The Eden Grove Artist in Residence Program lies at the dynamic intersection of art, ecology and activism.
May 13, 2021
IN A TENT A FEW MINUTES WALK from one of the blockades aimed at preventing logging in the Fairy Creek area, artists are at work. Or they might be out in a nearby clearcut or magical old-growth forest—taking photographs, painting or drawing, carving a mask, gathering ideas for performances and music compositions or materials for collage.
This unique program—the Eden Grove Artists in Residence Program—is the brainchild and labour of love of curator Jessie Demers. Demers describes the program as being at the intersection of art, ecology, activism and culture, and says the artists who are participating have been chosen because of their work focusing on ecology and/or community-based social practices. Being immersed in the ancient rainforest, while witnessing the frontlines of the forest protection movement, is proving fertile ground for those involved.
Jessie Demers, curator of the Eden Grove Artists in Residence program. Photograph by Cole Sprouce
Current artists in residence include Jeremy Herndl, Kyle Scheurmann, Heather Kai Smith and Mike McLean, with more—including Rande Cook, Valerie Salez, Connie Michele Morey, Dawna Mueller and sound artist Paul Walde—coming soon.
“The arts can help amplify and speak to people in a different way. They can bring new people into the movement,” says Demers.
The residency site is a 5-minute walk past the Eden Grove protection camp, established in December 2020 to prevent road building by the Teal Jones corporation and its contractors. The residency program itself is not a protest site, says Demers, who. describes it as “a space where artists can listen, learn, create and build relationships across political and cultural differences.” Pacheedaht rights and title are acknowledged and respected. Says Demers: “We are grateful for the opportunity to draw inspiration from these sacred lands.”
Within easy walking distance from the studio tent is the famous Big Lonely Doug—a huge Douglas Fir standing in the midst of a clearcut—and, a little further along—Eden Grove, an ancient forest indicative of what stands to be lost in the area through proposed logging. Technically, Eden Grove is in the Gordon River watershed at the base of Edinburgh Mountain, so while close to the Fairy Creek watershed, it is a different valley. The blockades are drawing attention to the need to protect what little old growth is left on southern Vancouver Island. Most of the blockades are in TFL46.
While there’s no logging application yet for Eden Grove, road building (a precursor to logging) has been approved further down the road towards Edinburgh Mountain, which is home to one of the largest sections of unprotected old-growth forest on southern Vancouver Island. The well known Avatar Grove is a 10-minute drive away. A day trip from Victoria allows visitors to see all these sites, as well as meet some of the artists.
Demers has a degree in fine arts and has worked in the arts for 15 years (5 in Victoria). She is also no stranger to forest protection. She’s been a core organizer of the Friends of Carmanah Walbran and is a veteran of the 1993 Clayoquot Sound protests. In fact, only 17 years old at the time, she was one of the youngest protesters arrested. “The arts and ancient forests are my two big passions,” says Demers. She is working on the residency program around her day job as an arts administrator in Victoria. “It’s come to dominate my life,” she admits.
Demers has rounded up a diverse group of some of the most talented artists on Vancouver Island. “I am inspired and impressed by the Victoria arts community and how many artists have social awareness built into their practice,“ she says. She is thrilled to see how they have become ambassadors for old growth protection, as well as the arts, with visitors to the area. “I didn’t really plan on that, but it’s happening,” she says.
Due to logistics and uncertainty as to how long the blockade camps with be in place, the program is currently by invitation only. However, notes Demers, any artist is welcome to come out and make art in the forest or contribute in other ways. Some are raising funds by selling their work.
One of the current artists in residence is Mike Andrew McLean, who holds an MFA from UVic, and works as a media technologist at Camosun College in Victoria. On recent Saturdays he has borrowed his 9-year-old son Angus’ “skookum” wagon to haul his gear up the bumpy logging road from the studio tent to Eden Grove.
Mike Andrew McLean with his large-format film camera, 2017 at Bear Glacier. Photograph by Laura Trunkey
There, among magnificent old trees, he chooses a spot, makes about three-trips back to the wagon for his gear (the wagon cannot negotiate the boardwalk stairs) and spends four to six hours camped out in the forest, using an 80-year-old wooden camera to shoot multiple layers of 8-inch by 11-inch black and white film, slowly exposed through different colour filters. Later, back in the darkroom, he’ll spend more hours developing the film. He intends to print the different colour images on mylar film which he will mount on a mirror. This “tricks the eye, so that you’re not sure what you’re looking at,” says McLean. It gives it a 3-D effect, replicating the magic of the forest.
The image shown here of the boardwalk in Eden Grove was inspired by McLean’s appreciation for the role such structures can play in a forest’s protection. Besides allowing people to “move through these spaces in a way that protects the forest floor and its delicate ecosystems,” he notes, it attracts people to visit and that in itself helps protect the forest.
He says the slowness of his process and the old wooden camera he uses also attract visitors and conversation. People are fascinated that in this day of instant everything, including photographs, McLean spends so many hours taking one image and leaves after a day’s work not even knowing whether it will work out. “I like it that it is slow and methodical, the opposite of instant,” says McLean. “I can plan what I want to do, but there’s always an element of chance. I like that too.”
He also enjoys the conversations he’s having while working in the forest, which he says often go to the heart of photography, what it means to capture light over time.
Besides his vibrating, surreal forest images, McLean is creating cyanotype text-based works, and, as a finale of his residency, plans to produce 50 portraits of visitors as they arrive at the massive tree at the end of the Eden Grove boardwalk. This work, he says, is “in homage to the people who make the pilgrimage.”
Heather Kai Smith
Heather Kai Smith, an artist and educator who divides her time between Nanaimo and Chicago (she teaches visual arts at the University of Chicago), is also a current artist in residence. Her work explores protest, collectivity and intentional communities through drawing. She says, “I’m thankful to have the opportunity to spend time as a visitor on unceded Pacheedaht territory, amplifying and documenting the work of the activist community on-site.” Like Mclean’s photography, Kai Smith’s drawing is an act of slowing down and observing. Her focus is on the activist community though. “Through representations of the movement,” she says, “I aim to support the work of ecological justice and solidarity in challenging overt misuse of power.”
Heather Kai Smith’s recent work “Reciprocity,” coloured pencil and pastel on paper, 20x25 inches
Kyle Scheurmann was on site the day FOCUS visited in April, working on a large, colourful canvas showing an activist on a log over a stream in the middle of a clearcut. His work at that time was being featured in a solo exhibit called Witness at the Angell Gallery in Toronto—which he couldn’t attend due to COVID. The gallery described his work as: “a form of reverential reportage from the front lines of deforestation, wildfires, and human impact on the land.”
For Witness, Scheurmann, who lives in unceded Cowichan territory in Shawnigan Lake, spent a year documenting forest destruction around the Nanaimo Lakes area by Mosaic Forest Management (TimberWest and Island Timberlands). Having lived formerly in cities, he said he had little idea of the devastated landscapes to be found down logging roads. He “stewed in” those clearcuts and the distress started showing in his paintings, which previously had been more traditional landscapes. His colour choice—often fantastical pinks and deep purples—might lure viewers in, but they soon notice the vast areas of stumps, flooded valleys and other scars.
Kyle Scheurmann and painting at Eden Grove. Photograph by Dawna Mueller
Scheurmann, who has an MFA from Emily Carr University of Art & Design, believes he has a responsibility to reflect the environment and how it is impacted by climate change and human activity.
Victoria-based Jeremy Herndl was the first artist to join the residency. He has taught art at Vancouver Island School of Art, UVic and Kwantlen Polytechnic University and has been in many gallery exhibits. For a recent show at Madrona Gallery, he wrote: “My landscape painting considers space as an extension of the body where perception is reciprocal and all things have agency in an intersubjective field… ‘Nature’ is not something else, it doesn’t reward us or punish us, it IS us.”
Jeremy Herndl with one of his paintings of Eden Grove. Photograph by Dawna Mueller
For the Eden Grove project, he returned to plein air painting to “create large portraits of the incredible ancient denizens of the forest and their retinue of other plants and bugs that keep them vital.” His paintings take many days to complete and chronicle “sustained interaction which includes changing light throughout the day, rain, hail, overcast and dappled light—but they also include something else, a peculiar kind of rapport, a conversation of sorts between the human and non-human beings.”
He believes the destruction of old-growth forests as “beyond criminal,” saying, “These forests sequester immense amounts of carbon, they retain and filter rainwater, they are salmon habitat which impacts bears, coastal wolves, eagles and many creatures in the sea including orcas, seals and sea lions not to mention humans.”
Upcoming artists and plans
Demers has been reaching out to First Nations artists, including Pacheedaht. She is excited that Rande Cook, a talented young Kwa’kwa’ka’wakw artist, will be carving a mask at the camp studio in upcoming weeks.
Born and raised in Alert Bay, Cook holds chieftainships from his maternal and paternal sides. He apprenticed with master carver John Livingston, and has studied with many other First Nation artists and others around the world, learning how to use a wide range of media—wood, acrylics, gouache, canvas, glass, and metals. His work, which is known for its imaginative blending of traditional and contemporary Indigenous approaches, has been featured in many private and public galleries (including the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria).
Recently, Cook launched a campaign called #TreeOfLife to build awareness around the devastation of Vancouver Island’s rainforests, old-growth cedars and Mother Nature herself. Youth programs are in the works, as is a documentary film.
Other upcoming artists in residence include Connie Michele Morey, who does site-specific performance art and participatory sculptures that tend to question the relationships between ecology, displacement and belonging.
Multi-disciplinary artist Valerie Salez will also participate. Her large scale-installations that include elements of performance have been included in numerous city-wide, outdoor festivals, while her large-scale collage works and sculptures are in many collections.
Paul Walde, an award-winning artist, composer and curator who lives in Victoria on WSÁNEĆ territory, is also coming soon. Walde’s music and sound compositions have been a prominent feature in his artwork for over 20 years. He is best known for his interdisciplinary performance works staged in the natural environment, often involving music and choreography—such as Requiem for a Glacier, a site-specific sound performance featuring a 55-piece choir and orchestra live on the Farnham Glacier in the Purcell Mountains. Walde is currently an Associate Professor of Visual Arts at the University of Victoria. Demers tells me that he has plans involving activists and bird sounds.
Environmental photographer Dawna Mueller will also be joining the artists in residence with her poignant black and white images. Mueller’s Métis heritage is a fundamental part of her practice in her connection to, and interpretation of, the land. Her photography references the reunification of nature and culture, expanding our anthropocentric world view, illuminating its interconnectedness.
Photograph “Worth More Standing” by Dawna Mueller
Dawna Mueller (Photograph by Ken Miner)
Demers admits that trying to coordinate an artists residency program around her day job and in a remote area with no cell coverage during a pandemic is not without challenge. But that doesn’t stop her from being ambitious. Plans are being made for exhibits, both online and physical, as well as a publication or catalogue of the works produced.
She credits both the “very cooperative, flexible and independent artists” and the supportive activist-run camp for making it all work. Volunteers have supported the development of the project by setting up the tent, creating the website, supporting artists on site and in advisory roles. (A Go Fund Me campaign has also been set up.)
The public is welcome and encouraged to visit, though also warned that the situation at Eden Camp is unpredictable and could change any day given the injunction against the forest protecters. But meeting the artists, witnessing their work and the forest itself is a journey Demers hopes many will make.
Leslie Campbell is the editor of FOCUS. Check the Eden Grove Artist in Residence website here. For more about the Fairy Creek blockades, please see Leslie Campbell’s “Forest Defenders Ready for a Showdown” and Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic’s comment. David Broadland has written about the injunction here.