Artist Marie Lorenz Takes Landlubbing New Yorkers on Hudson River Canoe Rides

"Watch out for traffic," she said.

Lorenz, aboard one of her taxis. Photo Liz Ligon, courtesy High Line Arts.

On a hot recent Thursday, the New York artist Marie Lorenz met up with a couple of invited guests at the Village Community Boathouse, at Pier 40, on the Hudson River near Greenwich Village. Lorenz had recently touched down after a journey of some five weeks in which she piloted a canoe from Buffalo, New York, to Manhattan, a distance of some 520 miles, via the Erie Canal and the Hudson River.

Her mission was to get her two landlubbing guests out onto the water in that very canoe, which she had built herself, and whose sides were printed with a design based on marine grasses.

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“I figured that today we would see if we can get across the river to New Jersey,” she said, which was funny, since both this writer and the other passenger, ARTnews executive editor Andrew Russeth, grew up in the Garden State.

The boat house graciously provides sun hats, and we strapped them on, along with life preservers, and walked along the pier to a tiny plastic dock where Lorenz’s 20-foot plywood boat was moored.

And then we were off.

The author, far right, along with Lorenz and Russeth. Courtesy High Line Arts.

The author, far right, along with Lorenz and Russeth, embark on an hour-long canoe trip. Courtesy High Line Arts.

“We’re going to start out by going under here,” she said as we headed, alarmingly, straight for the concrete of the pier, where there’s just a few feet of clearance. We ducked and came up in a twilit space that made the wide-open Hudson all the more exhilarating and dramatic when (after ducking, seemingly even lower this time) we emerged again.

“Watch out for traffic,” she said as we got out onto the open water. We quickly found ourselves navigating five-foot swells among cruise ships, water taxis, and ferries. “The traffic is crazy today!” she said.

As New York Waterways’ ferry the Moira Smith went by, I asked if our craft had been christened.

“This boat doesn’t have a name,” Lorenz said as she rowed. “I just call them all the Tide and Current Taxi, though there are about 20 of them.”

For a decade now, Lorenz has been offering transportation to New Yorkers who request a ride; they name their destination, and Lorenz consults tide charts to see when the tide and current will be most helpful in getting the boat from A to B. She estimates that by now, she’s given perhaps 250 people rides. The current project is part of the journey-themed exhibition “Wanderlust,” now on view on the High Line and including artists such as Iman Issa, Tony Matelli, Mike Nelson, and Rayyane Tabet.

The view of Manhattan from our vantage point was breathtaking on the sunny day. The Whitney Museum of American Art’s new building leaped out, in its whiteness, from the skyline. Downtown, the Freedom Tower loomed over it all. “This is the best angle to see that Lower Manhattan is shaped like a pyramid,” Lorenz pointed out.

Lorenz on the dock. Photo Liz Ligon, courtesy High Line Arts.

Lorenz on the dock. Photo Liz Ligon, courtesy High Line Arts.

The waterways around New York have offered inspiration to many artists. Robert Smithson once sketched Floating Island (1970/2005), a barge covered with trees pulled behind a tug boat on the waters around the city. It was never realized during his lifetime, but was put out onto the water in 2005. (The Bruce High Quality Foundation impishly pursued the barge with a smaller one of its own, adorned with a single, curtained, orange gate, in the style of the environmental sculpture by Christo and Jeanne-Claude that adorned Central Park that year.)

Two years later, Lorenz’s ex, Duke Rileylaunched a home-built submarine into the East River with the goal of buzzing the luxury liner Queen Mary 2, suggesting a contrast of Olde New York with its newly gentrified version. Mary Mattingly has proposed a floating farm for New York Harbor, which would turn a public space to the public good.

One simple goal of Lorenz’s project is to open her participants’ eyes a little wider with a change in perspective, and to get them to see their surroundings afresh. For me, the ride was a great success in that regard; I felt a keen sense of wonder at watching the waves from the water’s surface; I was humbled many times when I felt sure that we were on a collision course with a distant vessel that then came nowhere near us.

We’d signed legal releases before getting on the boat; I asked Lorenz if any of her passengers had suffered any injuries. Only once, she said. She had been inspired by the book The Other Islands of New York City, and she took Sharon Seitz, who co-authored the book with Stuart Miller, on a ride. Seitz stepped on a nail when they came ashore. “Land is more dangerous to the Tide and Current Taxi than the water,” Lorenz quipped.

After an hour-long ride, we hauled the 100-pound craft up to the pier and into the boathouse, where we sat together for a few minutes.

The Village Community Boathouse on Pier 40. Photo Brian Boucher.

The Village Community Boathouse on Pier 40. Photo Brian Boucher.

Lorenz, now in her early 40s, started building boats at art school (while majoring in printmaking) at the Rhode Island School of Design. At the time, the Providence River, which runs through the city, was covered over with roadways, and she would sneak underneath with boats she’d built, as a sort of performance art.

“When I moved to New York,” she said, “the boat became more of a portal for others to see the city through me, and less of a spectacle.”

It’s also a way for the artist to direct others’ eyes toward the wonders of nature.

“You don’t necessarily think about the tide and the current in the grind of daily life,” she went on, “but there’s an immense force, moving all around the city, and it’s actually part of what made the city.”

Lorenz will take passengers out on the water, as part of the High Line show, on August 25 and September 15; you can sign up, or, if those trips are fully subscribed, join a wait list here. If you miss out, though, the Village Community Boathouse offers free rowing sessions; part of its mission is “to restore safe, universal public access to our city’s largest public space—its waterways.”

After Lorenz went on her way, I visited the River Project, next door to the boathouse. At this marine science field station, interns showed off seahorses, striped bass, and a horseshoe crab in tanks and pools, all of them caught in the waterways of New York. The horseshoe crab, an intern told me, is some 450 million years old. What a wonder, that we had just skated along the top of its habitat for an hour.

Wanderlust” is on view on the High Line through March 2017. Lorenz’s exhibition “Tide and Current Taxi” will be on view at the Everson Museum, Syracuse, New York, opening September 23.

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