And the Whale Met the Polar Bear

I have always wanted to see wild bison. I guess I assumed they are rare or shy because I  have never seen them before. Well, in the last few days I have seen more bison than I can count. Welcome to the Northwest Territories!

We weren’t planning on going north of 60… but when you have the opportunity to meet someone that has shared the same specific and unique experience but you have never met before… it is hard to pass up the invite! Last winter I was put in contact with artist Alison McCreesh from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. She participated in the Karelia Artist Residency at the Media Centre Vyhod in Petrozavodsk, Russia. I was so grateful to be able to talk to her over the phone while I was working through the confusing process of applying for a visa to visit Russia.

I never imagined that I would have the pleasure of meeting Alison in person. It was a pleasure to spend time getting to know her and her beautiful family and reminisce about our Russian experiences. Alison, her partner Pat, their two children and Ninja, the family dog, gave us a wonderful whirlwind walking tour of the old town part of Yellowknife. I was captivated by the interestingly shaped shacks and shack-inspired houses, the multicolored houseboats (half the year they can walk to town, the other half they canoe) and the interesting history of this remote city.

Something that really struck me when I met Alison is that her art is highly–I would even venture to say entirely–influenced by her geographical location and natural surroundings: inspired by cold weather situations, artic creatures, snowsuits, skates and skis. Alison has a wonderful way of capturing the essence of life up north in her art. It made me realize the importance of location and how it can impact artistic development. It was a good reminder to remember to immerse yourself in wherever you are at that moment and allow it to influence you. This immersion can take on many shapes and forms: whether it is seaweeds and cetaceans or snow and polar bears.

If you would like to see more of Alison’s work, you can check out her website, facebook page or Instagram feed. Alison has also created two fantastic travelogues (which I now have the pleasure of adding to my library),  Norths: Two Suitcases & a Stroller Around the Circumpolar World  and Ramshackle, published by Conundrum Press.

 

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Whales in Clouds and Rainbow Unicorns

I always find it hard to leave the island, so during the chaos of apartment packing I made this little guy to help bring a little ocean with us on our road trip to visit family in northern Alberta. To feels strange to no longer have a home base, but it is exciting too.  Since visiting my little nieces and nephews my art practice has taken a distinctive and  temporary shift away from whales and on to unicorns! Many, many, many unicorns.  With rainbow hair.

Cardboard Boxes

Five years ago, almost to the day, my husband and I moved to Victoria. We were beginning a new phase of our life: me studying fine art and him working to put me through it. I remember how I felt when we moved here. I was excited but nervous whether this was a good life decision. I remember thinking as I walked up the front steps to the school that this might either be one of the best or one of the worst choices I get to make.

That was five years ago. Art school was such a rich experience and pushed me farther than I ever thought I could. I was talking to someone today at that same art school (where I now work) and I asked her if she has felt she has changed since going there. She said it’s not really that she has changed… but she has become more herself. I couldn’t have said it better. If I had to summarize my time here, both studying and now working, I would say that art has taught me about who I am and who I want to be. I now know that it was indeed one of the best decisions!

So why am I writing about all this? Because five years ago I found myself packing up our belongings and starting a new adventure in Victoria. Here we are again, boxes sprinkled throughout our apartment and me feeling reflective. This time it’s much harder to pack because apparently at least half of what I own consists of paintings, drawings and art supplies. I am exceedingly blessed to have had the opportunity to study art, to discover more of who I am, to have had art-related jobs, to have become part of a community of artists and to have had the chance to live near my family again.

My husband and I have decided to take some time off to spend time with each other and family, to travel and have new experiences. And of course… I will be making art! It is scary to let go of the familiar, but I think that scary can be good. Five years ago was scary and hard but I would do it all over again. So… here is to a new adventure and, as always, to art (and whales)!

The Grand Armada, Natasha van Netten, 2014.jpg

TD Art Gallery Paint-In Today

It has finally arrived: the Moss Street Paint-In! I will be tent #105 between May St and George St (nearer to Dallas Road along Moss St) and I hope that you will come and say hi. The Paint-In happens today from 11am-4pm. I would write more about what I am bringing with me but I am just on my way to go set up, so I guess you will just have to come to find out! And I will be creating wire whales at my booth. So please come and spend sometime in my whale sanctuary today.

Paintin

It’s pouring! (seawater that is)

It’s always a little strange to come home after being away. The time I spent in Russia was so rich with experiences that I feel like a part of me changed inside. After an experience like this it takes a little bit of time to get used to being home again. I find myself wanting NVN_0169to create a new “normal”. I feel energized and excited to see what is in store for the future. Right now the future means preparing for the Moss Street Paint-In and the Sooke Fine Arts Show. I have also been lucky to have a new studio at the Vancouver Island School of Art! It is wonderful to have a fresh space to create in and spend focused time working on pieces for these events.

Something that I have been looking forward to doing again is more seawater drawings. These drawings are very temperamental and can only be done during certain times of year due to weather conditions.  There are many factors that have play in this process: temperature, wind, humidity, water clarity, etc. Here are some process photos of a couple pieces I  have been working on this afternoon.

 

До свидания (do svidaniya)

It is hard to believe that we were in Russia only a week ago. I haven’t had a chance to write about it yet because it’s been busy setting back in: laundry, unpacking, visiting people and going to work. While you are reading this, please bear with me and imagine that it is a week ago.

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Our last week in Russia was one of the most exciting weeks. My husband and I had tried to visit Kizhi Island once already, but the boats weren’t running because the weather patterns changed and ice had drifted in, blocking the passage. This time we were successful. And it was worth the wait! Kizhi Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The island is an open air museum showing the best examples of rural Russian architecture built entirely out of wood. The Karelia Artist Residence and the Karelia Ministry of Tourism and Culture arranged for a guide to meet us on the island and give us a tour (in English) of the buildings and history of Kizhi. It was a fabulous day trip and it gave me a new appreciation and understanding of Karelian history and design.

I also had the pleasure of leading a workshop for a group of young arts students. The workshop was related to my residency project Waterland. The workshop project was about outside form. I discussed with the group about how you can add additional meaning to your work by addressing the way that it is contained–its outer shape. The students created small drawings of people/places/things that they feel are personally meaningful to the city of Petrozavodsk and the surrounding region. Then the students cut out the drawings and collaged them together to create the shape of Onega Lake. During the summer the students will continue to work on this idea and create individual pieces that will be presented in an exhibition at the Media Center. NVN_9525

We also went on another excursion during our final week to Kivach waterfall. It was about an hours drive into the forest from Petrozavodsk. We went with Varvara and Irina, two of the amazing ladies that work at the Media Center and the four of us were greeted at the park gates by the lovely nature guide and her translator. We were given a fabulous tour of the ecological museum, a interesting nature trail and the famous Kivach waterfall–the main attraction. It was good to get deeper into the Karelian countryside and learn about the natural habitat… we also were surprised to see a wonderful collection of sculptures made out of wood hiding in the forest!

During our last week the Sergei Terentjev (Сергей Терентьев), the Director of the Vyhod Media Center, did an interview with me; I spent two more afternoons drawing in the gallery and I have a tour/had a Q&A time with a class of young journalists.  I was also thrilled to have a studio tour with Sergei of his studio. He talked about the avenues his art has taken before and after Soviet times and showed examples of the diversity of the different projects he had been working on. Sergei and his wife Maria have been fighting for the presence and acceptance of contemporary art in Petrozavodsk and they are both directors of the two contemporary art galleries in the city. It is amazing to see the art community that comes to the galleries and to know that this is because of the tireless work that Sergei and Maria have invested into it. Despite differences of language, culture and generation, I feel connected to Sergei and what he is working towards. It became a little clearer to me when Sergei told me, “I had traditional art training and yet I create contemporary art, you are a contemporary artist with contemporary training.” I realized in that moment how lucky I am for the art education I received and how strong this man’s determination must have been to make the leap from one side of the scale to the other. Contemporary art was an underground movement for a long time in Russia, and it’s relevance is still being fought for in the Russian art communities. Sergei poetically explained that as a contemporary artist he “is like a wild tree, or a flower growing underground.” I feel privileged to have met Sergei and for his studio tour. This was a highlight of the residency!

It is always hard to come to the end of something good. My experience in Petrozavodsk exceeded all my expectations! I feel honoured to have had the opportunity to share my work with so many people, to have seen a little bit of the beauty of Russia, to feel a deeper connection to my own history and past, and to have made relationships and friendships that will continue. Coming home I feel like I am not exactly the same person that left, but have changed through this experience. Grown. Russia and the people that live their hold a special place in my heart. And so rather than saying “good bye” I say, “До свидания (do svidaniya)”, until our next meeting.

“But why whales?”

It was a wonderful surprise to discover that my exhibition was to be included in Museums Night here in Petrozavodsk. Museums Night is a big event that happens across Russia. On this night organizations, museums, galleries and other institutions are free to the public and there are special events including workshops and open studios. For this event the Vyhod Media Center arranged for me to lead two public tours through the gallery to talk about my work. This evening was a big highlight for me on this residency. Many people came to the first tour. I was able to discuss the ideas and processes behind my art with the help of the lovely Irina who translated for me. It was nice to recognize some familiar faces of people that came to previous events like the opening and artist talk. The attendance of the second gallery tour shocked me! There were so many people that it was difficult for everyone to see the work while I was talking. Both groups were interested in the art and asked many questions about it. It was a pleasure to see people interacting with the work, even young children. The staff at the gallery counted the people that came during Museums Night and the grand total reached… 700! I feel humbled and honoured that so many people came to see my work over the course of just a few hours.

Museum night 1

I have been asking people here in Petrozavodsk what is their experience of whales. Have they ever seen a whale? Have they been to the ocean? It turns out that few have seen whales and even the ocean is not easily reached. I take for granted that I live on an island in a place where whales are commonly talked about over the radio, in general conversation, in newspapers and are sometimes seen when you aren’t even looking for them–from the shore or from the ferry. One of the first questions that I have been asked during my exhibition here is, “But why whales?”. It is a simple question that cuts to the heart of my practise but it is something that I don’t often question because I have been making art about whales for a long time. Thinking about whales is part of my everyday life but this is not normal for everyone. This has been a good reminder for me to go back to the beginning and remember why I make art about whales and where it all began. It is refreshing to talk to people that are hungry to know more. To be honest I have felt a little like a kid in a candy store here telling people interesting stories about whales–why they are such fascinating and complicated creatures–and watching their interest in whales visibly grow right in front of me. A reminder: whales are exotic animals (especially when you don’t live by the ocean).

Wooden Boats and Art Talks

As I sit at our kitchen table and write this post, I find myself very distracted by the sounds outside. We were going to travel by boat to see an island today but we found out that the boat was cancelled because of bad weather. On the horizon there was a dark cloud and it has been quickly growing all morning. You would think that the city would be quiet in the shadow of a thunderstorm but instead it is the opposite! The rolls of thunder are very long and the animals that live next door in the zoo are talking like crazy. But enough of distractions…

It has been a wonderful past few days here. At the beginning of the week we spent a lovely afternoon with Varvara. She took us out to see a small village on the outside of Petrozavodsk. We walked along the dirt roads and enjoyed lovely views of the countryside and beautiful, old, wooden houses.

Afterwards she took us to see a wooden boat factory. Although it is referred to as a factory, it is a magical place where a team of extremely skillful craftsmen build custom wooden boats. They can build any kind of wooden boat and they build them using the historical methods. Aleksi, the man that showed us around the factory, showed us how they build some boats without using nails at all! Other boats are built using metal pins. They have even built ships used in movies, including the Hornblower series and the first Pirates of the Caribean movie. Needless to say I was in heaven! The smell of the wood and being able to watch people hand carving, splicing and fitting strips of wood across the bones of future boats was a real treat! If you would like to see you images you can check out their website here. Varvara also took us to see another boat-related place, a sailing club on Lake Onega. We had another lovely tour here as well and we were given a lovely history about some of the ships that were built here and traveled all over the world (some even sailed from here to Vancouver and back). We were given two tours of the inside of boats that were being re-fit and had a private tour of their museum.

I have been doing a lot of drawing recently, both at the apartment and also in the gallery, and also preparing for some events. Yesterday I gave an exhibition tour to a group of students in a Foreign Languages Class. There was maybe about 15 students that came and they had some very interesting comments about the work and asked lots of questions. It was a bonus for me because they spoke English and so I could let loose and talk about whales and art without restraint. Some of the girls stayed after and we talked for a long time. It was a great afternoon and I was thrilled to meet such wonderful people.

Yesterday evening I gave a public Artist Talk at the gallery about my art practice, a brief history on the development of Cetology and an introduction to my project at this residency, Waterland. I know that I have said this before, but I find myself constantly impressed by the appreciation of art by the people of Petrozavodsk. There seems to be an honest desire to look at art with an open mind and spend long time with the work. After the talk I was again approached by people with questions about the work. The staff at the Media Centre did a fabulous job transforming the space for the talk, translating for me and doing lots of work behind the scenes.

It sounds like the thunderstorm has mainly passed now and there is a steady rain that looks like it is settling in for the rest of the afternoon. One more thing before I sing off. We have been enjoying watching a lovely, chirpy, bird couple these past weeks. They have built a beautiful nest in the tree right outside our window. We are expecting some new additions very soon!

Petrozavodsk, Russia

Victory Day and Art

We have had the pleasure of being in Russia during one of the biggest holidays of the year: Victory Day. It is on May 9th (last Wednesday). We were able to experience the ceremonies and festivities. It felt a lot like Remembrance Day in Canada, but bigger. Thousands of people brought red carnations to lay next to the Eternal Flame memorial. It became an enormous pile of carefully placed flowers. There were different kinds of parades including many branches from the military, lots of young cadets and a few veterans from WWII. The most touching part of the day for me was a parade called the Eternal Regiment in which thousands and thousands of people came with photos of their husbands, fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers (and a few women too) that fought during the war. The photos were printed large and attached to white sign boards that were held by a stick so that they could be raised into the air. It became a rolling sea of black and white photos of family members. Everyone was involved and families would be bringing three or four signs and everyone right down to the youngest grandchild held one. As we stood watching, it was like a human museum of old photographs marching past.

As far as art goes, I have been busy making drawings. We were also able to travel to Saint Petersburg for a couple of days this past week to spend time in museums and galleries. It feels extravagant to spend entire days looking at art. We went to the Russian State Museum, the General Staff Building and the Hermitage. I saw one of Malevich’s Black Square paintings! The art felt unending in the best way possible. Most were Russian works, but there were also many international pieces as well. I particularly enjoyed seeing many golden Russian Icons and the paintings of the imperial family. I have been reading through Tolstoy’s War and Peace and it is really neat to see war paintings of this time period because it adds depth to the book (if depth could possibly be added to such a fabulous work). I have no words for the Hermitage. It was the most extravagant building that I could ever have imagined! Purely the amount of meticulous hand-painted details on the walls could have filled a museum on it’s own. There were also room after room decorated with gold leaf and one room that was entirely encrusted with gold. Not only was the building phenomenal, but the art that was on the walls would take your breath away. It overwhelms the senses and it hard to fully understand what you are looking at.

Spring has Sprung (Again)

It is fantastic to be connected to the arts community here in Petrozavodsk. If it wasn’t for doing the art residency here, I believe that I would have a different impression of the city. Not knowing the national language is a handicap and if you don’t have anyone to explain things then you are left with your own thoughts and musings about what something means, why people are doing a certain activity, and so on. We have been given the royal treatment here by the people at the Media Centre and by the Ministry of Culture. The other day Varvara picked us up and drove us to the other side of town to visit the Graphic Studio. The Graphic Studio was originally created by the Media Centre but has since evolved into an independent, solid group of about 10 dedicated and hardworking print-making artists. These artists come to the studio and create art when they are not at their day jobs. We had the pleasure of meeting one of the artists that works there, Igor. He is an art teacher at the local University and is very skilled with the printing press. He showed us around the small studio (the artists take turns using the space at different times) and gave us fantastic demonstrations in both linocut and drypoint. The building that the graphic studio is inside is a large, two story building. It looks very unassuming on the outside and you would never know there was a vibrant art-making space inside. Once again, I am thankful for having connections here that open my eyes to what actually happening inside buildings that I would otherwise walk past and not pay much attention to.

As far as my own art making is concerned, it has been a bit of a rough start. I suppose it is often like this when you create a project idea in your mind and then don’t work on it until 6 months later in a place that is entirely new. Since the exhibition opened I have switched gears and have been thinking about my residency project. This project feels very different from what I usually work on because it is not about whales. My idea for this residency is to use the shapes of bodies of water from Karelia (the province that we are staying in) to be my outer parameter for drawings of patters that I feel as inspired by this place. I have been out taking pictures and trying to find patterns and collect ideas, but I found that I was hitting a bit of a creative block. It wasn’t until yesterday that I realized that nothing seemed to work until I stopped looking at the man-made and started focusing on nature. And the funny thing is that now that I am working on these drawings, they feel very familiar to my counting whale drawings and my baitball drawings. I guess that is partly why it feels right, because it is a progression.

While I am on the topic of nature, I must let you know that we are here at a very interesting time. When we arrived 10 days ago it was winter. Everything was brown, the lake was frozen and it was very cold. But the weather changed on Saturday and now it is spring! Hundreds of people are out racking up the debris of the winder and cleaning up garbage, the trees are all buddings and have leaves and the grass is vibrant and soft. It is amazing to see the change of seasons again. And, as someone that loves nature, fills me with inspiration to draw!