Each month one of the art.earth Board of Directors selects an artist from the membership because they are particularly taken with their work. This month our Featured Artist is Newfoundland artist Marlene Creates chosen by Walter Lewis.
To accompany this feature, art.earth’s Director Richard Povall had a conversation with Marlene at her home in Newfoundland.
Please tell us a bit about yourself and your practice
I call myself an environmental artist and poet. Underlying all my work is an interest in place—not as a geographical location but as a process that involves memory, multiple narratives, ecology, and language. I feel we are shaped by our surroundings—the kind of terrain and vegetation, the seasons, the light, the natural sounds, and the water in its myriad forms. My work is a result of my curiosity about this relationship and my love of experiences in the natural world because they make my life more vivid.
For the past twenty years I’ve lived and worked in one particular place—a six-acre (2.4 hectare) patch of old-growth boreal forest traversed by the Blast Hole Pond River on the island of Newfoundland off the Atlantic coast of Canada. This site, which I’ve named The Boreal Poetry Garden, underpins my whole practice. It’s a multi-year ‘slow’ engagement — some projects span as long as twenty years. They are not Land Art, and I am deliberately not making a sculpture park.
What have you been working on recently?
In 2020, I completed a series of 10 assemblages titled Between the Earth and the Firmament:
http://www.marlenecreates.ca/works/2020between.html [images 1 & 2, above]
I feel this work comes full circle to my first photo-landworks, a series titled Paper, Stones and Water (1979–1985):
When I started these ephemeral works in the late 1970s, I was aware of some large earthwork sculptures in the USA that involved moving thousands of tons of rock and soil (such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, both completed in 1970). I thought this way of working was not an appropriate way to treat the Earth in the name of art. As a counteraction, I took rolls of 18-inch wide (46 cm) white paper outside and placed lengths of it in different places, such as along a shoreline, across a path through a field, and over sea ice. I photographed these arrangements, then removed the paper. In this way, I was able to make a simple gesture which left no permanent mark.
Forty-one years later, I again spread lengths of paper in various spots outside. This time the paper was 42 inches wide (107 cm) and I lay down on top of it and made rubbings with charcoal around my outline. I photographed the ground or the snow before I spread out the paper and, as I lay in place, I photographed what was above me. This is the recent series Between the Earth and the Firmament.
I have some ongoing projects that will take several more years to complete, such as Larch, Spruce, Fir, Birch, Hand, Blast Hole Pond Road, Newfoundland 2007–ongoing:
http://www.marlenecreates.ca/works/2007larch.html [images 3 & 4]
Between 2007–2015, I photographed my hand (in black-and-white) on 81 trees that came to my attention. But what I should say is my attention came to them.
I’m interested in the particularity of each tree and the circumstances that bring me to differentiate certain trees amongst the thousands in this patch of boreal forest. When I first moved here, the forest was an indistinct assortment of vegetation until I started spending time and becoming familiar with it. As I’ve said, I’m getting to know this place one tree, one boulder, one wildflower, and one clump of moss at a time. Even when I’m being my most attentive, there are still many trees I have not yet noticed enough to remember as individuals.
In 2018, I started re-photographing my hand (in colour) on the same trees after an eleven-year interval, i.e. the ones from 2007 in 2018; the ones from 2008 in 2019 . . . and continuing until 2026, if all goes well. In the eleven years between photographs, changes can be seen in the trees themselves, the surrounding vegetation, and my aging hand. In three cases (so far), the trees on which I originally photographed my hand have been blown down in wind storms and hurricanes. In those instances, I photograph my hand in the empty spaces where the trees used to be.
Another ongoing project is What Came to Light at Blast Hole Pond River, Newfoundland 2015–ongoing:
http://www.marlenecreates.ca/works/2016light.html [images 5 & 6, below]
With this project I’m relinquishing the role of being the photographer. I’ve installed infrared trail cameras along the river that are triggered by the movement of wildlife, such as moose, snowshoe hares, coyote, fox, and various birds. These photographs are unpredictable, serendipitous, unintentional, and off-centered. I pair each photograph with a line of text that describes an astrological event that occurred in our galaxy at the same time in order to connect the simultaneous movement of wildlife at ground level and celestial bodies overhead.
In responding to the land that surrounds me, the form my work takes is becoming less and less dependent on using materials. One of my main activities since 2008 has been hosting over 40 live-art events in The Boreal Poetry Garden, which have been attended by over 900 visitors. These events are participatory gatherings that are part multidisciplinary nature walks, part multi-sensorial performances, and part eco-poetry readings. They are place-sensitive, hybrid crossings between the arts and the natural sciences and are based on different ways of knowing.
Each event has focused on a particular theme, such as one of our five senses or one of the four elements. Invited collaborators have included nature poets, acoustic musicians, contemporary dancers, a shadow puppet maker, a fire-juggler, a conservation biologist, a geologist, a mycologist, a botanist, a geographer who studies the role of fire in the forest, and cognitive and behavioural ecologists who study birds and mammals — all responding to the site itself and connecting people to the local boreal forest ecosystem. There are some simple documentary videos of these events on this page of my website:
In 2022, I’m changing the focus of these events — they will be designed for classes of local school children. I will be doing this in collaboration with the educational director of the local Environmental Education Commission.
The onsite activities will include leading the students on a walk through the boreal forest in a focused way: pausing to hear some of my site-specific poems; attuned listening to the ambient natural sounds; and learning some local natural history. To conclude, each student will draw a memory map of their walk, followed by a group discussion about what registered in their memories from the environment and why. Memory mapping — also known as participatory, alternative, and counter mapping — has been part of my practice for over 35 years, both in my own artwork and by leading workshops with all ages. I will refer to some of my work based on memory maps at the end of this interview.
From my experience working with school children, I’ve found that most of them cannot identify local flora and fauna. With today’s children and youth immersed in a digital world (which has been exaggerated by online learning during the pandemic), I fear several generations are growing up with little knowledge of the significance and beauty of the world around them.
Working with children is not the kind of thing that normally brings rewards in the “art world.” But at this stage of my life (I’m turning 70 this month), I’m more interested in moving young minds than making more artwork.
Are there any particular people or ideas that influence your work?
For the last few years, most of what I’ve been reading is contemporary nature writing that integrates scientific knowledge, creative writing, and contemplation of the natural world (rather than reading fiction or writing about art). I’m a member of several online groups, including the Ecoart Network, the Walking Artists Network, the Livingmaps Network, and art.earth. Attending their webinars and receiving information about the activities of other environmental artists provides me with both inspiration and confirmation.
How do you normally proceed when making work?
I’m not a studio artist who makes things; my artworks are documentary shards of my engagement with the land and the water. I’ve often said I don’t have an imagination — my work emerges from paying attention to what’s already there. The world does not need me to add anything to it from my imagination.
When I start a project, I have no specific result that I’m aiming for. What I usually do is set up a situation or a framework to see what will happen. I find that what emerges from regions beyond my control is always surprisingly richer than anything I could have envisioned. I have become more and more comfortable with leaving things to chance. I don’t even take the photographs of the wildlife in the series What Came to Light at Blast Hole Pond River.
The first work I did in this patch of boreal forest is typical of my process: Water Flowing to the Sea Captured at the Speed of Light, Blast Hole Pond River, Newfoundland 2002–2003:
This project arose from spending time watching the little waterfall in the river and wanting to go deeper than conventional representations. I realized it would be more interesting to reverse my position — from being the observer to being the one observed. I often find that the opposite of something can be equally interesting. So I began to take photographs with an underwater camera that I held under the flowing stream and turned towards myself. The day I photographed the waterfall, I stood in the river and had it photograph me. I like to point out that this was before ‘selfies’. It was even before I had a digital camera — I used an underwater film camera and I didn’t know the results until the films were developed.
Any achievements of which you are most proud?
I feel positive about the ethos that has been behind my work for more than 40 years. In consideration of the land and the water, I’ve attempted to use restraint. I don’t think one can justify using toxic materials for the sake of art. Instead, artists need to lead the way. It has been shown that if people are moved by art, it has more effect than facts and data regarding the climate crisis.
I also feel good about the awards I’ve received. What’s behind these honours is partly my artwork, and partly many years of volunteering: working in artist-run centres, mentoring, advocating to raise the socio-economic status of artists, and co-founding both the Advisory Committee on the Environment and an Arts Association for the town where I live. It’s very heartening that any environmental artist would receive recognition. But even so, my life as an artist has been ‘rewarding’ in itself because of the experiences I’ve had and the special people I’ve met.
I mentioned that I’ve done work based on memory maps. I’m a Euro-Canadian — my ancestors were from Wessex. Thirty-five years ago I started collaborating with Indigenous people in Canada — first with Ojibwa/Anishinaabe people in northern Ontario in 1987, and then with both Inuit and Mushuau Innu in northern Labrador in 1988, whose territories are now known as Nunatsiavut and Nitassinan. I felt Indigenous voices and cultural attitudes towards the land were seldom heard and very different from colonial capitalism. I knew that Indigenous peoples’ deep experiences of their traditional lands were and are different from mine as a transient visitor. Collaborating with Indigenous people was my attempt at a kind of decolonization, though I certainly didn’t know that term then. I think this series of works, titled The Distance Between Two Points is Measured in Memories, has become even more significant with time:
6. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to conclude with this thought, which, when I feel it deeply, can give me shivers or choke me up. Look at any leaf, any stone, any creature or cloud and consider this: each is unique and has been in the making for 14 billion years. Everything is the result of the chain of cosmic and evolutionary processes that have been taking place since the beginning of the universe. That’s how miraculous and precious the natural world is.