How I spent my Summer Vacation …

… which hasn’t been entirely a vacation at all – but has involved travel. And Art. And a suntan (in stripes). I’ve been to Toronto twice to visit and work with my friend and fellow creative agitator David Young, a quick trip to Ottawa, to Halifax for the CARFAC conference, a few days on the west coast of Newfoundland … and two trips out to a beautiful and magical farm near Smoky Lake AB, owned by my wonderful and inspiring friends Jannie and Mark. More on this a little later in this post.

After Archives of Absence was presented at the Edmonton Poetry Festival this April, I found myself needing to make work that challenged my physically – both in terms of scale and in the actual physical requirements of creating the work. One (of many) lessons coming out if Archives, and my earlier sabbatical year in Nova Scotia –  was a new understanding of the importance of place  – and real physical spaces – to the creation of my work. The sabbatical in Nova Scotia provided the benefit of distance from the familiar history, space, and landscape of Edmonton and Alberta – a sustained period of time to reflect upon and begin to understand the impact of vast expanses of land and these massive skies has upon my (literal and metaphorical view) of the world, and some first solid inklings of the connection of these big spaces to a ‘frontier mentality’ – and the ability to re-invent oneself, take risks. Archives of Absence refined that understanding even further, in that all the content – visual and written – had as its focus a specific location and time frame – here, in Edmonton –  and I was working with this material before, during, and after my time away from the city of my birth.

So the intersections of social history, personal story, objects, and space/place became clearer … and needed to be considered in a new way. Which is where Jannie and Mark’s farm comes in … and two new projects!!

The first of these projects is what has been named by Jannie and I  …


I had approached J & M while I was staying in Halifax  – back in early 2010, I think it was – about the possibility of doing a larger, site-specific work on their farm. Essentially, this would be a land-art (or environmental art if you prefer that term) project … I wanted to work with that specific place – and most importantly, make work that spoke to and about the land, creating an active dialogue with the place itself, over a period of time.

The goal was/is to construct a series of living structures,  developed from the extant trees and shrubs on the property. I also set out a series of parameters for the work; I felt it was extremely important to be active and conscious about my approach from the outset … back to the notion of Intent and Methodology … and the intersections of art and politics. To that end, I set out the following framework for what I wanted to create:

– I want to work with what is there as much as possible
– Anything that I introduce to the landscape must be able to integrate completely with it, ie, be made of natural materials, and subject to the same weathering/changes that any other natural material in the area would be subject to
– I don’t want to do anything that will harm the land or any living thing in, on, or near it
– I don’t want to introduce anything that would not normally be found in the landscape (ex: non-native plants or stones etc)
– I am aware of the change and transience of all the materials I work with, and both expect and accept that the work will be impermanent in one respect or another
– Some of the greatest beauty that can come out of the work is to be found in the processes of change and decay

So far, three structures have been started … with mixed success. I have been working with two varieties of willow (wolf and red), and caragana (Siberian peashrub).

 … the structure in May 2011 …

The caragana structure is the most complete, given that it was formed from existing mature plants; the basic shape is in place, and the ongoing work will be to add seedlings for green “walls” and to weave the long branches over several seasons.

… and in July 2011 …

 The second willow structure (which was actually set into the caragana grove) has not developed as we had planned – many of the saplings didn’t take. So. That structure will be re-thought this fall or in the spring, and will be made of extant caragana as well.

The ‘failure’  of the one willow structure (actually, the first in the sequence that was planned and planted) has produced an unforeseen benefit to the project as a whole. This image below was shot in May, during the initial phase of digging and planting for the first ‘failed’ willow structure. Some of the willow ‘took’ over the course of the summer, but many of the saplings in the ring did not … you can see the surrounding caragana grove in the background.

But … from this setback, comes an improvement over all: since the caragana is the overpowering plant in this space, it will be used for making a structure here as well. There will be a consistency and stronger connection between the first caragana structure and this space, now that the materials are consistent … and the additional space and paths cleared between this space and the current caragana structure can (and will) be developed more fully over time … covered pathways are a possibility, as are other additions to the structures themselves.

… down the garden path we go …

… weaving the branches to form the roof …

The wolf willow structure will take several years to mature, and will need the addition of more saplings, and considerable training … but the saplings that were planted earlier this summer have taken well, and I am hopeful for their ability to overwinter. They are in an exposed space on the farm, and so this structure has a much more public face and nature; I foresee it becoming a gathering point, a communal greenspace in which people meet for food, conversation, companionship.

Photos of this one to follow, soon I hope.

My current goal is to get out to the farm again at least once this fall, to do further work on these, and addition structures in the sequence – and to document the spaces again. I would like, if at all possible, to see them again at least once in the winter too – I think the framework of each of these structures, blanketed by snow, will create yet another set of responses and ideas.

There is something quite magical and remarkable about seeing these structures change through the seasons … just the difference between the caragana in May and July was quite startling, and showed my the great potential for these spaces to teach great lessons in change and transformation.

Process … it’s all process.

More on Make=Believe soon …

… and coming up:  EGG … my other site specific sculptural work from this summer!

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