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!

Cetology Exhibition Opening

I still feel like I am coming down off of a high from the opening! It has been a whirlwind these past few days that I haven’t had a lot of time to stop and think. Even in my dreams I was stringing triangles. Yet all of a sudden the exhibition is installed and the opening has arrived. It was a blustery, wet and cold day yesterday. It is spring weather here but back home it would be considered the middle of winter. We weren’t sure if many people would come to the opening because the weather was so dreary and wet but sure enough the gallery filled! There was a very nice program at the opening: two short talks given by local, distinguished contemporary artists. They discussed my work and how they interpreted it and spoke about the importance of art. Afterwards I was asked to speak and I summarized my art practice, the exhibition and my processes. I was completely blown away by the reactions that people seemed to have to the work. I was immediately approached by a lovely woman that brought me an art catalogue, telling me about another artist that I might be interested in learning about and excitedly talked about how important it is to connect art and science. Other people mentioned similar things to me as well and seemed to be engaging with the work and interacting with the installation. I feel so honoured that people came to spend time with my work.

I sometimes forget that art is about sharing because it often feels so personal and introspective–from working on your own to spending time alone thinking about it quietly. But something changes when other people, strangers, look at the art, interpret it and let it impact them. It somehow becomes complete because art is about sharing. Sharing ideas, thoughts, feelings and stories. Art is a gathering place and produces community and that community is very strong here in Petrozavodsk.

Petrozavodsk: Trains and Art

Our train left Saint Petersburg at 06:32 last Monday for Petrozavodsk. Every time I take a train I am reminded of how much I enjoy traveling by rail. Trains and thinking seem to go hand-in-hand. I had a few drawings left to make for the exhibition and I managed to finish them between looking outside and practising my Russian. The buildings of Saint Petersburg quickly faded and were replaced by dense forests. Flooded forests. It seems that beavers have been taking advantage of the melt water. Busily creating a network of water trails, pools, dams and lodges. There is nothing quite like a train trip to help you process. Draw. Look outside. Think. Practice my few Russian words. “Do you speak English?” is my newest addition to my Russian vocabulary (it has already proved useful). After three stops and five hours our train pulled into the station at Petrozavodsk. We were met on the platform by Varvara, the point person for the residency and exhibition. I have been in contact with her over the past five months and it was lovely to finally meet her in person. She gave us a tour of the city as she drove us to our apartment. Showing us grocery stores, points of interest and briefly explaining the history of the city and the area. Petrozavodsk is a creative centre and has many museums, theatres, galleries and public art. We also drove past the lake which is still mainly frozen with thick ice. The apartment is located in a large 9-10 story building. Most of the people that live here are in the arts as well: musicians, artists and dancers. Our apartment is nice and bright and has its own kitchen, washing machine and a shower that looks like it is from the future. The highlight is that our windows look down onto the neighbourhood zoo!

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday we worked on installing the Cetology exhibition at the Vyhod Media Centre. Between four of us we matted and framed all the drawings and installed most of the pieces during the first day. The big (and time consuming) installation that I am creating involves sewing 3,300 paper triangles onto pieces of nylon thread. The next two days were spent stringing. From waking up to going to sleep: each day was full of triangles. We finished at the end of the third day. I am grateful for all the help I had with installing and setting up and I am impressed by the fantastic team that works at the Media Centre!

We were also invited to go with the Media Centre team to an art opening at the City Gallery. It was a double opening for both a traveling retrospective exhibition of a well known 20th Century female painter from Russia and also the first solo exhibition for a young artist from Petrozavodsk (now living and teaching in Saint Petersburg). I enjoy going to art openings abroad because they always surprise me how universal they are. It is easy to feel connected to people that also love art because there is this shared interest.

A Finnish Start

It is 5:28am and I mind is completely awake. Hello jetlag. The one phrase that I have memorized in Russian is on repeat in my head, “Hello. My name is Natasha. It is nice to meet you.” Over and over. Now that I think about it, there are probably hundreds of more useful things I could have been memorizing. Like, “I am lost”, “Where is the bathroom”, and “I am sorry”. But it is a start.

We are currently in Helsinki, Finland, waiting until Sunday when our Russian visas become active. It was a long journey and took 24 hours, 1 bus, 2 plains, and 3 trains. I am preoccupied thinking about how the exhibition will work out with the installation. I managed to compress the work for the show into my carry on luggage so that I wouldn’t need to worry about loosing it. It is hard to picture that tightly packed stack of drawings expanding into a gallery space, but I believe it will. And I am not quite done. One of my installations will contain 100 drawings… and I am still working on it. I have about 18 left to draw. I think that we will start the installation on Monday, so that gives me a couple days still.

It is nice to be in Helsinki to get over the worst of this jetlag before Russia. It is like going back in time, back into winter. Especially coming from Vancouver where it was 20° plus  full on leafy-green, early summer. It is windy here and cold and just the first signs of spring.

Well, I should really try to get back to sleep. “Hello. My name is Natasha. It is nice to meet you.”

Russian Exhibition & Residency

As some of you know, I am currently preparing for an exhibition and art residency in Russia. We, my husband and I, have finally had all our paperwork approved and just received our passports back from the Russian Consulate—each with an elaborate Russian Federation visa inside!05_vanNetten_BlindHumpbackWhale_2017

My mind is racing! Going over the exhibition in my mind, making sure I have everything. Drawings—yes. Installation—yes. Tiny nails—yes. Yet there remains a mountain of a list that still needs to be completed.

I have never been to Russia before, so I am not sure what to expect. My grandfather (and the rest of my ancestors) immigrated to Canada from RussiaI wonder if I will feel a connection to the landscape as they did.

karelia-republic-mapThe place that we will be staying is called Petrozavodsk (Петрозаводск). It is the capital city of the Republic of Karelia and is located 5 hours north-east of Saint Petersburg via train. The city is strategically situated along the shores of Lake Onega, the second largest lake in Europe. According to archeological discoveries, there have been signs of people living within the area of the current city limits for the past seven thousand years. In 1703 Tsar Peter the Great founded a settlement here because of the rich iron deposits. He created a factory to manufacture cannons and anchors for his new fleet of ships and called the settlement Petrovskaya Sloboda. The city was often called Petrovsky Zavod, meaning Peter’s factory, which later became Petrozavodsk.

The residency is through AiR Karalia and the exhibition will be held at the Vyhod Media Centre. I am looking forward to exploring Russia, meeting the lovely people I have been in contact with and spending a month focusing on and working on art.

I will write more about the exhibition and my residency project in upcoming posts.





Tracing Boundaries Exhibition

I am proud to be one of the artists chosen to be part of the Tracing Boundaries exhibition at the Slide Room Gallery. The opening reception is Friday March 16th at 6pm and there will be a Curator’s Talk at 6:30pm. I had a quick peak at the show this morning and I was amazed at how wonderful everything looks! The artists are very talented and hard-working and it really shows in their art, and the curatorial team did a fantastic job with the hanging. Please come and join us tomorrow for the opening!




Whales, Beetles and Bees

I have been enjoying making whale specimen boxes lately.  There is something satisfying in creating art that lives inside mini environments, encasements and packages. I have been wanting to make this particular piece for a long time: a specimen box containing the common whales seen along the costs of British Columbia.  I remember when I first started researching whales of BC I was surprised that I wasn’t familiar with all the species—especially the smaller ones. Media and news stories tend to focus on “popular” whales, whale stars, like the humpback and orca. The whales in this piece are (from top to bottom, left to right): grey whale, humpback whale, minke whale, pacific white sided dolphin, dall’s porpoise and harbor porpoise. I find the variance of size so interesting!

Speaking of size… here are some images of smaller, more common creatures in specimen boxes that I found on the internet: bees, butterflies and beetles (below). There is something so exciting about the idea of collecting, organizing and carefully preserving each individual (with its quirks). It is interesting to see the many methods of organizing and designing patterns in which the insects are displayed: from formal, military rows to  theatrical, playful placements.

If you had told me a couple years ago that I would be comparing whales with bugs in my art, I never would have believed you.


New perspectives

Exactly one year ago today I was deep cleaning our apartment before traveling to Europe with my husband to attend an artist residency in the fairytale town of Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic. I am so thankful I had this opportunity to get to create art and exhibit abroad. It pushed me and challenged me and introduced me to so many wonderful people. Looking forward, I am excited to have been accepted to a residency in Petrozavodsk (Петрозаводск), in Russia this spring. I love to travel and experience new places. And it is really amazing how art can connect people despite having different backgrounds. I also find spending time away always renews my appreciation for what I have at home: friends, family and a familiar landscape (and seascape) where I fit into and belong. Last week I was surprised by an unexpected package in the mail from a dear friend that I used to sail with in Europe. She had come across a random nautical Victoria Harbourchart of Victoria Harbour and decided to send it to me! I have enjoyed pouring over the details of this lovely, used map and it has made its way into my art. I have had extra time off this week and have been experimenting creating chart-inspired drawings of local geography. I have been playing with layering intensities of ink, mimicking the fluctuating submarine topography, AKA contour lines, of our local ocean floor. When I travel I find I gain a lot more from the experience if I am making art about those places, so I guess it is no surprise that this also happens to be true when at home. Reflecting back on this year, I see I have been doing a lot of thinking about place and belonging. Sometimes it just takes a little shift of perspective, a new point of view, of something familiar to give you a whole new appreciation.