Eastside Culture Crawl artists reconnect with nature

Artists who care about environmental issues in our city express their concerns with paint, cameras, and even needle and thread

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      When you think about the tools of the average environmentally aware Vancouverite, you probably picture a mixture of blue boxes and bicycles, shovels and garden implements.

      But what about a paintbrush, a camera, or an embroidery needle—just some of the instruments artists at this year’s Eastside Culture Crawl are using to express their passion for our environment?

      When you head out to the studios of Strathcona, Grandview, the Downtown Eastside, and elsewhere this Thursday night to Sunday (November 19 to 22), it won’t take long for you to find imagery and artworks that celebrate the natural environment here, explore our precarious urban balance with it, or remind us about our dependence on it.

      “I feel sad that our relationship with nature has become so detached,” says artist Heather Talbot, sitting in the JJ Bean around the corner from her studio, Vancouver Community Lab—“CoLab”—at Victoria and Triumph. “Through my art, my intention is to help people see the world differently and reconnect again.”

      Talbot’s focus, in life and art, is bees. The East Van beekeeper creates embroidered textures on her close-up shots of the insects using what she calls “drawing with thread”. From a distance, the artworks look like photographs, but closer inspection reveals intricate, painstaking stitchwork that re-creates the fuzz on the insects’ bodies.

      “By playing with photographs in this way I’m encouraging people to look differently at what’s already there,” she says, gesturing to a small, framed piece, and pointing out the unexpected thread colours she’s had to use. “That was one of the coolest things I discovered doing drawing with thread: you would think you would only use yellows and browns but there are greens and purples and pinks.”

      Studying the bees for her artworks has given Talbot an unusually close relationship with a creature many people still fear. “I just appreciate them more and more,” she explains. “There’s a kind of an intimacy that’s come with doing the work and making them the focus of my art. And that has translated into how I work with them in the hive. I really love my bees. I joke that it’s to the point of being weird: it’s like having 50,000 children!”

      Talbot’s painstaking embroidery process, which she tries not to do for more than four hours, is like an ode to the bees’ time-consuming process of building a working hive. “Someone said they’re kind of like prayers,” she says of her artworks. “That makes sense to me: they’re kind of like a devotional practice.”

      One of Heather Talbot’s “drawings with thread” celebrates bees.

      Her small multimedia works on honeybees will be on display at CoLab during the Crawl, as well as a few new pieces devoted to the native bees of B.C.—critters she can often be found following around with a camera.

      But as much as her pieces are small-scale, celebrating a tiny but integral part of our food chain and ecosystem, Talbot, like so many of the other environmentally conscious artists at this year’s Crawl, has bigger goals.

      “I want my work to be in service not just to the bees but the world as a whole,” she stresses. “That’s the purpose for me: work that’s in the service of a world that doesn’t have a voice of its own.”

      Whereas Talbot came to her current art practice through beekeeping, you could say painter Leanne Christie got there through bicycling.

      When the South African–born artist started riding her bike in to her Downtown Eastside studio at 233 Main Street from Coquitlam each day, it opened up an entirely new point of view to her.

      “The most incredible thing happened. I learned the city and I started to understand it a lot better,” the affable artist says, sitting amid her urban landscapes—vividly brushstroked canvases that play the grey-blue light of Vancouver off its unique mix of buildings and natural forms.

      The working waterfront, East Van alleyways crisscrossed with wires and tree branches, cycle paths on roads that open to mountain views: put together, her work here, on dozens of small canvases hung along one wall, and giant ones piled against another, is the sum of this place that fascinates her so much.

      Christie, who has lived in major cities like London and Sydney, has become deeply interested in Vancouver’s quest for sustainability—in its urban design, architecture, and other initiatives like those bike lanes, of course. And it’s developed a sense of hope in her that Vancouver could be a model for the rest of the world.

      Leanne Christie stands amid her canvases.
      Amanda Siebert

      “If you truly care about the global environment, the truth is when you’re in a city you can share things, like car share. You don’t need to own a car anymore,” she suggests, adding she loves the fact Vancouver has been designed to maintain view corridors. “A city is often seen as evil, for pollution, but it is actually an eco-friendly environment, especially one designed correctly.”

      Christie’s expressive canvases capture those ideas in a visceral way, in scenes that seem to move, as if caught while she was pedalling by. That may be because she works from video she takes while out.

      In her space at Hungry Thumbs studios, she centres her operation at a table that holds a palette piled with mini-mountains of rich oil paints. But you’d be wrong to assume the hues she uses the most are those West Coast greys.

      “The thing I play with most is colour mixing,” she says. “I’m always relying on the viewer to do the work. Yes, I use blues and greys a lot, but look close and there are pinks through purples and oranges. And the whites are the secret of the paintings.”

      Not surprisingly, her views of the city, which capture the feel of what it’s like to live here as much as the sights, resonate with art-loving Vancouverites. She recounts a recent example of someone stopping on his bike to look down a West Side street slope to the waterfront and mountains and remarking that it reminded him of her paintings—life imitating art imitating life. “There’s nothing better than when people say, ‘I had a Christie morning,’” she says.

      Local landscapes, both preserved and destroyed, take a much different form in the hands of Desirée Patterson. The artist’s latest body of work, which debuts at the Crawl, melds outdoor scenes with figurative portraits. The results can be thought-provoking: one shot, mounted in a hand-built light box, depicts the trees of an untouched forest within the torso of a naked woman; another finds a photograph of a hydro dam in winter framed by the body of a woman, bent over, holding her head in pain.

      A figure embodies a hydro dam in Desirée Patterson’s work.

      “My interest has always been the beauty of nature, and now it has become how to protect it,” Patterson explains, taking a break away from her CoLab studio and speaking to the Straight at her booth at the Circle Craft Christmas Market. “With the human form I’m asking, ‘How do our inner selves connect with the environment?’ It’s about how every one of us embodies the connection to the environment, and the figure being more deflated with the more devastated landscapes,” referring to everything from shots of Vancouver’s industrial waterfront along Burrard Inlet to clearcuts and oil refineries.

      Like those of the other eco-focused artists at this year’s Culture Crawl, Patterson’s creations spring from a real-life passion. She regularly participates in beach cleanups and sends out environmental news to her Facebook friends. She became interested in the issues when she spent seven years travelling.

      “I was really into different cultures and landscapes,” she says. “On a trip to Southeast Asia I saw a lot of devastated landscapes—like, seeing them take a bulldozer and push garbage from the dump right into the ocean.…From there, it kind of evolved.”

      Visitors to the Crawl will see her resulting figurative landscapes illuminated in lightboxes, along with her latest artistic venture: large-scale metal sculptures that incorporate her photography. Patterson’s ultimate goal is to build public art, to take the discussion of these issues to an even wider population.

      “Making visual art is probably my strongest tool for advocating for the environment,” she says. “It’s the strongest voice I have.”

      Follow Janet Smith on Twitter @janetsmitharts.