Shifting gears for a few days …

I spent a lovely three days out in Victoria BC this past week/end, working with my friend and collaborator Catherine Owen. This was a great time on many levels:

  • First, Catherine and I have been collaborating for several years, and so there is a subtle rhythm of understanding between us in relation to our work; we work in similar ways, share a great many of the same theoretical and philosophical concerns, so those aspects of working together are ‘understood’ in a sense – and we can just get on to the business of doing and making. It was deeply satisfying to discover that although we have been working on NEST in two (mostly) discrete bodies of work up to this point, we are captivated by the same issues and ideas overall, so that when we eventually begin bringing the two halves together, there will already be a solid and consistent framework in place. Very exciting to see how much has developed already – and how much more we can both do with this! So far: at least 50 MS pages, over 400 photographs, 50 drawings, 30 gel transfer prints (in progress), and several sculptures in the works. Not bad, so far.
  • Second, this little trip was a welcome change of context. I find it’s terribly important to get some physical distance from a project now and again. The separation in space and time allows for renewed vision, critical assessment, and the opportunity to return to the work at hand with fresh eyes and mind. I have been missing the Ocean greatly – being landlocked on the Prairie has that disadvantage! I found being out on the shore faced with that immensity again, and the powerful persistence of the tide and crashing waves allowed a clarity and simplicity of thought – a cleaning house, as it were.

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  • Third, it was really interesting to explore elements of the NEST project in a completely different environment. Finding and understanding nests here in Edmonton is one thing for me, based on many years here, my understanding and familiarity with the landscape and its details … but to be an active seeker in another urban space, with a completely different climate, was quite another. This was an excellent object-lesson in itself regarding the necessity of both patience and active seeing. We found only a few nests in our various jaunts, and although time limitations had a great deal to do with that, I cannot ignore the reality that I don’t know the land and its denizens out there as I do here. Tough to find things when you don’t really know where to look, beyond the obvious.

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We also had some adventures! Catherine had also arranged some work with photographer Paul Saturley, which resulted in a great shoot on China Beach … in the pouring rain. Of course. I was both pleased and honoured to be a part of that work – schlepper, umbrella and flash holder, and model tormentor.

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So, I’m back here – and back in the studio … and feeling excited and energized by the work at hand. Oh, and looking forward to spring. Just sayin’.

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Some thoughts on new drawings …

I’ve been quite conscious of my work process in the last while – more than usual – because it seems to be evolving quite rapidly. This is, quite naturally, bringing all kinds of interesting questions to light for me in relation to the way I work, why I am drawn to do what I do: the ‘why’ of the ‘how’ if you will.

This body of work appears to be resolving itself around repetition/recapitulation, and consistent references to specific patterns and shapes. This is something that had begun to make itself known with the initial work for Archives of Absence, but for the most part, I chalked that up to working in different materials and with different content than I had before. Now, I’m beginning to think otherwise.

A bit OCD? Maybe … but there’s other things at work here:

What does the reiteration of form or object say about the object itself, and/or about the need to repeat or recapitulate the form  – and the doing? Certainly for this body of work, focused as it is on birds’ nests, this form of making does certainly tap into action as an instinctual and/or ritualized process.

There’s also my predilection for squares, circles, and grids:  circles and squares are two of the ‘perfect’ forms, and they seem to encapsulate notions of balance and harmony, this being inherent in equilateral/bilaterally symmetrical shapes. The way these shapes relate to space is important here too – their extension into space is the same in all directions. These are democratic shapes – they occupy and contain with equality. Grids and patterns based on grids work in a similar way, especially when used as a means of expanding or contracting the scale of an object, or measuring space. Grids = Order, Containment, Regularity, Pattern. They allow for variation, but within rigidly set boundaries.

 This repetition can create blindness through its sameness, on one level … that jaded sense of “seen that before”/ “same old, same old” … we become desensitized to the things we see repeatedly. But the converse is also true, and something I want to explore much more: if we are presented with a sequence/series/reiteration of the same object or form, we are also (at least I am) drawn to the details: the hide-and-seek of finding the differences between these objects which are essentially the same. It is these threads that reveal independent narratives attached to (and issuing from) each object.
So in the end perhaps this is becomes about seeing and choice,  and the connections between the process of  making and the process of recognition.

Nesting and building nests

Poet Louise Gluck sums up the the complex simplicity of  birds’  nest building activities so well.
In her poem ‘Nests”, she writes:

It took what there was:
the available material.

I am discovering just how much that particular approach informs my practice overall – and for this body of work, particularly so. Part of what I want to do with NEST is to apply the methods of birds’ natural nest-building habits to the work that I create – both literally and metaphorically. On a literal level, I have always works with recycled and reclaimed materials – the detritus of city living and the remaindered artifacts of the manufactured world. This is an essential aspect of what I do: to make work that treads lightly, but also speaks to those complexities of living in this world and out relationship to the materials we make and use to do that living. The parallels to the wiliness of birds as architects and engineers is obvious, and not a little fun:

Bowerbird Nests … the male creates installations of objects to attract the female, which may include bright blue bottle caps!

I received a fabulous book this past Yule season, that is contributing enormously to my research for the NEST project, and to my understanding of some of the engineering and architectural challenges I am facing in constructing work.

Have a peek at Avian Architecture, by Peter Goodfellow – it’s a goldmine of terrific research on –  and images of – various forms of bird’s nests, and has grab listing of resources for further research as well. (click on the “google preview” button on the page I’ve linked here to have a peek inside!)

In human terms, crafting a ‘nest’ is both process and product. Effort and thought goes into the selection of physical objects and materials that we use to build our homes, the ‘nesting’ we do over time to create comfortable spaces for ourselves. But these material artifacts are also invested with meaning of an altogether different sort: the weight of memory, of connection and attachment that is assigned to some (if not all) of the things we choose.
There is an architecture of the spirit here, a using of the ‘available materials’ to create meaning far beyond the things themselves.

A small nest made of copper mesh, beeswax, human hair, and a crow feather I created in 2011.
Birds nests then, be come markers of sorts – signifiers and pointers directing our thoughts and responses back to the spiritual/emotional ‘nests’ we create as individuals … or to those that we wish we had, or have lost in one way or another. Perhaps it is simply the precariousness and fragility of those exposed havens – made of everything imaginable, in seemingly random collections – that make that connection between the animal-made object and human desire so enduring.

Working in Community

One of the really terrific things about the artistic community in this city (and beyond!) is its willingness to support and engage with the work of its members. I feel a deep and ongoing gratitude for this – making art in such an environment allows individuals (and their creative practice) to thrive, to be supported, and to gain valuable feedback and insight into their work on an ongoing basis.

A little while ago, I posted a request for materials for a series of sculptures I will be creating as part of the NEST project for my Residency. To my great delight, people are responding, in really great ways!

I had a contribution from Beth  – all the way from Calgary(!) – Paddy has lots of goodies he’s bringing to Harcourt over the next while, Kim has started a collection of plastic strapping at her shop, Marc donated an amazing wooden frame that will likely be part of an installation, and Brittney has bags of shredded paper for me that I am figuring out how to best use as well.

I am so thankful to everyone who has contributed so far – and I’m looking forward to seeing what else comes my way in the next while … and what will be made from all of these disparate materials.

An Ongoing Dialogue …

One of the most remarkable things about making art for me has always been the opportunities this mad existence has offered to meet – and work with – some truly exceptional human beings.

I have been gifted with several such ongoing encounters, one of which I’d like to share today …

I have worked on (and continue to work on) a collaborative project entitled Archives of Absence with  Catherine Owen, a terrific poet from Vancouver. We launched a chapbook, a miscellany, and the visual art from this meeting of minds in April 2011 at the Edmonton Poetry Festival, and I blogged about it here.

Catherine and I also wrote about our experience of working together on this project in an essay entitled “Engaging Space” … and that essay has (happily!!) just been published by Radius – you can find it here.

It is an amazing thing to me – as someone who has ‘shifted gears’ over the years from written to visual modes of expression to see this (very) visual project described and made real in words … another iteration, and other way of seeing all that we have seen as individuals, and as a collaborative team. This collaboration has been all the richer too, in that it has provoked a re-kindling of my desire to work with words again in an active way – to write, as well as make visual art – and that is a tremendous gift, beyond the telling.

The work on Archives of Absence continues … I continue to make work for this project, returning to it as a place which distills many of the ideas that permeate both my work and Catherine’s on an ongoing basis. Each foray in brings something new: a new way of seeing the land, the city, the work already made … the way I work and why I do what I do.

Collaboration keeps people honest and open, keeps the ego checked at the door, and and makes one just unsettled enough to keep the work continually fresh. For these things and so many others, I am always grateful.

Engaging Space will be released this spring by Wolsak & Wynn, in a collection of essays and prose memoirs entitled Catalysts – featuring visual art from the Archives of Absence project on the cover.

A Call for Input!

I am looking for input from people on two related subjects:

1.  Do you have a favourite nest, and if so, where is it?

If it’s in Edmonton AB or Halifax NS (and area) – I’d be most appreciative if you’d let me know the nest’s location.

My goal is to hunt down your favourite nests and photograph them, as part of my Residency project.

2. Do you have plastic that could be used to build nests?

If so, please get in touch and let me know what you’ve got. I’m looking for things like flexible plastic tubing, pipe wrap, offcuts from plastic banner production, offcuts from plastics manufacturing, plastic strapping used to hold pallets of goods together … that kind of thing. The material should be in long strips/lengths, suitable for weaving into a bird’s nest shape; it needs to be fairly sturdy, but flexible enough that I can manipulate it with my hands. Bright colours would be fantastic, but not essential. Ideally, you’d be in Edmonton AB so we can connect personally and I can get this material from you.

Thanks for any assistance you can provide!

Leave any input in the comments below, and I will get back to you.

Upcoming Exhibition: Lost and Found

Have been very busy settling into the new/expanded studio space at Harcourt House, and getting the work for the Residency underway … photos of the space to follow in a post very soon!

Doing lots of drawing right now too – finishing up a fabulous class with Jesse Forchuk at the U of A Extension studios. It’s been an amazing, eye opening experience!

BUT … what I really want to talk about just now is a group exhibition coming up very soon!

I will have a selection of mixed media work in “Lost and Found” at the Art Gallery of St Albert; the show opens December 1 – and runs until January 28 2012. I’m really excited about this show, and the work I have in it. If you get a chance, drop in to see it – and leave me a comment!! Let me know what you think.

The AGSA says the following about the show:

Lost and Found

Dec 1, 2011 – Jan 28, 2012
Featuring: Paul Burwell, Cynthia Fuhrer and Sydney Lancaster
Nature and reality challenge the constructed world and the imagination in the art exhibition Lost and Found.
Paul Burwell gives us a closer look at the smallest elements of winter: snowflakes. Macro photographs transfused with light reveal the hidden facets of these fleeting pieces of natural art. Burwell finds and captures the beauty of these unique structures before they melt and are forever lost.
Cynthia Fuhrer draws the faces of people who do not exist. Through figuration and abstraction, faces emerge from her subconscious mind and are preserved as graphite drawings. Fuhrer transforms these faces into clay sculpture busts, allowing the material to be present and giving life to lost human images.
The interplay between the constructed world and the natural world is explored in Sydney Lancaster’s mixed media assemblages, which incorporate found objects and
beeswax. Lancaster traces the connections between physical objects, the landscapes in which they are found and the influence they have in constructing our personal and collective memories.
These artists reveal what is both lost and found, hidden just below the surface of our perception, in this diverse group exhibition.