Sharon Kallis explores the “invisible” work of eco-art in Stanley Park
Sharon Kallis’s East Side studio is filled with plant matter in various stages of life, death, and transformation. Long vines of English ivy, crocheted into a loose net, hang to dry on one wall. The inner fibres of Scotch broom, awaiting possible processing into linenlike cloth, sit in a broad basket. And the skins of a Himalayan blackberry bush, stripped from long, thorny canes, are worked into loopy strands. Reminiscent of handmade Christmas garlands, these strands are conceived not as seasonal decoration but as part of a large, biodegradable “quilt” for placement outdoors. They also represent an ongoing project of finding uses for invasive species.
As Kallis shows the Straight around her live-work space, she talks about her community-involved eco-art practice, her long experience with the Means of Production garden—growing organic materials for use by a wide network of artists, creating both lasting and ephemeral installations, and giving countless workshops—and her environmental work in Stanley Park. “In 2009, I did a research project with the Stanley Park Ecology Society [SPES], re-using English ivy as crocheted bio-netting for erosion control and slope stabilization,” she says.
English ivy is among the invasive species that choke out or overrun indigenous plants, shrubs, and trees. As part of a program to restore ecological integrity to one of the world’s largest urban parks, these species are being removed by SPES and a group of volunteers. “But when they are removed,” Kallis explains, “there’s this huge amount of organic material that’s left over.” The challenge was to do something with this waste, which would otherwise have to be incinerated.
“We were looking at ways to manipulate this material and turn it back into the landscape in a way that would potentially have some benefit,” she says. Ideas were tossed around, including producing nurse logs, bird perches, and various other environmentally friendly sculptural forms. What Kallis arrived at, however, was a plan to crochet the green and malleable ivy vines, dry them thoroughly so that they would not re-root, and use them for erosion control.
“Right now, you cannot pull English ivy from hills or areas that have steep slopes because the land you expose is bare and it’s just going to become an erosion problem,” she says. “You need to use some sort of bio-netting to stabilize the slope.” Such netting is expensive, however, so why not employ the invasive materials at hand in large quantities? “Can the problem actually become the solution?” she asked.
Well, yes. Kallis worked with community members on the roof of the Nature House on Lost Lagoon, using the spikes of its fence essentially as large crochet hooks, a method she adapted from a form of spool knitting that her mother had taught her when she was eight. The huge net that they created was then laid over a recently stripped, seemingly barren slope, built up subsequently with soil and mulch. “We then put in a variety of plants that were all native species with the intention that they would start to root.” The new plants grew as the thoroughly dried ivy biodegraded, so that the slope, not far from the place where Pipeline Road meets Park Drive, has been entirely transformed by lush, natural, ivy-free growth. “It is by far the most high-impact and beneficial artwork I could have ever created with community participation,” Kallis says. It is also, she adds with a laugh, “the most invisible.”