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A Closer Look: Buffalo's lake-effect snow band, a.k.a. 'The Knife'

Title: 'The Knife' / Artist: Nature / On view Tuesday over Lake Erie, with possible return tonight through Friday

Among the astounding natural phenomena I’ve witnessed so far in my life, a handful are chiseled into my memory like permanent woodcuts: Huge puffs of morning fog sliding down from the mountains and into San Francisco, like a slow-mo scene of milk being poured into a bowl. The sunrise lighting up the desolate southern edge of the Grand Canyon, the scene gradually brightening to reveal an Albert Bierstadt painting the size of Rhode Island.

And then there was the terrifying band of lake-effect snow that hovered over Lake Erie and extended into South Buffalo and the Southern Tier on Tuesday like some kind of alien weapon deployed against helpless citizens in a Michael Bay film.

Few of the videos or pictures that have been circulating in the national media or on Facebook and Twitter capture the way it looked on my drive home on Tuesday afternoon, along an I-190 expressway that was empty except for my Honda and a line of salt-spewing snow plows.

Looking through my frosted car window over the Niagara River and into the thick of the storm, I caught a glimpse of the band of lake-effect snow the color of burnt orange, momentarily illuminated by the setting sun. There's something deeply disconcerting about watching such terror unfold soundlessly and at a great distance, a deceptive beauty from which it's almost impossible to avert your gaze. I say deceptive and disconcerting because this storm, now about to enter Act II after an all too brief intermission, has been so deadly.

Here's something that comes close to capturing it, a gorgeous shot of the band by local photographer Rhea Anna taken Tuesday from Fort Erie, Ont., while Anna was "on her way to the Interpol concert that never happened." (The band is now ironically stuck in Buffalo, where they had no show scheduled, while that other band is scheduled to return.) Click on it for a larger version:

Photo by Rhea Anna.

Photo by Rhea Anna.

But in that moment, or even from watching the time-lapse video of the band surging into South Buffalo, you felt some part of the awesome and devastating force of nature. That force and the strange beauty that sometimes accompanies it has of course preoccupied artists since pre-history and has inspired many great paintings.

And we don't have to go far to find some good examples. Here's a famous one by George Inness from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's collection from 1878, showing ominous clouds gathering over a New Hampshire field as a lonely farmer continues to cultivate the land:


George Inness' 1878 oil painting "The Coming Storm,," which captured one of the artist's favorite themes, is in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

According to the Albright-Knox, Inness was concerned with presenting man and nature as collaborators, each in some way representing the will of God. To Inness, the gallery's description tells us, "the visual world contained an inner essence that was revealed subconsciously to those who were attuned to it. Inness believed that it was the artist’s role to capture on canvas these spiritual qualities of nature in order to help other people see them as well."

A similar if much darker idea motivates the work of Anselm Kiefer, whose gigantic seascape hung for a year in the Albright-Knox as part of its well-received exhibition of the German artist's work:

Photo by Charlie Lewis/The Buffalo News

Photo by Charlie Lewis/The Buffalo News

Kiefer's gargantuan work was designed to transfer some of the awesome feeling of staring into a raging ocean into a gallery. But its title, "Von der Maas bis an die Memel, von der Etsch bis an den Belt," vaguely describing the boundaries of modern Germany, served as a commentary on the way men had turned natural borders into an unnatural brand of nationalism. In Kiefer's calculus, nature in some ways wins out, at least until the dark fact dawns on you that nothing is more natural than man.

The famed Western New York watercolorist and naturalist Charles E. Burchfield left behind an enormous trove of storm paintings, from which it's very difficult to pick just one. I settled on "Sun and Snowstorm" from 1917, which captures the strange duality with which South Buffalonians have become all to familiar: a landscape covered in feet of snow made blinding by the shining sun:

"Sun and Snowstorm," a 1917 painting by Charles Burchfield, is in the collection of the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

"Sun and Snowstorm," a 1917 painting by Charles Burchfield, is in the collection of the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

Thomas Cole's 1834 painting "The Savage State," in the collection of the New York Historical Society, shows another man meets nature scenario, as a hunter scurries across a path underneath gathering storm clouds. In the distance, a city rises, seeming to presage not only the environmental effects of American civilization but the excesses of the imperial drive:


"The Savage State" from Thomas Cole's five-painting series "The Course of Empire."

And then of course there is the great J.M.W. Turner, adept at capturing both the relentless devastation and transcendent beauty of nature in swirling watercolors and oils. Perhaps none of these is more appropriate to Buffalo's current climactic disarray as Turner's famous depiction of a snow storm impeding Hannibal and his army in their attempt to cross the alps, from the collection of the Tate Gallery in London:

"Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps," a painting by J.M.W. Turner first exhibited in 1812, is in the collection of London's Tate Gallery.

"Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps," a painting by J.M.W. Turner first exhibited in 1812, is in the collection of London's Tate Gallery.

But it was Turner's less ominous paintings of sunsets and swirling skies that came to mind when I glimpsed the lake-effect snow band on my ride home a desolate highway Tuesday afternoon. Since we can't resurrect Mr. Turner or any of the other great landscape painters across history who have so ably captured the awe and terror of natural phenomena like that infamous band of moisture now doubtlessly flashing across your social media feeds, we'll be needing some new art. And soon.

In coming years, many Buffalo artists are sure to offer their own takes on the phenomenon so stunningly captured by Rhea Anna, sure to be strikingly different than the historical examples listed above. And I can't wait to see what forms they take.

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