Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Pollution, Death and Responsibility

This image shows a bird with enough oil on it to have a lethal effect.

My mind has been a riot of ideas lately.  There has been a lot of stimulating art of all forms filling my days and nights.  As we inch toward the opening of the Wild, Pure Aesthetic Wonder show at the end of March, I have been working increasingly with the artists as they complete their works.  This show is a partnership project with the Gros Morne National Park and it is our hope that the show, which will be on view both in St. John's at the Craft Gallery and the Woody Point Discovery Centre, will give visitors to the Park a deeper appreciation for its splendors.  But part of that experience is an understanding of how fragile those natural beauties are.  It has pleased me no end that some of the artists are tackling this aspect.

One of them is Rosalind Ford, whom I know as Roz.  She is both a visual artist and a trained scientist–a bird biologist or ornithologist.  Not surprisingly, birds are often the subject matter of her art.  Roz chose to make a pair of male, life-sized Eider ducks that inhabit the Gros Morne area. They have been lovingly made of textile and every feather on them painstakingly embroidered.  When I met with Roz at Fixed Café, mutual friends stopped at our table to admire them.  And then I slapped the tabletop and said, "next we oil this baby!"   I was being deliberately provocative.  I wouldn't have blamed Roz if she began to hyperventilate.  Some of our friends looked like they might.  I was testing the waters.

This was part of Roz's artist proposal and so I was not out of bounds.  Her subject is about the impact of oil spills on the bird population. I wanted to acknowledge her inevitable anxiety at the implied violence of her act.  I had to find a way to get her past the feeling of destruction and inch her toward seeing it constructively.  Artists usually make things.  They don't usually destroy stuff, especially stuff they have lavished time and energy on.  But sometimes, in order to get across his or her desired message there are unavoidable painful parts of the process.  We seemed to agree that was what we were facing.

This devastating image is more typical of the shock-effect.

I don't want to steal Roz Ford's thunder so I will not tell you what the end result was in that process.  But I will tell you a little about the next step, which entailed mimicking the appearance of an oil-slicked bird.  She needed to make test dummies and experiment with the plastic liquid that produces the oily appearance.  I think the plastic dip cost more than the plummeting price of oil.  She dipped, she turkey basted, she photographed and we corresponded.  One of the questions that fascinated me was, "how much black goo was the right amount?"  I was curious about the factual, the science behind how much do you need to kill a bird?  And I was shocked when scientist Roz explained how little it took to have a lethal effect.  Apparently, it takes only a small percentage of a bird's body to have contact with oil for the bird's delicate ability to stay warm and dry to be irrevocably upset.  Like most viewers, I was accustomed to the dramatic fundraising images that showed birds completely coated.  All black.  It made me realize how sensationalistic those representations were in order to pull the heart and purse strings of the lay public.  It made me wonder if we were the ones completely saturated.  As usual, the decision making process involved with art was going to be a lot more complicated than I ever anticipated.


  1. Oh my goodness, what an incredibly powerful piece. Over here on the west coast we are fighting to keep oil tankers out of our waters - I think Roz's work needs to be seen here too.

  2. I have shared your response with Roz. Artists need feedback.