Last summer, 50 Canadian artists travelled to the rugged, isolated Great Bear Rainforest where they took in the breathtaking scenery and turned it into art.
For Brian Falconer, marine operations program coordinator for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, the group hosting the expedition, it was a surreal and moving trip. "I'll remember it for the rest of my life," says Falconer, also a longtime marine captain who has logged thousands of hours travelling up the B.C. and Alaskan coasts.
One particularly poignant memory: "Standing in the river estuary. It was June so the estuary grasses were really tall. The artists were spread out through (the area). To see that much talent soaking up so much beauty was really powerful."
The result was Canada's Raincoast at Risk: Art for an Oil-Free Coast, a travelling exhibit and art book that organizers hoped would bring a sliver of the coast to a wider audience as they campaign to stop Enbridge's Northern Gateway oil tanker proposal. If approved, the tankers will travel through the area — considered some of the toughest terrain to navigate safely — and threaten the ecosystem with the risk of an accident or spill.
"It just can't happen here," Falconer says. "I think that there are a lot of people who might not hear that message who will hear it through art. I think it has a profound potential to get that message across."
Two of Falconer's artist friends —Alison Watt and Mark Hobson — came up with the idea for the project around the breakfast table in Watt's Nanaimo home one morning. "We were sitting around thinking, 'This can't happen,'" Watt says. "It's just inconceivable to think of an oil spill up there. But we're also aware of the fact that most British Columbians haven't seen it. Most Canadians haven't and, probably, most won't. So we came up with this idea."
Because they wanted to move quickly, they narrowed down a list of established artists — ranging from the famous wildlife painter Robert Bateman to Whistler's own Chili Thom — with work that fit the mandate of a "fairly literal interpretation" of the landscape.
Nearly everyone invited said yes. The group travelled to different locations along the coast, living among the rocky shores and wildlife, painting, sketching and snapping photos for around a week.
The pieces range from serene depictions of mountains and ocean landscapes to First Nations masks and colourful images of wildlife. Watt — who was out of country during the expedition, but makes yearly treks to the area — wound up contributing one of the more experimental pieces called "Sockeye," with bright orange salmon floating through a tangle of seaweed. "For me, I felt, 'Well, it's good the spot I might have taken on board was taken by someone who hasn't been there," she adds. "I know for a lot of the artists who were there it was pretty moving."
Judging by the response, the pieces have been moving as well. Originally, organizers only printed 3,000 copies of the art book. (An interactive e-book is also available on iTunes.) It sold out before Christmas. Several pieces have also sold in an online auction, though all but two will continue to travel as part of the exhibit (Proceeds go towards the campaign).
Last year, the art was displayed in Vancouver, Victoria, Salt Spring Island and Nanaimo. A week-long Whistler stop was added to the tour only recently. "It makes a lot of sense because it has a great activist community," Watt says. "A lot of people who live there or visit there are quite well-travelled and have a wider perspective on issues. I think it's a great idea."
Andrea Mueller, visual arts programmer with the Whistler Arts Council, agrees. She says she scrambled to fit the show into the gallery's schedule. "We're lucky to have been able to fit it into our programming," she says. "It's definitely something I think is important for people in Whistler — and visitors — to see because it's an important issue going on in B.C. and Canada."
The show will stop next at the heart of the controversy in Alberta, where the pipeline would originate to carry crude bitumen from the tar sands to tankers near Kitimat. Organizers also hope to bring it further east as well. "I think it's crucial," Watt says. "The last poll I read said most B.C. residents are not in favour of the pipeline and tankers. I think the rest of Canada doesn't understand the issue. Most people are maybe a little uncomfortable with claims by Enbridge... I don't think most Canadians understand how preposterous it is."
The exhibit will open March 4 at the Scotia Creek Gallery with the screenings of two short films, including Reflections, which captures the artists' expedition. For more information on the exhibit visit www.raincoast.org.