Into the Woods: Artwork from the SK Arts Permanent Collection

Curatorial statement

When people think of Saskatchewan landscape, the prairie is what comes to mind. There is no doubt the expansive sky and vast plains of farmland are at the core of our identity and culture; however, for anyone who lives in this province, there is an awareness this is only part of the story. The boreal forest covers over half of Saskatchewan. It is home to cities, towns, rural and Indigenous communities, farms, cottages and parkland containing dozens of tree species, and a rich diversity of birds and wildlife. Saskatchewan artists working in a variety of media have been inspired by the flora and fauna of these northern forests. Into the Woods features 12 artworks from the Saskatchewan Arts Board Permanent Collection that are inspired by the boreal forest and muskegs of northern Saskatchewan.

The Emma Lake Workshops, from 1955 to 2012, brought many local and international artists north to create art in directed workshops. Wynona Mulcaster and Ernest Linder both attended and mentored at the early Emma Lake Workshops. Mulcaster’s Trees, painted in 1955, captures the density of the forest with an abstracted modernist style, layering blocks of monochromatic greens. She studied with Lindner, who had a cabin at Emma Lake. Lindner focused closely on the forest floor, often drawing or painting detailed bark, fallen trees and the mossy groundcover. Fifty years later Martha Cole applied this same scrutiny to her textile Scots Pine 2, bringing the tree trunk into sharp focus. Similar in composition to Lindner’s Cedar Bark (1969), Cole combined digital printing on fabric with hand colouring and sewing to create the illusion of a realistic Scots Pine tree trunk.

In contrast, some artists choose instead to apply a more distanced view to their consideration of the forest. Sheila Archer’s ceramic sculpture, Eye of the Muskeg, was inspired by aerial views of the rivers and forests of the north. Working for over 20 years as a canoe guide, Archer often traveled to work by float plane. Those flights highlighted the bold contrast between the structured geometry of the southern prairies and the river systems of the north. Increasing the distance even further and applying a geological aesthetic, Lorne Beug’s ceramic sculpture, Earth Section with Trees, burrows deep into the earth to illustrate the forest’s literal connection to the land. Beug uses unglazed multi-coloured clay for the layers of earth that contrasts with glossy glazed trees; the sculpture illustrates a dichotomy between the delicate chaos of nature and humanity’s attempts to establish order and structure.

Boreal forests endure long winters with short growing seasons in boggy muskeg environments. The trees are often tall, thin, scraggly and scarred by forest fire. These forests look very different from the picturesque, chocolate boxesque, landscapes of historic European painting. Louise Cook and Hans Herold both capture the decaying forest within their painting practice, choosing to depict fallen and rotting trees, tangled brush and chaotic growth over a more romantic forest landscape. This unpicturesque perspective is utilized by Dave O’Hara through his “documentary” photography practice. O’Hara completed a series of photographs when living in La Loche in the late 1970s. He was particularly interested in documenting the hunting and trapping traditions of La Loche elder, Jonas Clark. Jonas and Beaverlodge, December 1979 captures the elder checking his traps in the winter, deep in the bush. Surrounded by trees, he is photographed with his tools as well as his crutch, which must have made trudging through the deep snow a challenge. These three artists subvert the picturesque to reflect the northern Saskatchewan landscape in its raw, rugged state.

Patuanak-born artist Catherine Blackburn utilizes Indigenous artforms in her art practice. As We Dance captures the Aurora Borealis skyscape above northern Saskatchewan's boreal forest using applied beadwork techniques. Taught to bead by her by close kin, Blackburn creates a unique view of the northern landscape. By incorporating a material and process historically used to adorn, she is asserting her connection to the land and claiming her place as an Indigenous artist within contemporary art practice.

Saskatchewan artists have used the trees themselves to create art. St. Brieux folk artist William Laczko carved sculptures for family and friends of birds and animals from found pieces of wood. Bird Tree combines a woodpecker and chicks, sparrow and crow together in one beguiling sculpture. Shell Lake landscape painter Rigmor Clarke often travels through the boreal forest, painting from her canoe. Inspired by the availability of willow, she taught herself how to weave baskets. Woven Basket was created in the early 1990s and was recently donated to the Permanent Collection. Also utilizing materials directly from the forest, Angelique Merasty harvested birch bark to create birch bark bitings, a traditional Indigenous skill she learned from her mother. Created by folding and biting thin sheets of birch bark to produce complex designs and patterns, Merasty was a master of her craft, known for her unique insect and animal patterns. These three artists’ processes sensitively engage with nature by using wood.

Dating from 1954 to 2016, this exhibition from the SK Arts Permanent Collection includes painting, photography, basket weaving, birchbark biting, beadwork, and ceramic sculpture. As demonstrated by the artists included in this exhibition, vast, expansive prairie vistas are not the only landscapes prevalent in Saskatchewan. The northern boreal forest is an abstract, chaotic, mysterious and beautiful part of this province which provides not only sustenance to the people who live there, but also ample creative and artistic inspiration to Saskatchewan artists.

Artists include: Sheila Archer, Lorne Beug, Catherine Blackburn, Rigmor Clarke, Louise Cook, Hans Herold, Ernest Lindner, Angelique Merasty, Courtney Milne, Wynona Mulcaster and Dave O’Hara.

Belinda Harrow
Collections Consultant