At the edge of the continental shelf of Western Canada sit the Queen
Charlotte Islands. Haida Gwaii, as the archipelago is known by the
aboriginal Haida Nation, is a dark, fierce place subject to frequent
gale-force winds and is surrounded by exceptionally turbulent waters.
The islands are separated from the mainland by a body of water appropriately
named Hecate Straight. This series of ceramic vessels, Homage to
Gwaii Haanas, is the result of an expedition to unknown geographical
and psychological territory.
The Hecate Straight,
bearing the name of the Greek goddess credited with the invention
of sorcery, is a profoundly magical place. Each of the pieces in
the Homage series is a composite image of a skeletal beast and a
silhouette of the sorceress' collective aquatic body - bulbous swells
of tangled kelp, slippery smooth and sensually arched backs, like
those of the surfacing black porpoises. Her saline sanctuary is
home to leviathan giants which rise, breathe and plunge back into
the watery abyss. The physical place evolved into creative process;
it emerged in forms that, like Hecate herself, emulate emotions
left unnamed which dwell in the farthest corners of the collective
It takes three
full days of surface travel to get from Vancouver to Gwaii Haanas,
a marine sanctuary within Haida Gwaii that lies just south of Alaska.
The landscape on the way is somber, lush and wet. This is coastal
British Columbia rainforest. The sky, land and ocean, most of the
year are barely discernable shades of the same colour. Cloud meets
forest meets sea in a tonal pallet of indigo. It is a climate that
depresses many and inspires deep peace for others. Haida Gwaii is
an extreme of this already extravagant West Coast geography. Its
black basalt shore line is relentlessly pounded by unforgiving surf.
Its haunting forests are precariously rooted in cavernous layers
of rock cloaked with meter-thick moss. The terrain lays itself out
as though personally designed by the brothers Grimm - dark shadows,
twisted animate trees hung thickly with Spanish moss. If the subconscious
were wilderness, this is what it would look like. Even the bedrock
of this place is, like our minds!, in constant flux. This area is
one of the most seismically active in Canada and there are hot springs
heated by volcanic vents throughout the islands. A land forgotten
by time, it exists within its own peculiar reality - dark, surreal
and supremely inspirational.
In the towering
spruce, in the ever-present mist, ravens play with their own echoing
song. Tiny black tail deer bleat after their young. At the edge
of low tide, the largest species of black bear on the North American
continent laboriously overturn boulders to expose a breakfast of
crabs. A myriad of bright yellow song birds flies between giant
cedar boughs, and tiny green hummingbirds descend from the skies,
flitting about like fairies. On the ocean the water is serene one
moment and in an instant crests into three-meter-high walls of water,
one after the other, to collide with our tiny ocean kayaks.
These are the
unpredictable and unexpected encounters that shape the nature of
a voyage in the wilderness, much the way friends, family and personal
experience shape our characters. It is not the nature of the experience
that affects us so much as the nature of our response. We thrive,
flounder, fail or just carry on without consideration one way or
another. In the open ocean, response is of the essence. We cannot
ignore what we chose not to see and we must react positively to
what is presented - we have to become part of the wild to live in
it. Just as I breathed in the experience of the wilderness to make
it a part of me, I metaphorically exhaled the experience into my
work. The trip filtered down through my hands into the vessels.
This is a cathartic
body of work. The extremeness of the land and ocean stimulated buried
emotional responses which transmuted directly into clay. While staying
within a familiar technical process, coiling and altering, there
seemed to be an insuppressible urge to eviscerate, to bloat into
great exaggerated swells and to pull up and flare into foliage.
The resulting forms are at once sensual and grotesque. They address
sexuality, the aging process and ultimately, mortality. These archetypal
topics emerged by navigating through heaving ocean swells, witnessing
a wilderness teaming with life and also with death. Nature, in her
holistic splendor, does not disguise her terrifying aspects the
way the human psyche does.
The trip and
the creative process that ensued are inseparable experiences. One
was a direct response to and result of the other - the cause followed
by effect. A voyage into unknown territory, geographical or psychological,
is always exhilarating and to a greater or lesser degree, often
deeply frightening. Water conditions, like emotional responses,
are frequently unpredictable and, in worst case scenarios, unnavigable.
We explore the terrain of joy, doubt, caution, betrayal and other
human experiences over a lifetime. The choice is ours to engage
in unfamiliar experience - to risk failure or loss of love - or
to remain safely ensconced in the realm of the known, never reaching
deeper than the level of our own skins. Exploring the wilderness
is analogous to living life meaningfully. One gathers provisions,
makes plans, then launches into the open water and allows the experience
Clay is a substance
like no other for manifesting subconscious thought. It requires
a concurrent awareness of internal and external construction. Working
with clay is for me the waking equivalent of dreaming. "We
...know that dreams have a healing function even when they are not
understood. From experiments in dream laboratories we know that
if we stop people from dreaming, we could even kill them. This has
been seen in some animal studies as well. There are heavy physical
and psychic symptoms if we wake sleepers each time they have a REM
...phase. So we know that dreams have a biologically and psychologically
restorative function. They affect us positively, even when we don't
understand them." (1) Creative expression is also deeply restorative.
When we are
familiar with a technical process, what the clay will do between
our two hands, we can release attention from the architectural concerns
and focus on the personality of the piece. The creative process,
if nothing else, externalizes the interior - in this case the interior
was mirrored in a geographical landscape. In Jungian terms, the
shadow emerged into daylight long enough to court with the animus.
Seductive black Sirens wound their way up out of coils of clay almost
of their own doing. They became sensual feminine incarnations of
both the hideous and the exquisite aspects of that distant archipelago;
they embodied exhilaration and joy as well as skeletal images of
mortality. These vessels contain both the grotesque and divine aspects
of the collective human spirit in a place of great uncertainty -
our very existence.
Chinnery is a ceramist living in Vancouver.
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