Over the Family Day long weekend, my husband and I, along with 3 other couples from the Wood Buffalo Photography Club, journeyed up the winter road to Fort Smith, NWT. Traveling over frozen rivers and icy marshes, through lush forests and over winding sand hills, the trip is an experience like none other. Having made the trip before we knew more of what to expect and added an extra day to soak up the experience.
The first day we drove all the way from Fort McMurray to Fort Smith, arriving 11 hours later with our hearts full from the foxes, ptarmigan and northern hawk owls that came into our view. The beautiful white ptarmigan were on the top of my wish list so I was over the moon to finally see them! The road North takes us through a variety of landscapes, each of them stunning in their own special way. The next morning, in particularly frigid temperatures, we were privy to a lovely soft sunrise, with the fog from the Pelican Rapids streaming across the Slave River valley. We made our way back through Wood Buffalo National Park where we saw many signs of the bison who make their home there but they chose to stay tucked out of sight. The next night was spent in Fort Chipewyan where we were greeted with a huge sun dog over the Canadian Shield and we had the opportunity to learn about some local history at the Bicentennial Museum. I am eager to visit Fort Chipewyan in the summer months and see it when all the ice has melted. It is an absolutely stunning area with a rich history.
Our last stretch back home was a snowy day but we were delighted to see great grey owls and witness a flurry of activity involving an otter, a snowshoe hare and some panicking ptarmigan. I'm already wondering what wonderful things we will see on our next journey North.
The Alberta Legislative Assembly Office operates a beautiful retail store called Alberta Branded. Each year they have a juried showcase around a specific theme and I have the honour of being one of ten Albertan artists who will create new works for this year's exhibition. The theme is Façonner, which means to shape, fashion or mould. New works will be created all year long and I'm eager to continue to explore the theme, allowing it to unfold and adapt over these next months. I'm also quite intrigued to see the works of the other artists and how they have approached the theme from their own medium and point of view!
Façonner: We shape to adapt a form, thereby directing a course. We fashion to reflect personal style and the current nature of the world. We mould to influence, creating a matrix. - Alberta Branded
The artwork I have created (and will continue to create this year) for Façonner is rooted in natural elements. Each piece is formed in response to the unfolding story I see revealed to us through Creation. Extracting basic lines and shapes from the intricate natural world, I explore an elemental approach to my experiences. Observing light, colours, shapes and lines, the subjects are deconstructed then fashioned into layered mixed media artworks. Natural materials (like birch bark and wildflowers collected to dye fabric and paper) are incorporated into each piece along with conventional materials (like acrylic, watercolour, paper and clay). The process of gathering and preparing materials allows me to infuse more of what I encounter into each work.
My story reflects the observations and reflections within the beauty of the Province of Alberta, including our five National Parks and my home in the Northern boreal forest. As I continue to witness the unfolding story around me, I am left with a peaceful clarity that has shaped my life. Reflecting these experiences and this clarity are integral parts of these works.
Before Beaverville, Liana and I had planned on collaborating for a dual exhibition filled with mixed media works on a smaller scale. Giving each other creative freedom we decided that we would focus on the natural surroundings of the boreal forest where we live, create small mixed media pieces and the rest was up to our own creative process and interpretation. We created our works individually, only allowing ourselves to bring the works together for the final exhibition. I found myself drawn to the challenge of creating things on a miniature scale, exploring a variety of techniques and finding new ways to use natural and recycled materials. Here are the works I created along with my personal interpretation of Little by Little:
Maybe it's the little things that matter most...
Perhaps we get so caught up in the big picture we lose sight of the purpose in each day - in each stage - of life. And what if, like the boreal forest around us, we too are meant to live in seasons? Is it possible that the smaller steps (even when they feel like steps backward) are part of our growth too?
This collection of 'little' pieces (using gathered and recycled natural elements) are reflections on the natural world in its seasonal acts of obedience. I may desire summer with the fullness of green and its long, warm days, but each period of growth has a beautiful purpose that leads into the next. The slowness of the cycle of life, from winter dormancy to fall harvest, is an integral piece of our story.
I have the great privilege of having been chosen, along with 5 other Fort McMurray artists, to represent our region in the Art Gallery of Alberta's Travelling Exhibition program. Our exhibition has been called Beyond 'the Patch': Stories From Wood Buffalo. The submission process took place before the wildfire of May 2016 and we were notified of our successful applications during the evacuation. I was already excited to be able to share the natural beauty of the Wood Buffalo I know and love but the works we would create had even more significance in our post-fire reality.
What an honour to showcase the beauty and heart of our region with this exhibition. Our artwork is travelling around the province for the next year, acting as ambassadors to tell a more accurate and balanced story of Wood Buffalo. My home is special and unique - and we do a lot of things differently. Our oil industry is the oil sands (not 'the patch') and that land is reclaimed over time. We are resilient, generous and community minded. Our multi-cultural diversity is celebrated, with people who are born and raised here and others who have travelled from all around the province, country, and world to be here. This is a place of great opportunity with the ability to take risks and experience growth. And our beauty- that’s undeniable - we can take a walk through Birchwood Trails, a drive up the winter road to Fort Chipewyan, go kayaking on Gregoire Lake, or spend a night star gazing with the aurora dancing overhead. It's amazing. The whole, balanced story of beauty and stillness, hope and opportunity, vibrancy and diversity - has, by and large, been neglected by the media. But, our collective works will give you another look because our Wood Buffalo exudes all of these characteristics and more. And hopefully, as these paintings, drawings and photographs travel, others will learn how special we are too. Wood Buffalo most certainly has life and soul in and ‘beyond the patch’.
The following photographs were my contribution to the exhibition. In the months after we returned home after the wildfire evacuation, the boreal forest was undergoing a remarkable and stunning recovery. It served to many of us a symbol of resilience and rebirth.
Resilience: Morning on the Athabasca Watching the mist lifting off the Athabasca River on this cool autumn morning was a soul-stirring experience. I desired to capture the light and hope of this moment, with the gull soaring high over a changed landscape.
Resilience: Juvenile Bald Eagle In the fall of 2016 this lovely Juvenile Bald Eagle made his presence known in a section of completely burnt out forest. It was an area my husband and I had explored plenty of times and when the forest was thick with conifers we wondered how much wildlife was watching us while we were completely unaware! With the branches bare we were grateful for the opportunity to enjoy this young eagle's company and overjoyed to see signs of wildlife returning.
Resilience: Pine Grosbeak This image, of a puffed up Pine Grosbeak and a perfect heart shaped leaf was made on a very cold December day. So cold, in fact, that we had an extreme cold weather warning. The beauty in every season must be found if one is to thrive in a Northern winter.
Resilience: Fireweed Living up to its namesake, the Fireweed was more plentiful and vibrant the summer after the wildfire than I had ever seen. Even though the forest floor was completely charred and black, within days of the fire, new shoots were springing through the ash and soot. We had never seen such vibrant greens. By the end of the summer entire fields of Fireweed, up to 5 feet tall, were emerging all around us.
This summer, an open call for igNIGHT was posted by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. igNIGHT is a 10 day temporary public art exhibition of illuminated artworks with this year's theme of Canada 150. I love art installations and find myself dreaming up all sorts of wild ideas - but with no place to install them (or a lack of a budget to make it happen in the first place.) So, I was excited to see a local opportunity and began to dream and ask questions and research and budget. My friend and colleague, Liana Wheeldon came alongside me in the journey and we were thrilled to bring this idea to life.
Wanting an accessible and playful way to approach the Canada 150 theme, we created a 5' x 8' beaver lodge, complete with illuminated beaver lanterns. The entire structure was surrounded by 8 interpretive panels with all sorts of fun and crazy beaver facts and lovely sketches created by Liana. We amalgamated our skill sets and got to work! Home, Sweet Home (or my nickname for it: Beaverville) was the culmination of construction, sculpture and assemblage I love the finishing touches of the wicker patio lights - those beavers are good decorators!
I took on the construction elements, using 2x2's to organically create the beaver lodge frame. I loved the minimalism of the frame just as it was and will have to revisit this process for another project. The lodge is constructed in 3 sections so that we could transport it separately and have access inside for the lighting elements. Thankfully, we had the gracious support of friends who offered up their garage and driveway so we could continue the process in a sheltered location. We gathered fallen branches from the surrounding forest and selected the best ones to cover the frame - systematically pre-drilling and attaching them, creating a bit of a puzzle as it all came together. The inside was covered with outdoor fabric to ensure that we had the light diffused enough to allow the lodge to glow at night.
Each of us created our own beaver lanterns, starting with moulds we made of plastic, cardboard, tape and newspaper. The moulds were then covered with vellum and rice paper using a papier mache technique. I lovingly named mine Buckeye and Bernadette (and Beavis for the tail sticking out of the water). ;) Lights were installed inside each beaver and they were attached to both the lodge and the frame. A lighting dress rehearsal took place late one night to ensure that everything had power and all the cords had their place in the crazy maze underneath. Planning, executing, tweaking, planning some more, tweaking some more... all a part of the day to day work to make all the details work together. Countless hours were spent at each stage and I can certainly attest to having learned a great deal through it all.
Creating a design and proposal on paper naturally leads to some oversights in details and the troubleshooting became an integral part of the artistic process. Taking the bones of the proposal and bringing it to 3-dimensional life meant that we were constantly experimenting and refining elements of the design, making the project stronger as we progressed. There were many challenges (including having to install in the pouring rain and frigid temperatures) and the timeframe was intense but we completed our project! We were over the moon to share our blood, sweat and tears with the community and even more thrilled to watch how people interacted with our beaver friends.
One of my favourite elements was the use of nature sounds so, in the dark, you were transported from the middle of the city to the peaceful beaver world filled with creaking toads and quacking ducks and even the sound of the beavers splashing in the water. The temporal nature of our project also pointed to the ever-changing natural environment around us and the importance of the process.
Back in May I became enamoured with this photo that popped up in my twitter feed, created by Paul Zizka. (View the full image here!) The colours, the lines, the composition... they spoke to me in a special way. I see a lot of amazing photographs in my social media feeds but they don't often stop me in my tracks like this one did. And what made it extra special is that I immediately saw this image in other visual expressions. My brain automatically transferred the photographic image into acrylic paint and watercolour and paper versions. I contacted Paul to inquire if he licenses his photographs to artists for reference usage and I was in luck - he does just that. So, you can imagine how excited I was that he was willing to license his image to me to explore in different mediums! (Thanks, Paul!) I decided to give myself a goal of 5 pieces for this image study. The first step was a digital drawing, extracting the lines and forms that I felt were necessary to tell the story of this image. I worked and reworked it to find a balance between detail and minimalism - and I chose to keep the image as a square, since that is how I first viewed it.
The next step was to explore these same lines and shapes using acrylic on wood panel. After producing such clean and crisp lines in the digital painting, the acrylic version felt much looser, the texture of brush strokes creating a different feel for this second piece.
The third piece required a loom and yarn. I discovered that weaving is extremely addicting - I ended up binging in two sessions and 14 hours later the weaving was complete! In this version I chose to make the iceberg larger so it wouldn't get lost in the other yarn textures, as well as eliminating some sections to give the weaving more lines that extended from edge to edge.
Then I got lost in a sea of paper, using layers that were painted with watercolour techniques and cutting others from solid cardstock. Each piece was cut and placed in various heights, venturing away from the simplified design I started with and adding more lines and colours for increased movement.
And the fifth study was a return to the original lines, with the iceberg enlarged and sculpted out of clay. The mountains were also sculpted with the remaining sections left two-dimensional. This series proved to be a wonderful study that, as an unexpected side bonus, gave me increased clarity on a number of elements within my art practice. No matter the medium there's always a need to let go, trust the process and get to work!
Beyond these shores
Into the darkness
Beyond these shores
This boat may sail
And if this is the way
Then there will be
A path across this sea
And if I sail beyond
The farthest ocean
Or lose myself in depths below
Wherever I may go
Your love surrounds me
For you have been before
Beyond these shores
I'm not sure if you've noticed my social media bio but it says this:
Artist | called to create, in any form necessary | wrestling fear, chasing beauty, pursuing peace | learning to rest at Jesus' feet
That last part - learning to rest at Jesus' feet - goes back to the account of Mary and Martha. It's a story I revisit often and one that I continue to receive the gift of fresh revelation as the years unfold. Two years ago I wrote about it here. And as we enter the season of Lent, I have been brought back to lovely Martha with fresh eyes (for I do think she is lovely, although misunderstood and quickly judged). I see afresh that the retreat happens in the midst of the to-do list. In the middle of preparing for the guests, in the middle of busy lives, in the middle of the mess, in the middle of our weaknesses... that is where the resting at Jesus' feet happens. I often considered it an all or nothing type scenario that had me wondering, "Who cleans the toilets if everyone's with Jesus?!" As much as I know it is so good to hang out in the garden, retreating with Jesus, I am convinced there's a way to also sit as His feet, receiving His peace, while I'm scrubbing away. Now I'm trying to navigate exactly what that looks like.
Tomorrow is the beginning of Lent: the 40 days before Easter (not including the Sundays). This season serves as a time of preparation and a reflection on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. What a perfect time to retreat. I am choosing to carve out more quiet space in my day and spend more reflective time in the studio. All of which will require a very intentional look at my schedule and a very mindful shift in perspective. I still have obligations and responsibilities and deadlines and demands and requests, but I'm determined to retreat in the middle of it all. The key to this, for me, is taking this time to create quietly. I've decided I'm not going to share what I'm creating... at least not during this lenten season. And perhaps, it will continue to be an entirely personal project - we shall see! I'm going to let it all unfold each day and savour those moments, unconcerned with perfection or a business plan. I'm not checking out, I'm just taking another step back in retreat. I'll still be checking messages and working, meeting those deadlines and interacting with fine folks - I'm just shifting gears for 40 days and hoping to learn a little more about resting at Jesus' feet.
Then Jesus said, “Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.”
"The birds they sang
at the break of day
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee."
Leonard Cohen "Anthem" (excerpts)
I've spent the last months working on a special commission for the Scarlett family. Constance and I met for lunch one day last summer as we savoured being back in the city and oozed with gratitude for a million little things. Between bites of sandwich we talked about loss, heartache, hope, faith and healing. Her family had lost their home to the Horse River wildfire and I was being invited to create an artwork for them, using the precious few items that had been recovered. We were united in the desire to find beauty among the ashes.
I wanted to know what had been on her and her husband's heart and mind throughout the evacuation - if there were any quotes or recurring thoughts that resonated with them in everything they had been through. That's where "Anthem" by Leonard Cohen came in. And then, as she shared with me the broken and charred pieces, each having it's own story to tell, I found my imagination running wild with how they could tell a new story that rang louder of renewal than tragedy.
The first piece I began to work on was the nest. Each length of uncoated wire creating a growing foundation, representing the fragility and temporary nature of "home". Knitted into the wires was one half of a silver compact mirror given to Constance by her brothers, her Mom's baby spoon that had been given to her daughter, her baby bracelet, a coin, a ring, two more bracelets and the spring from her husband's firearm. I thought of how birds carefully select each piece, finding the best place to intertwine what they bring home to create a place of shelter and safety. The birds, sculpted and finished in layers of black leaf became symbols of faith, hope and the courage to leave the nest to start anew. The birds represent their family unit, all having been refined through their experiences.
The next piece to be completed was the lantern. A pre-existing frame was deconstructed, stripped and re-fabricated with many custom adaptations made. Layers of plaster and paint were built up to ensure that this lantern had been through the journey too. The desire to create a lamp/lantern was the first image that came to mind in this project, representing the light required to lead them out of the darkness. It was a symbol of hope and faith, of God's faithfulness, knowing that their experiences and circumstances all work together to tell a bigger story. It was the longing for direction in how to move forward in healing. The lantern also sparked the name for the piece:
Lead Us Home.
Four mosaic sections were assembled, with the first positioned on the inside ceiling of the lantern. This section was created with her daughter's baby Bunnykins bowl as well as the other half of the silver compact mirror. I thought of the resiliency of her young daughter and the joy that she brings to their family - I thought of how hope rises and leads to healing. The other three mosaics, placed along the outer sides, were assembled from two beautiful dishes: a Greek coffee cup given to Constance by her Yiayia (Grandmother) and a tea cup saucer from her Baba (her Ukrainian Grandmother).
The ornamental top of the lantern was part of a teapot, one that had been given to Constance by her Yiayia as a Grad school graduation gift. The handle is a bracelet and tucked inside is a tiny teacup bottom and a ring, both gifts from her Baba. A plaque from her daughter's baby spoon, as well as a number of coins adorned the next section. A beautiful lock from her husband's firearm became a feature on the front and inspired the colour of the lantern. Once the nest and birds were laid inside, the final element was a key from her Yiayia's house in New York.
The individual pieces each came with its own memory of who it belonged to, who had given it, how it had been used and where it had its place in their home. And now they come together to remind the Scarlett family what they've been through but that all is not lost. The gathered pieces are proof of their resilience and that faith is stronger than despair on the long road of healing. Thank you Constance, Mike and Kassia for giving me the honour and privilege of creating this work for you.
"Our sorrows are all, like ourselves, mortal. There are no immortal sorrows for immortal souls. They come, but blessed be God, they also go. Like birds of the air, they fly over our heads. But they cannot make their abode in our souls. We suffer today, but we shall rejoice tomorrow.”