Back to the land

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      Environmental artist Ingrid Koivukangas’s Finn Slough Project illuminates our connection to nature

      Wind and tide tug at the brown water in Finn Slough. A bald eagle sits motionless in the top of a cottonwood tree, blackbirds call from the reeds, mallards graze along the muddy shore. Small wooden houses-some of them tumbledown shacks subsiding into the ooze, others neatly maintained and painted optimistic colours-sit on stilts on either side of the slough's narrow channel. A fishing boat chugs by on the broad south arm of the Fraser River, toward the Strait of Georgia. And on a finger of land overlooking it all, Ingrid Koivukangas hangs 99 glass bulbs from alder branches, visible from the road. Painted with phosphorescent materials, the bulbs will gather light during the day and emit it again for a few hours each night.

      Koivukangas, an environmental artist, is creating a gentle and temporary "intervention" on the Finn Slough site she has been studying since last summer. The principal evidence of this project is her exhibition at the Richmond Art Gallery, comprising colour photographs of magnified cell samples from plants and trees located in and around the slough, a video projection, and viewing stations, again for looking at cellular imagery through microscopes. (The show opens tonight [March 8] and runs through April 15.)

      Located beside Dyke Road at the south end of Richmond, Finn Slough is both a small natural wetland and a historic tidal community. Settled in the early 1890s by Finnish immigrants, it is home now to some 50 folk, including a couple of descendants of the original fishers. Looking around her, Koivukangas observes, "There's a very strong sense of community here."

      Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Koivukangas is herself the daughter of Finnish immigrants. "When I started school, I didn't speak English," she recalls. "I think that's why I'm an artist." The experience of being set apart culturally, she believes, caused her to become an acute observer of the world around her. She also recounts that she's been collecting and arranging natural objects from her earliest days, only she wasn't aware until the third year of her undergraduate degree that what she was doing was art. A trip to a farm in Gallagher's Canyon, near Kelowna, with her sculpture class inspired her to improvise, using materials she found there. She worked, as she always does, without any preconceived ideas and in direct intuitive response to the site. "I did a series of really quick, ephemeral pieces," she says, adding that she had no knowledge of environmental or earth art at that time. "I didn't know there was a name for this way of working."

      Her first career was as a graphic designer, and only recently was she able to return to school, completing a master's degree in environmental and land-based sculpture at the University of Calgary in 2002. In the past decade, she has undertaken 19 solo shows and environmental art projects in Canada, the United States, and Europe. She has produced an installation from 225 kilograms of stamp sand (tailings from copper mining) gathered on the Keweenaw Peninsula in northern Michigan; created a white line through a forest at Mont Tremblant, Quebec, by wrapping pine trees with strips of found birch bark; and lined a shallow circle, 22 metres in diameter, with chunks of quartz, in Galicia, Spain.

      Not all her installations and interventions occur on the land. Often she translates her experience of a site into mixed-media gallery exhibitions. In addition to sculpture, both permanent and ephemeral, she has produced videos, sound pieces, photographs, paintings, drawings, and Web works. Bringing natural materials, collected during her extensive walks over each site, into a gallery context can cause viewers to rethink their environment. "My work is about people beginning a dialogue about their own connections to nature," she says.

      For the Finn Slough Project, Koivukangas enlisted the help of her biology colleagues at Langara College, where she teaches new media and design. She spent some 25 hours in the biology lab, preparing slides of cellular material and photographing them for display at the RAG. The samples she gathered at the slough include horsetail, snowberry, gooseberry, chickweed, cattail, cedar bark, and cottonwood bud. "What I found interesting is that, at the cellular level, some of these forms mimic the plant that they're from," she observes.

      With their organic shapes and spectrum of delicate colours-pale greens and pinks, lilacs, oranges, and aqueous silver and blue-the magnified samples look like abstract paintings. Indeed, Koivukangas originally planned to make a series of paintings based on the photographs. "But when I saw the images in the microscope, I couldn't believe how beautiful they were," she says. "I thought 'I want to honour what they actually are.'"

      The bulbs Koivukangas is hanging in the trees and bushes beside Finn Slough are a direct reference to the phosphorescent cellular forms of the lichen and elderberry samples she collected. She's hoping viewers of her RAG show and her on-site installation will share her excitement and childlike sense of discovery. "It's wonderful watching people becoming really engaged in the work and remembering that we're part of a much bigger whole, that we're interconnected with everything around us," she says. "That's what this work is about."