By Adrian Baker
I’m a visual artist who has been supporting herself for over 35 years by exhibiting paintings, receiving commissions, teaching art workshops, and creating murals and public art installations. Originally from the province of Quebec in Canada, I received my post-secondary art degree in Toronto, Ontario, and after working a few years in that city as a graphic artist, I moved to rural Ontario to start an independent art practice. While still making art and teaching workshops, I’m currently enrolled in a low-residency Master of Fine Arts program through Emily Carr University in British Columbia, where I will graduate in the summer of 2020.
Having made the decision years ago to live and work in a non-urban environment, my work gradually evolved to reflect my natural surroundings. In more recent years, the river that flows past my home has become the focus of my artistic practice.
Besides monitoring the vanishing flora and fauna along this watershed and noting the encroaching invasive species, I’ve been watching the condition of the water. I’ve seen areas cleared of trees for housing and golf courses, and shorelines altered by human interference, resulting in destructive runoff and sediment making their way into the water system. In recent years, I’ve also noted widely varying water levels.
My research methodology includes days spent canoeing along riverbanks and shorelines, walking the forests, and observing the wildlife. I set up camp to sketch, make notes, and photograph on site, as well as work in my studio, which is situated alongside the river. In addition to my on-site and studio practice, I’ve been researching the pre-contact history of the watershed, the biodiversity, the effects of early settler activity, and current human pressures on the waterway.
While much of my studio work over the years has consisted of oil and acrylic painting with mixed media, I also work in a wide variety of media when creating public art installations, including wood, metal, fabric, and cement. More recently, I’ve been building environmental art pieces “on site” along the watershed, using found natural materials. These ephemeral pieces, constructed in wilderness settings, exist distinct from the more “commodified” aspects of my art practice, yet are influential elements in the conception of my more public works.
Building on these experimental installations and on my research, sketches, and photographs, I recently created a body of work which addresses the core themes of environmental fragility and our primal connection – or dis-connection – to the natural world, which is our life-support system. I titled this work “Watershed,” a term which also means a critical turning point or period in time marking a change in opinion or course of action. The spring thaw of 2019 resulted in unprecedented widespread flooding along the rivers in the Ottawa valley where I live, the second time in just two years that the river reached “historical levels.” Viewing the local watershed as a metaphor for the entire biosphere, the artworks reflect our reaching a “critical turning point” in our inter-dependent relationship with the environment and reinforces the urgent need to initiate more ecologically sound practices.
The works in this series consists of fifteen mixed-media paintings on wood and on canvas, varying in size from approximately 24” x 40”, to 60” x 84”. Starting with foundation layers in acrylic, the works were built up variously with plaster, fabric and/or oil paint. Some were embedded with found natural materials such as ground mineral and shell, while others are embellished with gold leaf. The paintings, which portray the perceived value of nature, as well as imagined futures, were featured from September to November 2019 in a solo exhibition at the municipally funded Ottawa Art Gallery, Annexe Gallery in Ottawa, Ontario.
Studies have demonstrated that people who care about the environment make more eco-friendly choices, so my goal is to continue to create art that informs, motivates, and promotes a connectedness with nature. I am continually exploring forms that might particularly speak to the urban-based audience who may have little interaction with the natural world. Evolutionary psychology tells us that the 50,000-generation timespan when we humans were intimately connected to the natural world is a stronger force in our psyche that the 500 generations of civilization that followed. I try to reach people on this primal level, to prompt recognition of their connection to nature, using visual art as a means to mobilize them in the defense of the environment.
That said, I don’t aim for shock and novelty merely for the sake of garnering public attention. I prefer to create work that is aesthetically appealing to viewers, prompting them to stop and consider possible interpretations of the images. I believe there is value in the skills and embodied knowledge developed over many years of art making, and there is value in sharing this with the public.
Ultimately, my intention is not to highlight the devastating impacts of environmental degradation, or to convey a defeatist attitude, but rather to encourage reflection and dialogue by imparting a message of hopefulness, connectedness to nature, and optimism for the future. My work is meant to be an uplifting – and sometimes humorous – visual reminder of the wonders of nature, and of our own inexorable connection to the natural world.
(Top image: Watershed. Triptych. 60” x 84”. Mixed media on board.)
Adrian Baker’s work has been featured in solo exhibitions as well as in multiple juried shows both nationally and internationally. She has received government commissions to create public art installations, served as artist-in-residence for the Bermuda Masterworks Museum, and has received recognition for her portraits. Throughout her career she has been conducting adult art classes and workshops, and delivering lectures to art organizations. Adrian’s work is in public and private collections in Canada, the US, and abroad. Her art has been reviewed in numerous publications and has been featured on the covers of several international magazines.
Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.
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