SAC Artist Interview Series: Modern-day Realist Amy Liebenberg and Documentarian Thomasina Pidgeon
Written by Rachel Anne Farquharson
Norse oral history tells us a special story about driftwood—those magical wooden fossils common to waterfronts here in Squamish. The creation myth recounts the first stirrings of human life. Two pieces of driftwood, one ash and one elm, exist in the narrative as man and woman. These wise parents are storied to have birthed a race respectful of nature’s authority and the sanctuary it provides. But have we “children” risen to these expectations? The answer is clearly enunciated in a multi-artist exhibition hosted by the Squamish Public Library’s Foyer Gallery (June 29-August 10, 2021). Two local creatives, Squamish Arts Council Director Amy Liebenberg and photographer Thomasina Pidgeon, offer their respective collections as a critical conversation about Squamish’s overwhelming gentrification and the province-wide destruction of old growth landscapes. If the principle of “sight unseen” has historically enabled ignorance about our fading natural environments, then the stark reality of each collections’s imagery forces the issue unavoidably into view.
Gazing at Liebenberg’s body of work, Felled, it is clear why natural phenomena like driftwood and the majestically tall trees indigenous to the West Coast are her subject. The knots and curves that give driftwood their furled character has fascinated the artist for years, teasing her with histories of their formation and movement—their arrivals, travels, and stalls. Accordingly, anthropological research has occupied a significant portion of the artist’s workflow. Her drawings and paintings bear the weight of the logging industry’s history, its thefts and dividends. The environmentally conscious works that comprise this series celebrate the re-cycle of life demonstrated by nurse logs while addressing the ultimate frailty of the “once tall, strong, intricate, resilient old giant”.1
Nexen 1 (2019), an ink drawing comprised of inexhaustible linework and delicate shading, pictures an irregularly shaped driftwood stump. Its twisted limbs reach beyond the picture plane, extending a welcoming embrace to visitors entering the Library. Liebenberg here reveals her roots in printmaking, which she mastered while earning her BFA at Alberta College of Art and Design. Precise and complex mark making is required of the process, but few are as able to transfer such a deep contrast between line and the space of a page to free-hand drawing. And Liebenberg goes one further—Driftwood 4 delivers a meaningful shock as deep vermillion India ink seems to weep out of a pile of dismembered logs. The loose modelling of tree trunks swathed in red affects abstraction in the drawing, giving it a grave and cautionary presence. Throughout the Driftwood series, Liebenberg whispers the lives of B.C. Giant trees for all who will listen, relating the sad destruction of ecosystems in their absence.
But soft! The nurse stumps pictured in Stump 1-3 tell a hopeful tale of new life and blooming environments despite today’s tenuous conditions. This trio of small painted works, manifested this time in gouache on paper, tackle not only the rudimentary skill of drawing, but also the ability to work colourful paint thoughtfully without pushing the paper’s surface beyond its limits. Liebenberg’s verdant, mossy forest scenes fill each page but the focus is always one central tree, recalling Emily Carr’s deeply personal depictions of coastal rainforests. Though not as monumental as Carr’s “big” paintings, the artist’s works demonstrate over and again a fluidity between mediums while affecting emotional and ethical responses in her audience. The act of scribing these arboreal artefacts’s likenesses to paper and panel demonstrates a humanistic ethos in Liebenberg and a true regard for local ecologies and their socio-cultural influences.
Pivoting away from the lyrical and expressive gestures made in Felled, an immediate confrontation with the lens-based work of documentarian Thomasina Pidgeon shifts the mood. For Sale is an 8×12 grid of unframed photographs with a single, larger image cocooned at its centre. It pleads radical honesty with its audience, announcing open season on the commodification of Squamish’s town proper. Covering most of the foyer’s east wall, each “snapshot” style picture documents one of many land development proposal signs currently visible throughout the Sea-to-Sky corridor. Competing billboard slogans—”Friendships. Made in Squamish” and “Jumar: Live the Adventure”, for example—take on propagandistic proportions when placed in direct contrast with the concept of an “homogenous monoculture which is replicating itself across North America”2 Registering the impact of population growth and economic greed in her photography, Pidgeon here chooses blatant reality over aesthetic nuance, offering no apology.
Although Pidegon’s For Sale series is strong conceptually, her audience may miss the purpose of its grid component. The curatorial choice to forgo framing leaves the 8”x10” photographs without authority or statement and the repetition of imagery mainly confirms the sheer abundance of urban development in Squamish. Unwittingly adopting the visual vernacular of real estate window displays, Pidgeon misses an opportunity to be tongue in cheek. Just as real estate listings promise certain futures without consideration to the environments that suffer in their realization, so to do the grounds captured in For Sale. The series does succeed, however, when taken as a whole. The personal, social, and political implications of our land abuse and lack of maintenance—the driving force of Pidgeon’s practice—are only clear when a connection is drawn between the grid presentation and its central, larger image. “Last Standing”, an 18”x24” photograph of a tightly gathered group of tall, spindly trees, has an aura of both defence and loneliness. Pidgeon’s compositional strategy makes its mark, the shorn land surrounding the intimate huddle filling most of the photographic frame. Representing the spirited strength of our First Nations, the woody family draw near as if in recoil and protection from the very acts being forecasted in the surrounding grid. The photographer sings a swan song for thickets so crucial to the health of our environmental systems as, less slowly than surely, the advance of the developer’s army closes in to endanger them. Pidgeon aligns herself through her larger works with photographers like Canadian environmentalist Edward Burtynsky, capturing the pillaging of natural lands in the service of industrialized landscapes.
Felled and For Sale make good conversationalists as the themes of human culture, ecology, and urbanization are volleyed back and forth between two opposing gallery walls. Where Pidegon exposes the man-driven actions responsible for the destruction of culture, habitat, and local tradition, Liebenberg gives voice to resultant losses and renewals of wild plants species and animal life. Both artists call on humanity—our collective conscious to right the wrongs so prominent in today’s profit-driven, growth-dependant economy. The mixed exhibition leaves an aftertaste of curiosity and agency in viewers, provoking questions and inspiring much needed change.
1 Amy Liebenberg, “Q & A with AMY LIEBENBERG, ‘Felled ‘, FOYER Gallery, Squamish Public Library Virtual Gallery, June 29-August 10, 2021
2 Thomasina Pidgeon, “Q & A with THOMASINA PIDGEON, ‘Changing Squamish, Part One: For Sale ‘, FOYER Gallery, Squamish Public Library Virtual Gallery, June 29-August 10, 2021
SAC Artist Interview Series: Multi-medium Artist Rebecca Santry
Written by Rachel Anne Farquharson
Blue, deep blue. Isn’t it the colour of peace and serenity? A colour that cools our peaked summer skin with its waters and enfolds us in its velvet winter skies when it is time to rest? Derived by the Egyptians some 5,000 years ago from the semi-precious stone Lapis Lazuli, deep-blue pigments remained a staple among creatives, meeting the brushes and panels of Renaissance artists before becoming prevalent in printing processes of the last two centuries. While some of these processes are automated, using cyan-blue as one of three colour additions to any commercial print (along with magenta and yellow), proto-photographic techniques such as that of the “Cyanotype” are executed manually and therefore immersive in nature. A grandchild of the architectural blueprint, cyanotype images offer ghost-like visualizations of their subjects arrested in time, disobeying the convention of the planar surface with tactility that delights.
A Slash of Blue—We are All Water
Rebecca Santry is the kind of artist enjoyed by art connoisseurs, good conversationalists, and, best of all, the curious. Originally from Buckinghamshire, UK, Santry’s intellectual and creative drives guided her away from discrete subject studies such as Maths towards a more humanistic taste for history, languages, and the visual arts. Armed with an appreciation for sculpture’s tactility and numerous sketchbooks, she hopped the Atlantic pond seven years ago in search of temperate climes and a communion with nature. And so, she found Squamish and the raw natural environments of British Columbia. Currently exhibiting as part of a group exhibition at Squamish’s Adventure Centre, I sat down with Santry (mask free!) to discuss the human condition of anxiety, how art can become a therapy for such stressors, and, of course, the colour blue.
Let’s start off with a little bit about your training back in the UK. Were you always drawn to print making or did the step-wise, physical process of the Cyanotype capture you more than anything?
Actually, neither! Funnily enough, the medium I enjoyed the most during my studies was sculpture. Three-dimensional, tactile work simply attracted me. I wasn’t prolific—whilst everyone else in my class was churning out artwork after artwork, I remained entirely committed to working one piece. To perfecting it before I could move on. As a teenager, I was somewhat extroverted and found the best outlet for my energies was art. We hadn’t a full spectrum of equipment at our disposal, but in addition to sculpture, I did attempt painting in a modest two-tone palette of black and white. The monochromatic vocabularies of Aubrey Beardsley and M.C. Escher were important inspirations at this time, as was their inventive use of line and graphic design. Life drawing was also very satisfying due to its contemplative process of observing the body’s form, explaining its geometries at an unhurried pace.
It seems clear that yours is a slow and methodical practice, arguably therapeutic as you prime your paper, select your subject, and reveal its form through exposure to sunlight. Can you walk us through your workflow, from start to finish?
Shall I or shall I not include my four year old son’s habit of walking across paper to which I have applied the first stage of cyanotype dye treatment? In all seriousness, I begin with a few sketches of the subject matter I hope to represent, either at home or after long visits in nature. Thereafter, I coat paper with a combination of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, taking care to do so in a room with no or very little light. This chemistry effectively turns its substrate into UV light reactive paper. While I am in dire need of a proper dark room, I’ve managed thus far! Enclosed in a light-fast sonotube, I then transport the primed paper to my nature site for exposure and washing.
Recently, I took a mini-break to Ucluelet where I frequented a very small, quiet beach among the Artist Loops on the B.C.’s Wild Pacific Trail. I would walk around the rock halls there, assessing the flow of the water and my surroundings in a meditative fashion. Taking time to ground my bearings in the present, I next removed the treated paper from its protective packaging and exposed the chemistry to sunlight before introducing water to the process. The water works the submerged paper, pushing and pulling over its surface as blue populates and changes to form shapes and shadows. It is a mesmerizing and very physical experience. The final step is to leave the paper, exposed in the sunlight, to dry for about an hour. I like to spend this time in reflection. My ideas are often impacted by the unpredictability of environmental conditions—the strength of the sun or the current running in the water where I will eventually wash the artwork. While I feel as though I can see my hand in the making of my cyanotypes, the end result is often a surprise to even me. It is a sturdy reminder of nature’s power and volatile tendencies.
Wow! Sounds like alchemy! You’ve implied that family challenges throughout your teenage years has made a lasting impact on not only the production of your prints, but also on the approach you take to memories now calcified in the present. What more can you relate about the wends and weaves of emotion and psychology in your work?
Yes, those years are a permanent thread in my work, if only because my experiences of loss, instability, and life’s contortions were so keenly felt at the time. Processing my art quickly became a way to address lingering aches and grounding myself in the natural world, where biological complexity is actualized through simplified geometry, became essential. I find my eyes magnetized to the symmetries and ratios, affecting calm over my sometimes stressed para-sympathetic nervous system. It is very metaphysical. This sensation piqued my interest and led me to current research being conducted around the human stress hormone, cortisol, which is naturally lowered in our systems not only by art, but especially by submersion in nature. My intention is for my audience to embrace and be embraced by the synthesis of art and nature present specifically in my cyanotypes.
Wassily Kandinsky’s abstract expressionist art has been influential on your practice, especially the artist’s layering of forms and use of recognizable shapes to represent musical composition visually. The circle is one of the most simple yet elegant of all forms, so it is no wonder that you have repeatedly included it in your art’s vocabulary. Can you speak to your continued interest in composition, presentation, and organic form?
I like to make a literal framework for my creative narratives, which sometimes involves using photo mats to mask everything in the composition save a circular void. These windows constrain each subject’s boundaries, providing a safe and stable envelope in which the image can live. Its “moment” is reliably held or captured in time, the photographic “aura” still intact. Within a work’s
metaphorical structure, I hope to give voice to the concepts of mindfulness, observation, and environmental ethos. Organic forms are a central tenet of my work, in part because their principles create a sub-conscious harmony for the human eye. There is a reason why the Golden Section and proportions like Pi are so pleasant to regard and echo throughout nature’s flora and fauna. Viewers are able to commune with soft, empathetic imagery on the terms of their own aesthetic proclivities and personal memories in this way.
It sounds like the reliability of defined shapes is of comfort to you, perhaps because our visual literacy begins as children with primary forms like the square, circle, and triangle. Do you plan on continuing to engage geometry in future projects?
The reliability of geometries is a concept I may always pursue in my practice because it is, indeed, a comfort and a therapy. I pay special attention to the emotional and visceral consequences of my interactions with dye, bodies of water, and natural objects, collaging shifting blue spectres across the page as I go. Again, the time elapsed throughout the process takes on significance that I hope remains palpable in the finished piece. I do endeavour to explore shapes beyond the circle, introducing the oblong form of the rectangle, static as well as in motion across paper. I have also experimented with salt surface treatments to augment tone and spices like turmeric to create colour contrast.
You recently founded a creative outfit called “The Spare Twig”. What was the inspiration behind the name and how do you use this platform to represent your creative doings?
My primary inspiration for “The Spare Twig” was the creation of a living collection of my work. Presented here are pieces that strike a balance between the organic and geometric forms that I reveal and explore in my compositions. The traditional Japanese aesthetic of “Wabi-Sabi”, where the imperfect, transient, and incomplete live in beautiful harmony, remains a big influence. I honour the imperfectly imperfect elements within my artwork—not only in the personality of a finished piece, but also throughout the unpredictability of process as the paper and I share an experience.
Finally, do you ever get sick of blue?
Ahaha. Funny you should say that. I have identified that I am rather an extremist when it comes to colour use. The black and white paintings of my school days come to mind. But of late, I have been challenging my chromatic uptake, noticing the deep vermillion of ocean buoys and the ochre highlights of barnacles and driftwood. It isn’t all about blue. My recent collage work, still in its gestation, begins to induce multi-coloured contrasts through a layering of fractured shapes. I am hoping to broaden the aesthetic platform of my practice, re-defining the Cyanotype as I think, play, and create in nature.
Stay tuned for SAC’s next addition to our “Artist Speaks” series. SAC Director Amy Liebenberg discusses her empathetic, nature-focused linework while the documentary photography of Thomasina Pidgeon sounds a socio-cultural alarm for citizens of Squamish. The works currently stand in union at Squamish’s Public Library. Check them out!
SAC Artist Interview Series: Sculptor Andre Paixao Siqueira
Written by Rachel Anne Farquharson
Object as art—perhaps one of the most prominent conceptual hallmarks of the Modern Era —continues to persist in today’s art market. Using natural “objects” such as rock, soil, or vegetation as creative medium hasn’t been a novel concept since the 70s Land art movement, but where impermanent outdoor installations gave voice to past creative expression, now many artists use earth matter on a smaller, gallery appropriate scale. Succinct combinations of individual units, five rocks arranged in specific relationships, for example, not only fits with the traditional museum view of sculpture, but also invites creatives to work within the commercial realm as their pieces take on function.
ART THROWS LIGHT
In sculptor Andre Paixao Siqueira’s world, every single rock is imbued with the spirit and history of its formation. This natural personality—a composite of sedimentary layers bound to human’s presence —is synthesized over time like any other living entity. Siqueira adopts his family of rocks from rivers, raw coastlines, and inland terrain, building short cairns or rock stacks like those guiding a hiker’s way. Turning form into function, the sculptor bores a hole through each rock in a stacked set, thereafter inserting a rod, wiring, and finally, adding a lightbulb to intuitively create a lamp believable among nature’s offerings. As if a lighthouse in miniature, these small “ZenLamps” throw light and hope our way as we navigate daily surprises, fears, and opportunity for growth.
Recently, I caught up with Siqueira during the mounting of the currently SAC group exhibition at Squamish’s Adventure Centre gallery space.
You spent your childhood in Brazil chasing the immediate connection you felt with your geological surroundings. Since transplanting yourself to Squamish, BC, have you felt this affinity re established?
This affinity never left me. However, in Squamish, my connection with the Coast Salish land made me want to share their story and their beautiful rocks that have rolled down the rivers around Squamish. Their cairn rocks guide me on my hikes and amaze my eyes.
How do First Nations narratives, along with humankind’s primordial inclination to nomadic lifestyles, present in your lamps?
The Squamish First Nations narratives demonstrate knowledge of mind, body, and soul in connec tion to Mother Earth. When I am working with the rocks, imagining their story and relationship with the First Nations’s land, instantly I feel connected to the earth, nature and to the Coast Salish People. The way nature shapes the Zenlamps rocks, by moving them around, carrying them down rivers through strong currents, reflects the inclination to nomadic lifestyles you mentioned.
Does the physical act of hunting/gathering rocks and processing a ZenLamps’s various components take on as much importance as the final product?
Definitely. The process of choosing the rocks and balancing the colour, texture, and equilibrium in each assembled set is the most important part of my work. I spend hours with the rocks, listening to their stories and letting my imagination entertain different concepts, forms, and looks. It is almost as though I can synthesize the essence of each rock by placing it relative to a few of its “siblings”.
You mentioned the portable nature of your creative work station. Is this compact, collapsible set up related to your practice in Physiotherapy?
I can see how that connection could be drawn, but no, not really. The use of a portable and col lapsible “studio” is due more to spatial constraints than anything. I do not have room for a perman ent studio in my house, so I have learned to improvise. A sink and water to drill through my rock sets is also essential to lessen the dust produced throughout the process, so arranging access to all the materials and equipment needed to complete each ZenLamp isn’t as simple as it seems.
It sounds as though some of the creative ways in which First Nations peoples have empowered nature to be a creative partner inspire you as well. Tell me, where would you most like to see a collection or curated exhibition of your ZenLamps?
Exactly. I feel a resonance with both BC’s Indigenous history and its robust present. Their spirited inclination to make and story-tell through nature’s “objects” is much like my own. I would love, ultimately, to see my ZenLamps exhibited in a public art gallery or museum setting. One with a rich culture in visual literacy, place-making, and innovative artistry.
Stay tuned for SAC’s next addition to our “Artist Speaks” series. In keeping with the themes of nature and its profound impact on humanity, Squamish-based creator Rebecca Santry will discuss her use of the cyanotype and how in-field print making soothes the soul.