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In grief, artist finds nature's expression of life's fragility

Amberlie Perkin's Nature of Grief exhibit is on at Gibsons Public Art Gallery until May 29.
A. Nature of Grief
Amberlie Perkin with her sculpture Hush Now Sleeper, We Will Meet Again, on display now at the Gibsons Public Art Gallery.

An exhibition at the Gibsons Public Art Gallery uses intricately-fashioned residue of living things to express the keenness of their absence. The Nature of Grief is the first solo show by Vancouver artist and educator Amberlie Perkin, who opened the month-long exhibition with a public talk on April 30. 

Perkin is a graduate of Simon Fraser University and Emily Carr University of Art and Design. During studies that earned her a master of fine arts degree in 2020, she explored ways to synthesize her sorrow over environmental degradation. Meanwhile, she experienced the loss of three loved ones to cancer. 

“I felt like a bomb went off,” she said. “I would find myself staring at darkened tree hollows, and collecting bits of bark discarded from trees.”  

Perkin developed fleeting outdoor art installations — using bark to etch short-lived charcoal circles on rocks. After a snowfall, the designs faded to invisibility.  

She began taking rubbings of ponderosa pine bark fragments whose interiors had been abraded by beetles. The result, she said, resembled medical scans showing the effect of malignant masses on human tissue. 

“I realized that what I had been looking at and collecting was this intuitive language of the body in nature,” she said. “But it also spoke to the fragility of our changing bodies. I started thinking with nature, and thinking with grief: seeing nature in the process of decay and regrowth, loss and regeneration.” 

The experience inspired Perkin’s Lichen Print series, in which rubbings of fungi filaments evoke the labyrinthine constellations of a lung’s bronchial tubes and alveoli. 

Perkin’s mixed-media works include uncanny depictions of organic structures vacated by their original inhabitants. The wall-mounted wasp nests of Listen Now to the Quickening of Ghosts Who Whisper Rebuild, Rebuild were fashioned from chicken wire, paper mache, and relief prints on dyed paper.  

In Making Home–Nurturing the Ghosts, pastel-hued fabric scraps form the carapace of a cliff swallow habitat. Its woven fabrication and clusters of adjacent nests suggest a once-thriving community left silent after a winged exodus through its porous surface. 

Inky voids appear in many of Perkin’s pieces. In This Body Won’t Hold You, granite boulders bleed black dust through punctured clefts, becoming geological stigmata in the centre of the exhibition space. One flesh-coloured end of the tubular Lullaby Keeper yawns open, inviting reflection about what might have crawled or oozed through such a cavity. 

Perkin is an art instructor at Elgin Park Secondary School at Surrey. She has discussed the themes of her work as a frequent panelist and speaker — including a TEDx Talk last year. 

At the outset of COVID-19, she also founded an art studio in Vancouver’s Chinatown. The pandemic lockdown — on the verge of her graduate exhibition at Emily Carr — made her scramble to find space to complete several works in progress. Perkin established Studio One One Six, carving out creative space for her and four other artists. 

“I love community when I make artwork,” she said. “It’s an act of sharing and of invitation. I feel really honoured and proud because now I’ve created this cultural space in Vancouver where we can invite people in to see work. It was a huge serendipitous blessing in a really rough time.” 

The Nature of Grief remains at the Gibsons Public Art Gallery until May 29. Admission is by donation.