When out walking in the woods, whether on a groomed trail in a conservation area or in the wilds of Algonquin Provincial Park, encountering the unknown out in the field can lead to (at least) a few responses from the hiker/explorer: fear, curiosity and awe. Mary Catherine Newcomb and Liz Parkinson create art works responding to our observations and experiences of the natural world that elicit all of these reactions.
Liz Parkinson is primarily concerned with the taxonomy of the natural world – the ways in which we as a culture have chosen to think about and classify the flora. In her Morphology series she has taken the lowly dandelion as her subject and using its original Latin name Taraxacum Officinale she is drawing our attention to this way of naming as a strategy to elevate the specimen as a plant of value. Officinale refers to its usefulness as a medicine, as a mild diuretic and laxative useful in treating infections and liver problems, but it also has many culinary uses. The flowers have been traditionally used to make dandelion wine, the leaves make an excellent healthy salad green and the roots when baked make a healthy alternative to coffee. The works ask us to consider the language we use to describe a thing and how that language frames a system of values. Parkinson has consistently explored the narratives we create around the plant world, whether historic, scientific or domestic, to investigate the shifting cultural meaning plants hold for us. Brightly coloured flocking is overlaid onto drypoint renderings of early taxonomic drawings originally created for Taraxacum officinale. The lush vivid colours of the flocking serve to disrupt the original authority of the nomenclature surrounding the plant and, in an albeit highly aestheticized and compelling way, suggest some of our contemporary feelings towards the now ubiquitous yellow weed.
In Heirloom, a series using litho and drypoint intaglio printing processes on gampi paper, Parkinson has created various works resembling domestic textiles whose titles refer to a complex relationship to plants that we once held dear. Using homonyms like Spread (Queen Anne’s Lace), Blanket (Briar Rose)(not shown) and Cover (Chicory) she points to the comfort these plants once held for us and at the same time suggests that we sometimes now refer to them as invasive species in the way that they can take over an area as they seek to naturalize to their new environment. In Thicket (Setting) we encounter a tablecloth for a setting for eight, using as its motif the common blackberry bramble. The book matching of the image creates what can be read as the gapping maw of eight hungry diners all waiting for more. As we walk past the works in Heirloom they flow in the breezes left behind by the movement of our bodies. Their fragility is apparent just as many of the heirlooms we may possess from our own ancestors may be: too brittle to handle, too precious to use. Even the histories and stories that accompany our family treasures may be subject to that same fragility.
Mary Catherine Newcomb’s process draws on mythological, historical and personal narratives to inform the sculptural consideration of her subject. The three works in the exhibition can each fill a viewer with a sense of awe, terror and/or wonder. Her approach is decidedly hands on in a dirt-under-the-fingernails kind of way. Product of Eden had its genesis as Newcomb was investigating new media and processes in which to express her ideas. Already fostering an interest in agriculture she decided to work directly with plants as a medium for this project. The process consisted of growing eggplant, zucchini and pepper plants. She prepared a series “saintly” figures (animal and human) in clay, and then made two-piece moulds from these. She then fastened these moulds over the growing vegetables and encouraged them to fill up the mould in the form of the original sculpted figures. When the figures ripened, they were fitted with little brass crowns to denote their sanctity. The results were either pickled in a variety of vessels, shown on the vine or “shop-dropped” into stores. In the process of gardening to bring these sculptures into the world, Newcomb has said what an anxiety producing experience it was. Concerned and invested in a positive outcome for the project, the need to protect them was paramount. Weeding, watering, dealing with pests and other unknowns, was a constant source of worry. Newcomb notes that the process gave her a tiny glimpse into the stresses that early farmers underwent when their community’s very survival depended on the success of their labours.
Great Hare 2012, grew out of Newcomb’s newfound interest in gardening as an artistic medium and a desire to “collude with nature” on a project. Already working with the image of the hare in her previous work she set out to make a living embodiment of this archetypical figure. She states: “The title refers to remembering a time when the natural world was considered to be animate. Michabo, the “Great Hare” of the Algonguian culture is the animal demiurge.”
Sunset Hill is a more personal work. It was conceived and created after Newcomb paid a visit to her childhood home and returned, as can often be the case, with a very mixed bag of emotional memories. The oyster mushrooms adhered to the smooth alabaster-esque surface of the bust were all cultivated with her own hand, lovingly dried and preserved. The bust is an anonymous/androgynous figure, serene in the knowledge or ignorance of who they are, a willing host to the fungal growth. Letting go of what was or who they were in order that new life can begin.
I am interested in the collection, categorization and display of representations of the natural world as well as the language used to describe them: herbal, botanical, familiar, alien, native, naturalized, domestic, wild, lost, found, paradise, field... I am interested in how a history, a science and many other narratives may be created based on the choices, organization and context of [a] collection. I work primarily on paper and with collected objects and printed ephemera in related but distinct projects.
Parkinson received her BA and BEd from the University of Toronto and her MFA from Vermont College. Her prints are found in many Canadian collections including The Canada Council Art Bank, The Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Toronto Stock Exchange and Ernst and Young. She has received Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council Grants. Artist residencies and study have ranged from Gros Morne National Park, to the Botany Library of the British Museum and the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, experiences which continue to inspire and influence her work.
Mary Catherine Newcomb:
My overarching interest is in contemplating the complex interactions between imagination, perception and experience that give rise to distinct models of reality. In agriculturally based societies, the experience of awe in response to natural forces, played an important role in shaping mythologies and world view. This subjective apprehension of deep (terrible and sometimes transformative) beauty was seen as the purview of the soul - the invisible organ that drives a thirst for the ineffable, and the creation of poetry. Since 2006 my work has speculated on the effect of psychological relationship between humans and the (rest of the) natural world - one that has been evolving since the beginning of time.
Newcomb is a sculptor who works in a variety of media. Her work has been exhibited internationally, extensively reviewed, and received many grants and awards. Her work has been shown at CAFKA at Cambridge Sculpture Gardens, at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery and Loop Gallery in Toronto. She has completed several public commissions . She received her B.A. with Honours in Fine Art from the University of Waterloo and an MFA in Visual Art from York University in Toronto. She resides in Southern Ontario where she has been an active member in her community for many years.