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Vancouver artists are incorporating nature into their practices

With so many urgent issues surrounding the environment, it is important to question the relevance of contemporary art, artist Jay White says.

A woman harvests natural art supplies at Trillium North Park in Vancouver.

Amy Logan/For Metro

A woman harvests natural art supplies at Trillium North Park in Vancouver.

On a hill behind a community college, a group of artisans harvest spring willow. From it, they weave living fences and intricate baskets.

In Mount Pleasant, a master gardener tends delicate indigo seedlings; she will use the pigment to make a rich blue paint.

All over the city, a Linen Growers Club offers participants a chance to grow their own small flax crop and spin linen.

Across Vancouver, people are incorporating nature into their artisanal practices.

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"There is foundational shift about how people think of themselves in the city, seeing the city itself as an ecosystem," said Jay White, an artist with the Urban Animal Agency.

Located in an A-frame in Stanley Park, the group of artists, ecologists, and others who promote healthy long-term co-existence between species is a living organism itself rather than a rigid institution.

With so many urgent issues surrounding the environment, it is important to question the relevance of contemporary art, White notes. But through an awareness of human dependence on nature, art can be used to encourage sustainability.

These are some of the other creative things people are doing with nature.

Pollinator Pastures

This Richmond endeavour combines public art and biodiversity to create sustainable pollinator habitat. Flowers have been planted to mimic the shape of bee wings, visible from the airport flight path high above.

The Means of Production Garden

The landscape is used for botanical experimentation, a source for growing art and craft materials. They recently offered shares in a Natural Dyers' Cooperative Garden. Members will plant, tend and harvest dye plants, such as madder, woad and nettle.

Catherine Shapiro

A local gardener and artist, she has been deeply connected to nature since she was a young girl playing in her grandparents’ orchard near Trout Lake. She has always been interested in the edges of gardens, the merging of the wild and domesticated.

For Shapiro, gardening, research and art are closely intertwined. She is often working on several complex and interrelated projects at once. She is currently focussed on creating natural pigments and paint from natural materials.

Inspired by a book on its history, she has started using cochineal, an hard-shelled insect from Mexico, to derive a natural red dye that produces "a vast range other shades, from burgundies to true red." Shapiro's favourite pigment comes from indigo.

In 2016, she was Artist in Residence at MOP, growing indigo from seed, making dye vats and dyeing fibre. She noted that it's “challenging, and it pulls me in.” She has discovered indigo is "an additive pigment." It can be glazed or painted over, with many variations.

A recent project illustrating her seamless marriages of art and nature is a painting she made of a Greek cabbage grown from seed. Using a combination of pigment from basil, cochineal, and indigo, she rendered layers of purple, magenta, and sea greens. It was unlike any other painting she had done, somehow more alive. “Something lyrical."

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