Artist annie ross builds vehicle for ideas

Forest One coats a vintage car in woven materials steeped in First Nations heritage

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      We’re in a garage in New Westminster, pulling protective sheets off a little old car. A 1956 Nash Metropolitan, covered with salvaged and woven materials, this is no ordinary vintage vehicle. It’s a highly politicized work of art addressing a number of intersecting issues, from urban sprawl and habitat destruction to identifying what is garbage and what isn’t—and who owns it, anyway. Titled Forest One, the altered car is a project of annie ross, a weaver and assistant professor in the First Nations Studies program at Simon Fraser University. It is being stored here, at a friend’s place, prior to its exhibition among the totem poles and feast dishes in the Great Hall of the UBC Museum of Anthropology.

      Having learned weaving as a child from her full-blood Maya mother, ross has completely transformed this funky old vehicle with plaited and twined cedar bark. It’s significant that she harvested the bark from felled trees on urban sites in the Lower Mainland. “Forest One is meant to talk about how important being able to make things is,” ross tells the Straight. “And about coexisting with all living things.”

      Born and raised in southern California, and having earned a doctorate in Native American studies from the University of California at Davis, she arrived at SFU eight years ago. “I remember my original drive up Burnaby Mountain. There were deer and there was a coyote, and I thought, ‘This is where I belong, this is home.’ ” Then she adds, “I was very excited about being on a mountain with the animals, and being within a city setting with the hope and the faith and the proof that we could coexist.”

      Since then, she says, “much of that has disappeared,” especially with the great swath of forest that was cut down to make way for the UniverCity residential development.

      When ross saw the felled trees beside the SFU campus, she thought she could gather bark from them for weaving projects in her classroom. Seeking permission to do so, she made a number of phone calls and eventually spoke to a UniverCity official. “I said, ‘I’m gathering bark to teach my students how to weave,’ and he said, ‘You cannot do that—it’s our property, and if you’re caught you’ll be arrested for theft.’ ” When he also declared that the trees were going to the dump, she recalls, “It made me think about criminalized behaviour and making as a transformative act. And making as linking all human beings throughout time. And the idea of trash.”

      Other materials ross has incorporated into Forest One, including plastic strapping from shipping pallets, artificial roses, commemorative china plates, and sawed-off bits of wood known as “biscuits”, have also been previously used and discarded. Creatures of nature and of indigenous belief—a snowy owl, a butterfly, a sturgeon, a frog, a Sasquatch, a double-headed serpent—are worked in repurposed wool into the car’s exterior covering. Inside, ross has upholstered the seats with an old quilt and a thrift-shop fur coat. “I think there’s a real problem with treating things as trash that aren’t trash,” she says. “I think there’s a real problem with treating the land as trash.”

      When asked if she went ahead with her original plan to harvest the bark, ross is silent for a long time. Finally, she talks about always asking the spirit world, and her ancestors, for help before undertaking any project. “I was raised to believe and I do believe that nothing is possible without that kind of intercession.” She pauses again, then continues: “I felt it was the right thing to do. There was really no choice. It wasn’t defiance, it wasn’t protest, it wasn’t anything like that. It was just something I had to do.”

      Initially, she used the bark for small projects such as baskets and hats. “It wasn’t until maybe the third year of gathering, giving bark to the students, showing them twining and weaving, that the car idea came.”

      The car that she found in an abandoned barn in Oregon—the Nash Metropolitan, with its broken windshield and missing headlights and history written across its battered face—spoke to her concerns about our continuing dependence on fossil fuels. As a subtext, it evokes global warming, the vast environmental disaster that is the Alberta tar sands, and indigenous opposition to the Enbridge pipeline projects. But in its small size and woven cover, it also calls up ross’s modest childhood, the influence of her mother, and, again, the possibility of transforming something through the act of making.