected to the place in which it occurred. The painting gives me a chance to return to that moment and place, to give it a lingering second thought.

Do you see any connections or entanglements between urban areas and the wildness of the river? 

The Fox River is really three rivers in one. The northernmost part has a very flat gradient and opens up into the Chain O’Lakes region where there is a lot of boating. The middle section is quite urban. Aurora, the second most populated city in Illinois, occupies an island in this middle section of the Fox. The lower Fox is rural and has some of the most visually stunning features. St. Peter’s sandstone cliffs line much of the lower Fox River.

North Ave Bridge, Aurora, November 29

Sometimes it’s hard to think of the river as a wild thing. Both Elgin and Aurora host casinos on the river. Batavia once used river energy to become the windmill capital of the Midwest. Maybe the most striking urban/suburban feature on the Fox is the series of fifteen low-head dams that have become emblematic in many Fox River towns. The dams create deeper water for recreational power boating, but they also have negative effects. Both environmentalists and safety rescue squads would prefer to see the dams go away. The dams stop aquatic life from migrating upstream, they cause silting, and they are a life-threatening hazard to people who get caught in the churning water at the foot of them.

Thanks to environmental regulation, industry is no longer the threat to the Fox that it once was. We can thank James F. Phillips, AKA “The Fox,” for his environmental activism on behalf of the Fox River back in the late 1960s and ‘70s. Phillips risked life and limb to protest, decry, and sabotage industrial polluters in his day. Today, I think of the Fox as a river that has gone into retirement. It’s a river finding new life after work.

How has this project impacted the way you look at the world? 

Let me answer that question as an artist. Up until about six or seven years ago, I never would have imagined calling myself a landscape painter. My paintings were largely focused on social issues and human-centered subject matter. Back then, I remember making a landscape painting and thinking, “What’s the point? Where’s the human story?” Today, after working exclusively with the landscape for several years, I would say that landscape is the story. The landscape is dynamic and alive. Some religions imagine that human beings originated in the earth. Most are aware that to it we return when we die. Archeology demonstrates that all of human history is contained in the earth. There is a real sense in which we could say that landscape is the world. I feel it’s the most important thing I could paint.

Lippold Park Sunset, January 2

What has the river taught you?

I think the river has taught me something about mortality. You are always in midstream when you enter the river. We can delineate a watershed, identify a river’s source and mouth, but one look at the map shows how all waters and lands are ultimately interrelated, and our penchant to declare absolute beginnings and even endings is a flawed scheme. The one thing we can be sure of is the mortal present. And that, as all things come and go along the river, is one important lesson the river teaches: we mortals must pay attention to the present.

Joel Sheesley’s paintings from the “Art of the Fox” will be presented at the exhibition, A Fox River Testimony, at the Schingoethe Center of Aurora University from September 20–December 14. A book and prints of the paintings will be available for sale at the time of the opening. All sales will benefit the Conservation Foundation.


  • Joel Sheesley

    Joel Sheesley, Emeritus Professor of Art at Wheaton College, is a painter whose current work focuses on the landscape. Sheesley has been a recipient of an Illinois Artist’s Fellowship, has exhibited his work in Chicago galleries, and had a solo exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center. His work has also been exhibited widely in university galleries. He lives with his wife Joan in Wheaton, IL.  

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