Week 4 + 5 - gardens and other living places

This was also sent as an email newsletter via my Substack, which also includes an audio reading of this post.

Hi friends,

I’m back with another report from the past couple of weeks. As a class we travelled quite a bit: a studio visit to Angella Parson’s, a quick stop at Kejimkujik Park, the Alexander Graham Bell Museum and finally the Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton. I’ll share some things that are still lingering in me.

Angella Parson’s garden, wild with flowers going to seedAngella Parson’s garden, wild with flowers going to seed

in the garden

Last Wednesday we visited Angella Parson’s home and studio outside of Halifax. We spent time in her garden, a square acre of land where she makes work. At first when we entered, it looked like chaos to me, wildflowers and weeds and piles of things. But then as we walked through it and heard stories about the objects and places within, it began to resolve itself into landmarks with a specific geography. Not only that, but there was artwork.

one of the white rectangular paper forms hung from a tree and twisting in the airone of the white rectangular paper forms hung from a tree and twisting in the air

I asked Angella about two rectangular paper forms hanging from a nearby tree. I wondered if they were there to catch some kind of bug, but they turned out to be an art installation. Suddenly they appeared differently to me.

The two towers were connected to each other and hung in balance. And looking again, I saw there were pieces of art everywhere: a lace curtain used as a window screen became an installation about domestic intimate spaces, there were woven tapestries hanging in a pine tree, and sculptures made of tomato cages… perhaps? They didn’t initially look like artwork out of the gallery context, but once I started to shift my perspective things that may not have been art at all started to read as meaningful.

sketch of the two towers, connected by string together in a treesketch of the two towers, connected by string together in a tree

Angella also acknowledged that these artworks may potentially never be seen and therefor validated as art. This struck me, because it completely rejects this question I get stuck on: I’ll be happily starting to make something when I wonder, “but where is this going to end up?” I had this happen just last week when thinking about the comic project and its dimensions, which lead to thinking about printing and number copies and whether I wanted to sell it or not, and on. Which — these are all important questions to a degree, but I often get stuck at this point. I think the actual underlying question is, “if no one’s going to see it, is it worth making?

Angella was advocating for — and demonstrating — that there doesn’t need to be an answer this question of value. Making can be a part of just doing stuff in the garden and being; experiencing things and letting them exist without intellectualising or trying to extract a meaning from them. Something Angella said that really resonated with me, was that she had started to notice that when she intellectualised something, it was usually because she was trying to unconsciously avoid feeling vulnerable.

Angella wearing a poisonous plant in a clear acrylic box with a pink belt.Angella wearing a poisonous plant in a clear acrylic box with a pink belt.

Of course, this is all antithetical to the Art World’s business of being an Artist and making Art Objects. In these academic-art spaces it feels like simple or intuitive things get labelled with these big words — sometimes seemingly to legitimize them, to draw them out of the body or feeling and into a heady sphere — but in the process they feel further away from us. There was an interesting video I watched about academic language and elitism that explored the pushback against this. John Dewey in Art as Experience also argues that art isn’t intrinsically separate from life:

theories which isolate art and its appreciation by placing them in a realm of their own, disconnected from other modes of experiencing, are not inherent in the subject-matter but arise because of specifiable extraneous conditions. Embedded as they are in institutions and in habits of life, these conditions operate effectively because they work so unconsciously.

When reading this I’m thinking of the museum and gallery institutions, and ‘art-speak’. (But I’ve also only read the first chapter!) In some ways this course, Embodied Research, is trying to legitimize and validate the practise of experiencing things in the body, in present. But I’m not quite sure I’m doing it right… I very much like documenting, collecting, and reflecting on things — like this log you’re reading — yet that’s almost at odds with focusing on being in your body. Or is it?

sketchbook page with a drawing of a wigwam and the longhouse at Kejisketchbook page with a drawing of a wigwam and the longhouse at Keji

the living longhouse

Later that afternoon we went to Kejimkujik Park for just a few hours, where we met some of the park interpreters. Side note: I had never heard of the job title Interpreter before, but they’re responsible for the programming that happens in the parks. I love that to interpret means so many things: to explain or tell the meaning of in understandable terms, to conceive in the light of individual belief, to represent by means to art or bring to reality through performance, and to translate into or from another language. (paraphrased from Merriam-Webster)

The interpreters at Keji were demonstrating Mi’kmaq cultural knowledge and technology, including the process of constructing a longhouse that they had built that summer. The group that had built the longhouse had had to do some experimenting to create the structure; as they’re made out of organic materials they leave a minimal traces for archaeologists to find, and construction techniques have been passed down in other ways. Here they used stripped cedar trunks and thin birch and black cherry saplings lashed together for the structure which would normally be stripped of their bark, but in this case they left it — and some of the black cherry were starting to grow new leaves.

interior view of the longhouse, slim saplings created the structure and them it was covered in canvas. the sunlight through it was beautifulinterior view of the longhouse, slim saplings created the structure and them it was covered in canvas. the sunlight through it was beautiful One of the struts of was sprouting new leavesOne of the struts of was sprouting new leaves

It was really cool to hear about how they encountered issues and had to design their way around it. Another example: the exterior would have been covered with birch bark, but because many of the trees in the area had a disease that left small holes in the bark, they opted for canvas instead. Nonetheless, it was to lovely effect.

Hearing about the construction process reminded me of a bit from the How to Make a Chair essay that I previously linked:

The term [DIY] is our label for all of the actions that modern modes of production and distribution have rarified … and we revived these obsolete activities as artifacts of pre-industrial society. Because this simple term describes what we used to do, and are now doing again, it bears no meaning regarding activities that individuals within a society have always done. For this reason … it would be absurd for the history of 16th Century Native American dwellings to be written in terms of DIY (Andersson, 2020)

But I dunno, I think there’s some interesting overlaps. Speaking to the interpreter, it sounded like there had been some information lost (to them, at least) that was now being rediscovered or found again through problem solving. Certainly, it seems uncommon to build and live in longhouses now (though maybe I’m wrong!). And as I described, there was resourcefulness and adaptability required.

I just started building a chair (this one, from Self-Assembly) this weekend, so perhaps that’s why I’m thinking of this, too. Building a chair yourself may have been made uncommon in that you can buy one for cheaper than just the cost of materials — but once again, that’s not really the point of it. It’s more about doing and knowing that if I push-and-pull the saw so many times I can cut the wood, screw it together, and make something that exists in the world for me or my friend to sit down and rest on. It’s the agency to change our surroundings.

a panoramic shot on the top wall of the King’s Bastion in Fortress Louisbourg, with the cannonsa panoramic shot on the top wall of the King’s Bastion in Fortress Louisbourg, with the cannons

recreating the wall

Our longest trip to date happened weekend before last, a two-day overnight trip at the Fortress of Louisbourg, with a quick stop at the Alexander Graham Bell Museum.

The fortress was a French colony originally established in the early 18th century, which grew in size and protected by walled defences until the middle of the century when it was captured by the British, traded back over to the French, and then captured yet again by the British, who then dismantled the walls and had abandoned the place in just a decade. What we saw was almost entirely a reconstruction built in the 60s-70s. Now, it’s run by Parks Canada as a ‘living museum’ with a large staff for upkeep as well as in-costume interpreters that act as residents from the 1740s.

In the curator’s building, a photograph of the original archaeological dig at the siteIn the curator’s building, a photograph of the original archaeological dig at the site below, schematics for historically-accurate food storage containers to be builtbelow, schematics for historically-accurate food storage containers to be built

I’m fascinated by this sense of building and then undoing. There’s so many layers at play.

There’s the human side: all the effort expended to quarry the stone and build the walls in order to fortify the town, later destroyed so that they couldn’t be used by the opposition. Materials were shipped (and stolen for) elsewhere in Halifax and Boston, to be reused in other buildings. Then in the 60s, the reconstruction happened on top of the remains (see photo above for the original dig) and in the process created a an active community while also relocating a section of homes from the nearby town of Louisbourg. Pains were made to make sure it was historically accurate (see schematics of barrels), but also accessible: the original cobblestone was covered with gravel to make it accessible.

In both cases human efforts had to compete with natural forces: building methods included using cement mixed with sand, however the sand nearby contained salt which lead to walls constantly crumbling and needing to be fixed. Along with our group there were a group of bio-archeologists conducting an ‘emergency archaeology’ nearby on the shore. The spit of land that town buildings had been built on originally, was eroded down to half its width from wind and water. There had been a discovery of a mass grave of soldier, likely deceased due to disease, and they were attempting to exhume any other remains that were there, before they were swept away.

the receding shoreline by Louisbourg, looking out to the Atlanticthe receding shoreline by Louisbourg, looking out to the Atlantic

There’s some really interesting parallels and contrasts between our experience at Keji and later at Louisbourg. I’m thinking about:

  • what and how do we build and undo? this sense of building and undoing (unbuilding? dismantling?) and knowledge of technology passed down through the years.
  • What do we choose to rebuild? it feels uncomfortable to have rebuilt (to such expense) a literal colony that is now a part of Canada, that has created a local economy and community around the tourism of the site
  • What remains? I’m thinking of permanence, how the longhouses left such minimal marks on the landscape (from what I know), compared to the reshaping of topography and longevity of the stone walls at Louisbourg

Here are my notes from these two weeks:

Till next time, Katherine

Up next Week 3 - connections, agency, and traces Week 6 - The life and times of rocks
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