I created this series of work at a residency at Griffin Art Projects in Vancouver in January/February 2021. In the fall of 2020, I was reading in the news about different protests in northern Canada and Alaska to protect the dwindling caribou herds against industry, such as mining. With that in mind, I decided to use the stencils of caribou (mylar, 22” x 30”) I made during a residency at UBCO (University of British Columbia Okanagan) in 2016 and which I continued making with a Canada Council grant in 2017.
I contemplate the importance of caribou in the lives of Northern people, not just as a healthy food source. It is sustenance and every part of the animal is used for something. Not only that, but it also brings people to the land. It brings family and community together in the hunt and to feast: the broth for healing, the marrow for strength, the brains to process the skins and the fur to sew. Like the herd which travels together, people who partake of them, do that same in these actions. When the shift to relying on store bought food occurs, it negatively affects all aspects of life. It does not matter where ones lives or what community one belongs to. We all need a connection to what sustains us, whether we have that personal history of communal food gathering, eating, processing or not.
I had originally made these stencils of caribou to project a video through, for an exhibition at the Owens Art Gallery in New Brunswick, in 2018. The video projections on stencil bring the viewer to somewhat of a dream space.
In the Griffin Art Projects studio space, I laid all my stencils out, thinking I would edit videos of tundra landscape to project through them. As soon as I took them out of their storage tubes, I had the impulse to use them as stencils to paint watercolour through them. I had printmaking paper and paints at the space intending to make small painting of lichen and mosses, but my ideas shifted, and I was really excited by how well the caribou stencils worked with watercolour.
The process of how the stencils were made started in 2015 with photographs of caribou. I turned the photographs into vector graphics files and worked with UBCO and, later, with the Makers Lab in Vancouver. I brought the mylar which they put in a laser cutter to create precise lines. Mylar is made from plastic, so it is very durable, which has been great for making this watercolour series.
I am enjoying the process of laying down colours and seeing what happens when they meld together. During my residency at the Griffin, I went to the art supply store to pick up different watercolour and printmaking papers, to experiment with what works best. Some papers hold the stencil line and colour magically and others did not work at all for this purpose.
After the Griffin residency I moved back to my studio on Hastings Street and I keep thinking that I will tire from making these works, but the process is so enjoyable and exciting that I continue to explore new compositions and colours. The anticipation reminds me of my dark room days developing film, and of seeing portraits and compositions appear slowly on the paper.
Because I usually let the stencils air dry without washing them off, the colour of the dried paint blends with the new colour I choose. One particular stencil of a band of hundreds of caribou together started to look like the bands of northern nights.
It made me think about this memory when I was around 15 years old, walking home alone from a friend's house. It was late, sometime before midnight on the beach road, the stars were bright, and the Northern lights were dancing high above making unusual spiral formations. I dared myself to do the unthinkable, to whistle at them and see if they would actually come for me. I thought to myself, those stories are just legends, so why not just see what happens. Many times, growing up I heard people tell us kids not to ever do that. Not much happened, so I did it again, and again, and then the middle of about four of the northern lights spiraled down to me really fast. I just stood there at first thinking I am seeing things. I could hear them as they came closer, crackling, the air charged with energy. They were definitely coming for me. My feet almost gave out with the heaviness of fear, but I ran for my life and made it home without being taken by the celestial spirits.
It makes me happy to honour the caribou and the northern lights. I am so grateful to have this time in my life to make some artwork in a process, not product-oriented way.