Geo Rutherford, a Wisconsin artist and educator, has more than 1.1 million followers on TikTok and over 37 million likes on her videos.
But it’s not for one of the things you might expect, such as dance trends, “get ready with me” vlogs or cute dog videos (though she has posted a few of those).
It’s for the way she uses short-form videos to share her passion for the Great Lakes and her art inspired by them.
Rutherford, a printmaker and adjunct lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, got into art in high school in Michigan. But it was just three years ago that she discovered her enthusiasm for the Great Lakes.
“When I started to educate myself on the Great Lakes, I was kind of shocked about it and appreciative of just how incredible it is that we’re here, right next to these bodies of water,” said Rutherford, an Ontario native. “I just have a great, immense appreciation for the Great Lakes, what they are and what they do for us. The fact that we’re on the planet with them at the same time is kind of incredible.”
In the summer 2020, out of boredom during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rutherford started making TikTok videos about the lake-related art she was working on.
Rutherford, who goes by @geodesaurus on the app, was met with success right off the bat. One of her first videos garnered more than 1.2 million views.
A couple of months later, she expanded her content to include educational lake videos.
“The Great Lakes are an incredible, but delicate resource that we need to be careful about, we need to treat with love and care,” she said. “Great Lakes education, to me, is so important because I hope that I’m reaching voters that can make decisions in their local areas that can help protect the Great Lakes.”
What drew her to the Great Lakes
Rutherford moved to Wisconsin from Michigan about three years ago to pursue her Master of Fine Arts degree — through the print and narrative form program at UWM — and to be closer to her parents, who live in Madison.
“I wouldn’t call myself a super naturally-talented artist, but more so, an artist who pursued the arts by working really hard,” she said.
To earn that degree, students write a thesis and put on an art show, which both typically have the same theme, Rutherford explained. Up to that point, her art had focused on environmental issues. But that would be too broad of a topic for this.
“I kind of had an epiphany when I was on the beach one day that I should work on the Great Lakes because that’s something that everybody cares about and has strong feelings about, and there’s a lot of environmental factors that are impacting the lakes,” she said.
She began her research, reading books, like Dan Egan’s “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes,” and formed her own, personal relationship with Lake Michigan. Egan was an award-winning Journal Sentinel environment reporter, and is now the Brico Fund Journalist in Residence at the Center for Water Policy in the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences.
Visiting Bradford Beach became a ritual she used to come up with ideas for art. She once visited nearly 90 days in a row.
“It’s the foreigner’s appreciation,” she said. “For me, it was the shock of suddenly living next to this body of water.”
These trips also inspired her to start incorporating materials she found on beaches —both natural and unnatural — into her work.
Using materials found at the lake
Rutherford will walk along the edge of Lake Michigan’s shore with a Halloween bucket from her childhood, collecting rocks, fossils, beach glass, toys, syringes and whatever else she stumbles upon.
“Bradford has different emotions,” she said. “It has good days and bad days. Some days, the waves are really high and there’s not a lot along the edge of the shore. But then other times, there’s rocks and fossils and glass that are exposed.”
She walks back on the top half of the beach, where storms deposit light materials, such as plastic and driftwood.
“When I search for stuff on a beach, I’m looking for a full picture of what makes up the beach,” she said. “I kind of collect a little bit of everything.”
When she gets home, she organizes her finds by color or type. Then later, she incorporates them into her projects, like lithographs that show what she found on the shore.
Her first art video that went viral
An artist book Rutherford made — which features tubes of found materials from Lake Michigan beaches — was just the fourth TikTok she ever made. And it went viral.
“I didn’t really have a grasp at the time about TikTok and how TikTok worked,” she said. “So to me, that was kind of shocking.”
Artist books — which are works of art inspired by the book form — don’t have to look like traditional books with pages, covers or even words, she explained. They challenge the concept of books.
Rutherford’s first chunk of TikToks were educational videos on artist books, as well as her creations and lake visits.
When she ran out of artist books to talk about, she said, she moved on to Great Lakes educational content.
“By becoming a pseudo-hobby limnologist, I’m enthusiastic and excited about everything that has to do with lakes because I don’t know anything,” she said. “My passion is derived from the fact that I’m kind of a new observer to this type of science education.”
Excited about ‘everything’ lakes
Rutherford teaches Great Lakes history through her TikTok videos, covering everything from shipwrecks to a Stonehenge-like structure under Lake Michigan. After about a month of focusing on the Great Lakes, she expanded her scope to include other lakes and bodies of water around the globe.
“I think it’s really fantastic the way she’s approached that platform and built a community for people who are passionate about the Great Lakes, and the health of our waterways and environment,” said Julie VonDerVellen, a Milwaukee-based paper artist, design educator and TikTok user who’s known Rutherford for three years.
From researching and collecting images to filming herself and editing, about seven and a half hours go into each of Rutherford’s videos. Since launching her account, Rutherford estimates that she’s made more than 600 videos — many of which begin with her signature intro, “Um yes, hello!”
“She’s fearless,” VonDerVellen said. “She has this approach of ‘I’m going to try this as another way to reach an audience and educate others’ on her findings and research. It’s been extremely successful for her.”
One of Rutherford’s greatest hits has been an annual October series on “spooky lakes” and “haunted hydrology.”
“It’s not so much about murder or ghosts or paranormal,” Rutherford said. “There’s a lot of conspiracy theories I could have done, but I wasn’t interested in that. … Instead, I wanted to do natural phenomenon that are weird and kind of strange. We’re living on the planet with some strange things that people maybe don’t know about.”
“It reaches all age ranges,” VonDerVellen said. “And I think that’s the beauty of her videos on TikTok. It’s not just for the millennial-age, it’s for everyone.”
Nowadays, about 75% of Rutherford’s videos are on lakes or other science-related subjects. The rest continue to be made up of adventures and art.
Uses TikTok to make her art accessible
Leading up to her grand thesis art show in May 2021, Rutherford let her TikTok audience in on what she was making and broke down the stories of her work.
“I worked really hard at how to condense my ideas and concepts into something that everybody can appreciate and understand,” she said.
Sometimes art can be inaccessible, she said.
“I don’t like that,” she said. “I want my artwork to be educational. I want it to tell a story. I want it to be that everyday people can walk through and understand it, or at least appreciate it or know what it’s about.”
Her art show featured lithographs; three gigantic glass test tubes: one with sand, one with found material and one with lake water; dozens of tubes filled with beach finds; three giant collages, using different printmaking techniques; and a hanging installation of printed paper miniature boats.
“My show was kind of about all of the things that are impacting the Great Lakes,” she said. “It was about the health and wellness of the lakes and how they’re kind of devolving into this water desert at the heart of North America.”
VonDerVellen, who attended the exhibition, described Rutherford’s collection as insightful, phenomenal, moving and thought-provoking.
“Her attention to detail is incredible,” VonDerVellen said. “She’s really thoughtful about her medium and her conceptual approach to everything that she does. It’s not just a one-note type of work that she creates: It’s the 2-D prints, the three-dimensional pieces as well, and the video work. You have all of these different perspectives, and you really, as a viewer, get to know her as an artist but also the mission of what she’s trying to educate the viewer on. I think it’s really comprehensive in the way that she’s approached the work and really important to the community.”
About 1,000 people from Rutherford’s TikTok community attended the show, Rutherford said.
“As an artist, that was kind of my big moment, where I built up to it and worked really hard for it,” she said.
“What’s exciting about Geo is she’s just getting started,” VonDerVellen said. “The amount of work she’s created and the community she’s built, I’m just excited to see what happens next for her.”
Helping artist share work on TikTok
Rutherford convinced VonDerVellen to join TikTok almost two months ago. After about eight years as a full-time professor, VonDerVellen decided to pursue her art full time in the summer of 2021.
VonDerVellen, a lifelong artist, creates handmade paper weavings and sculptures that reflect her experiences, emotions, events, relationships and travel.
Under the username juliev_paperart, VonDerVellen already has posted nearly 30 videos and has more than 2,000 followers.
Not only has Rutherford helped VonDerVellen get started on the platform, she also made a TikTok to introduce VonDerVellen’s work to her own following.
“From that point, my following increased dramatically and it helped my business significantly,” VonDerVellen said. “I’m forever grateful for her for doing that.”
A former high school art teacher
Rutherford studied art education at Eastern Michigan University, then was a high school art teacher for five years at Chelsea High School in Michigan.
While she was there, she helped launch the #whyyoumatter nonprofit, which started out as a school-wide art project in 2015-16 to help students work through grief and show them why they matter after two classmates died by suicide.
It has since morphed into an organization that helps schools create a platform to talk about mental health through the lens of art, she said.
Rutherford still co-chairs the nonprofit. She also teaches 2D Concept at her Milwaukee alma mater. During the summer months, she is the director for Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Michigan.