In the early 1880s, when Buffalo’s transformation into a powerhouse of commerce and industry was well under way, some residents shared a burgeoning fear that an important resource was disappearing.
They worried that the natural beauty of the mighty Niagara River from Buffalo to Lake Ontario, already clogged in spots with shipping traffic that clouded the air with smog, would soon be irrevocably marred by the signs of the region’s growing industrial economy. One of those residents, the gifted artist Amos W. Sangster, set out to capture the untrammeled beauty of the river’s course in what was then one of most ambitious publishing projects in America.
The result of his three-year mission to chronicle a 36-mile stretch of the river in meticulous etchings, collected in the extensive folio titled “Niagara River from Lake to Lake,” is the subject of an extraordinary exhibition of Sangster’s original work in East Aurora’s Meibohm Fine Arts.
The show, three years in the planning, highlights Meibohm’s acquisition of Sangster’s original paintings and drawings for the folio from a private collector in Pennsylvania. The originals are mounted next to the meticulous etchings Sangster created from them. Sangster’s work has not been the focus of a local exhibition since the centennial of his folio in 1986, when the Buscaglia-Castellani Art Gallery (now the Castellani Art Museum) featured his work.
“This was his love,” said Grace Meibohm, the gallery’s owner and director. “This was what he wanted to do. He was a good Western New York guy, and it was just his dream to document this. This was the time when they were trying to build the first park system, they were trying to preserve nature’s beauty before it was all industrialized, and he was documenting it.”
The documents he produced clearly were meant to inspire awe, and more than 100 years later, many of them still do.
The paintings and drawings range from quiet scenes of fishermen the size of toothpicks perched with their poles on the edge of the river and tranquil views of the river’s widest points to visions of the smog-choked Buffalo Harbor with ghostly outlines of wooden grain elevators rising in the distance. Sangster also spent plenty of time at Niagara Falls, where his work shows minuscule figures watching the torrent flow past in utter wonder.
In addition to carrying spiritual overtones, Sangster’s etchings of the falls and many other spots along the river are vindications of his concern for what was lost in later decades.
The Niagara Power Project now diverts some 50 percent of the falls’ flow to hydroelectric energy. Buffalo’s harbor is greatly changed (though far more tranquil) and its wooden grain elevators have all burned down. Vast tracts of land along the river and lakes have been converted, to the displeasure of urban advocates, into highways and other developments that impede our appreciation of the natural wonder that surrounds us.
This show, and Sangster’s work in general, is capable of reacquainting Western New Yorkers with the natural beauty of the region that has been all too easy to ignore during the past few difficult decades.
At a time when Buffalonians are beginning to take ownership of the region’s inherent virtues once again, Sangster’s simple and beautiful documents serve a simple and beautiful purpose: They force us to stop moving for just a moment, to look around and to acknowledge the beauty in our midst.
What: “Sangster’s Niagara”
When: Through Nov. 16
Where: Meibohm Fine Arts, 478 Main St., East Aurora
Info: 652-0940 or www.meibohmfinearts.com