Concurrent art exhibitions linked by the exaltation of living things opened at Sechelt’s Sunshine Coast Arts Centre with a public reception on Sept. 8. More than two dozen attendees gathered for talks by painter Claire Crawford and German-born multidisciplinary artist Brigitte Potter-Mael.
Crawford is a Vancouver Island-based resident whose Unnatural Natures series combines crisply-drawn depictions of familiar animals in settings that raise uneasy questions about the relationship between humans and other species.
In Her Memento Mori, an umber owl with bright-eyed gaze rests in a bell jar, an avian skull at its feet. Devotional II depicts an inverted hare garlanded with flower blossoms, its forelegs pressed together like a medieval martyr on a breaking wheel.
“I like the movement of animals falling,” said Crawford, “and to me, it’s as if we’re not prepared to catch them. They’re in a sort of freefall state, which inspires a feeling of loss and sadness. In a lot of my work I explore the nature-culture divide, exploring our relationship to nature through a post-Anthroposcenic lens.”
Crawford is a graduate of McGill University, where she studied art history and anthropology. In addition to her fine art practice, she is a prolific illustrator and has contributed work to support conservation efforts of non-profit organizations like the Bateman Foundation.
“Painting and nature was a real confluence of interests,” Crawford said. The beauty of having a creative practice is that you get to explore ideas that you really care about.”
In her Unnatural Natures images, she uses the gouache medium to apply subtle tints to her ink-drawn subjects. Gouache is a paint that couples the opacity of acrylics with the muted matte of watercolours. An additional series of acrylic abstracts by Crawford depicts birds in mid-flight, their wings beating concrete landscapes into chromatic harmonies.
Landscapes were the impetus for works by Brigitte Potter-Mael, specifically those of her birthplace in the south of Germany. The illustrated scrolls of From Meadows Woodlands Far and Near are the result of her interest in wild herbaceous plant species native to the Lone Valley, a World Heritage Site since 2017.
Potter-Mael, who today lives in Vancouver, migrated from Germany in 1977 to begin art studies at Montreal’s Concordia University. During an extended residency in Italy a little over a decade ago, she developed a technique of painting with watercolours onto 10-metre paper scrolls of mulberry paper.
Dr. Hermann Muhle, a botanist at the University of Ulm, was conscripted by Potter-Mael to collect and press plant specimens. “The moment of joy and gratitude I felt when receiving that precious gift from my birthplace made a lasting impression on me,” recalled Potter-Mael in her artist’s statement.
In an interview with Coast Reporter, she stressed the narrative potential of using scrolls as the substrate for her delicate portraits. “They tell us that [plants], too, have life and importance, and that they are actually holding the blanket of the earth together that we walk on,” she said.
Using the preserved specimens for reference, Potter-Mael matched colour and scale by eye to replicate their tendrils in filigreed patterns reminiscent of calligraphy. “Of course when a plant is dried, it loses part of its flamboyancy,” she said. “It is in a dormant state, like a fossilized state. If you keep it away from light it will remain like that. It has a silent beauty that is easily approached.”
The resulting scrolls of the Lone Valley Herbarium series stretch from the cement floor to the arched ceiling of the gallery. Due to the length of the scrolls, a portion remains unseen in a box on the floor.
“It’s not always entirely revealed,” said Potter-Mael. “So there is a kind of unraveling, revealing, unrolling — and then putting it back together, putting it back to sleep, almost like a seasonal thing.”
The shows by Claire Crawford and Brigitte Potter-Mael remain at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre until Oct. 8. On Oct. 8 and 9, Potter-Mael will conduct a printmaking workshop focused on her original woodcut-intaglio method. Space is limited and registration is required. Browse to sunshinecoastartscouncil.com for details.