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Making “Connections” through Collaboration and Nature

Jean Kares

Nature has inspired artists since the beginning of art, and likewise natural phenomena have long been the focus of scientific investigations. Occasionally, art, nature, and science intertwine, as in the recent exhibition Connections that was on view at the Crafthouse gallery from May 11 to June 22, 2017. Three Lower Mainland textile artists collaborated with four members of Nature Vancouver (naturevancouver.ca) to produce a group of thoughtful and quietly optimistic works that explored “issues of cultural and natural destruction, and the consumption, restoration, and protection of nature.” What struck me immediately as a viewer was the show’s subtext of unseen beauty, hidden processes, and the consequences of human activity – both bad and good.

Bettina Matzkuhn partnered with marine biologist Shelia Byers and created an interpretation of a glass sponge reef in City of Glass, where embroidered small creatures shelter amid a mass of shimmering, translucent appliquéd fabric forms. Glass sponge reefs are incredibly rare, yet were discovered deep in Hecate Strait in 1987 and Howe Sound in 2001 (glassspongereefs.com/the-discovery/). Seeming straight out of science fiction, glass sponges build and live on intricate, amazingly textile-like skeletons of silica. Fragile and highly vulnerable to catastrophic damage from bottom fishing gear and smothering by sediment, reefs provide habitat for marine life and are important filtering agents for water. Estimated to be 9,000 years old, these fantastic living structures could have been destroyed without us ever being aware of their existence, but efforts are underway to have all of BC’s glass sponge reefs designated as marine protected areas.

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Matzkuhn also worked with Teresa Gagné, who describes herself as a “self-taught field naturalist,” on a series of six interactive “surprise boxes” that illustrates projects of “rewilding” in embroidery and fabric appliqué. Gagné produced a field guide to accompany each box: Weighting for the Herring, Pyrodiversity, Fish Camp, Meet me at the River, The Buzz (complete with sound effects), and Roughing it in the Bush. Even seemingly minor interventions by humans can make positive changes that lead to restored ecosystems – willow twigs inserted into stream banks take root and make shade and hiding places for fish; leaving soil rough catches seeds, encourages growth, and reduces erosion. Matzkuhn’s boxes are both captivating and encouraging, as they highlight simple, effective, and achievable human-aided environmental renovations.

Barbara Heller and Elena Klein took up the theme of renewal through fire in Regeneration. Heller’s dramatic tapestry contrasts sections of raging flames and bombed out buildings with images of pinecones and feathers. Resin-filled cones require hot fire in order to open and release their seeds, thus burning is an underlying actuating force in forest regeneration. Life returns. Hate and war devastate like wildfire; Regeneration assures us that nature repairs itself, and challenges us to contemplate how we will restore societies and lands ravaged by conflict.

Here in a city in a developed nation, we tend to take the miracle of clean tap water for granted, never questioning how it happens. Eleanor Hannan worked with Bengül Kurtar, an environmental engineer, to demystify this unnoticed wonder in The Treatment of H2O in Vancouver. Hannan stitched a whimsical engineer’s diagram in graphic black thread on natural canvas, and leads the viewer from clouds and rain to the reservoir, treatment plant, and kitchen faucet. In revealing the complexity of this system, viewers gain a new appreciation for the process, as well as being reminded that safe drinking water is not available in many parts of the world, including Canada.

From the accounts of the artists and “nature champions” who collaborated in Connections, their experience of working together was demanding, yet rewarding. From this viewer’s perception, the resulting works are educational, engaging, and ultimately heartening as they successfully connect art, science, and people.

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