I doubt if the previous camper at the site knew that she’d been collaborating on an art project with me …
Last week my family and I headed to Eastern Ontario, in Canada, to explore the area around the village of Warsaw. While there I went on a few pilgrimages, purposefully looking for certain local colours. However, a lot of what I found was unexpected and pretty amazing.
Warsaw has an especially powerful landscape because it is at a point of transition. During our week in the area, we camped along the south shore of Stony Lake in a beautiful forest. All around us was a mix of trees and a wide variety of animals to see, with the aspen trees making their distinctive fluttering when the wind blew. At certain points, when we went hiking, we walked in places that felt like home. At other places, something older and more primitive began to be hinted at by the large boulders and fractured rocks, which occasionally thudded hollowly beneath our boots.
By crossing the lake and landing on the north shore, we entered a whole other world. We crossed a border into the northern Canadian Shield. The soil thinned out and disappeared across large areas, revealing bare areas of undulating rock. The big trees here became more gnarly, growing out of the land like the tendons of an old man’s arm. Not only what we saw changed, but the soundscape of the place did as well. This place seems to be made of a bigger space, where the raven’s voice fills the whole world in a way that echoes back to prehistoric times.
The transition of this landscape has deep roots in mankind’s history. One important cultural border in the First Nations is between the peoples of the southern Laurentian Lowlands and the northern Canadian Shield. Over many thousands of years, the people of these different landscapes develop distinct cultures in response to where they lived—from languages to burial practices. As someone who is deeply interested in how the places we live can inform what we create, walking in these two landscapes was like visiting two different worlds in a single afternoon. So, of course, my pilgrimages to find local colours from the landscape had to happen on both sides of, and in-between, these physiographic regions.
Exploring the local colours of the soil from the southern landscape began almost the moment we arrived at our campsite near the Warsaw Caves. As I was setting up our first tent, my oldest daughter came over to me with a handful of red ochre. After I finished, she led me back to its source, the campfire pit, and we proceeded to spend the next hour sifting through the colours. Soon after we started working, my youngest daughter also came to help, and our colour palette grew to five distinct hues.
With the summer being so dry this year in Ontario, the fire pits had to be freshly dug each week to make sure that too much burning material didn’t amass. In digging the pit on our site, the staff had dug through the top layer of sand and unearthed a layer of yellow ochre clay common to the area. As they continued to dig, they ended up piling this earth around the ring of the fire pit. This yellow earth would make usable paint but, as I’ve demonstrated in much of my art, when heated it can often produce outstanding red and brown pigments.
The night before, when my unknown collaborator lit her evening’s fire, she began a complicated process of heating this clay to a range of temperatures. The clay closest to the centre of the fire, receiving the most heat, changed from its original yellow to orange, then red, then brown, and finally a little purple (in the hottest points of the fire). The earth a little further away from the fire’s centre was only heated hot enough to turn it red. We even found some of the original yellow a little outside the circle—where there hadn’t been enough heat to change it at all. Given the small amount of clay being fired, one evening was enough time for the range of colours to be created. And so, within the first hour of arriving, I’d collected the first local colours of Warsaw.
The rocks of the northern landscape were something that I had previously planned to visit with my youngest son (who is becoming quite an avid rock-hounder). Years ago, my friends Reiner and Maggie had taken me to the Rogers Mine <link> and for this trip my son and I had packed a couple of supplies specifically to try and revisit that site. Leaving early the next morning, we headed east to visit Madoc, Ontario.
The Rogers Mine produced almost 40,000 tons of fluorite ore in the 1950s, but all mining had stopped by the 1970s. In under 50 years the land is well on its way to reclaiming the mine. Getting to it wasn’t easy. After an hour of not finding the path that I remembered from my previous trip, my son and I decided to head off the path in the direction of the mine, trying to stay far enough away from the swamps to keep our boots dry. In certain points the forest got quite dense, and I ended up pushing through the trees, creating a wake that a seven-year-old could travel.
There’s something wonderful about getting off a trail. When on a path, the natural density at which different trees grow together, or the way that certain kinds of branches cling to you as you pass, makes little difference to your movement. But, with that walking-line gone, the flow of the forest begins to lead and interact with your hiking. Pushing through a stand of dense cedars slows you down, and blesses you with incense so strong that you gasp for breath. The water and sunlight of the forest leads you through the landscape by their presence or absence. And, large fallen tree trunks can be climbed over or crawled beneath—either way, the moment the bark scrapes across your back or pants, you know that tree in a wholly different way.
After another hour we crossed a path which was probably one of the old roads leading to the mine. In a very short time after that we arrived at the site’s old dump. Digging through the rocks we found a variety of Madoc fluorites (famous for their pale, sea green colour) as well as the barite that I had hoped to collect for making paint. Here, too, the forest is quickly reclaiming the landscape. The trees I remembered from before were larger and had closed in on the site. I expect that in my lifetime this pile of rocks will be returned beneath the earth, to once again be held together by the roots of the trees.
Coming back from the site, with each of us holding a bucket of heavy rocks, we decided to follow the path as far as it would lead us. While the forest certainly interrupted my son and I often with grown-over or blocked sections, it was a much easier hike than the path. With the temperature now above 33°C (91°F) and our path ending in a large grassy field with no shade, we both arrived at our vehicle exhausted. But, after some lunch at a local fast-food restaurant (in air conditioning!) to celebrate appropriately with the boy who had shown such perseverance in this adventure, we set off back to our campsite with rocks, colour, and a great story to share.
Both these experiences were wonderful pilgrimages, but the culmination of the trip didn’t involve collecting any local colour at all. On our last day in the area we traveled a little further north to visit the sacred Teaching Rocks (or Kinoomaagewaabkong) at Petroglyphs Provincial Park. It’s here that, for unknown millennia, people have come to entrust the wisdom of their dreams and stories directly into the landscape itself. From time out of memory an elder would bring his or her student to this sacred place and uncover the earth from this rock. Underneath the soil, on the wet, dark marble, appeared brilliant white symbols from which to learn.
Today, this place is accessible to everyone, but recently the experience has changed. The park around the area is beautiful and the staff helpful and generous, but after their “discovery” of it in 1954, a building was deemed necessary and erected to protect the petroglyphs. This protection from the outside is difficult to align with the living qualities that the First Nations attribute to the land, and has deeply changed the connection of this place to the world around it. It has also dried out the rocks, and once they were unsaturated they became a light grey, making the symbols difficult to see. To solve this problem, black crayon was used to colour in the symbols—inverting the petroglyphs from symbols of crystalline light to something more like text on a page. Somehow this seems deeply significant to me … yet, we were greeted with warmth and hospitality by the two young women from the local Curved Lake Nation, who spent over an hour sharing what they knew about these symbols with my eager family. The ability to set bounds of privacy, but still be generous in spirit, is a consistent thread that I’ve observed in my experiences with the people of the First Nations.
At the Teaching Rocks, my pilgrimage to Warsaw ended with something that connects to what I’ve built my own artistic practice on—a belief that raw, local earth colours are good teachers if one listens to them. But here, on a whole other scale, I experienced how the earth can teach and remember. As I head into my studio this week to work, I’ll be listening to the many colourful earths I have in my studio very carefully.