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Art and/as Process – Biodiversity residencies (part4)

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Pachijal River

It was a Friday. Most weekends the volunteers at Un poco del Chocó took the opportunity to hit the road exploring Ecuador. To me, the weekends were hikes, watercolours, stair climbing, swimming in the river, and experimentations with cooking bananas. Mainly though they were a wonderful opportunity to train my eyes to see the forest as a living system. So basically they were like every day here with the added bonus of having the place to myself. This weekend even the co-founders Nicole and Wilo left intrusting me with the biological reserve in order to get some much deserved rest a few hours’ drive west in Canoa.

    I started by sweeping the volunteer house. It’s a ritual from my days at the Kensington market’s Extempore Studio, some years back. I found it to be a great way to reset the mind for something new, a practical meditation (and/or chore) practiced across cultures and worldviews. By the time I swept the house I had a plan in mind as to how I was going to proceed with the resto of my day. I started by feeding the chickens which proved eventful. After herding three hens back into the coop I faced off with the rooster having to go inside to fix the whole under the fence.  His attacks were strong, determined and frequent. Reasoning quickly failed and only foot shoves sufficed to give me enough reprieve to patch the hole.  Luckily, I managed to avoid getting pecked thanks to my baggy pants and came out of the coop with a new found respect for the rooster.  The fish and dogs were fed without incident.

    While chasing the other hens I made sure not to trample any plants in the nursery or herb garden. Wilo is growing a wide variety of edible plants like cacao, coffee, tomatoes, bananas, etc., he even has a rare lemon grass tree. Some of the fruit trees are planted in the forest, especially in light gaps where they can still get enough light to grow. It’s a challenging project to grow food in the jungle without slashing and burning the plants and trees to make room and open up sun gaps.

    With the custodian duties wrapped up I walked down for a much welcomed swim in the Pachijal River. Being the rainy season, its current was strong, murky and I loved it. The swimming patch is stretch of water, roughly the size of a tennis court, between a rocky rapid bending left from the upper part of the valley and funneling into a deadly canyon only a few meters down. It was risky and exhilarating to ‘swim’ in the current strong enough to easily keep me still. The stillness within the current of Pachijal; the massive amount of matter rushing past; its soothing effect and brute force; its winding, fluid path through a fragile yet resilient environment; it’s metaphorical richness. I took every opportunity to spend time in the current of Pachijal.

    The river helped me to understand Alfred North Whitehead’s idea of reality as lines of force where “no element is independent, affecting and affected by another in a continuing flow.” I came across it in my research for Fluidity (2015) and absorbed it into my developing philosophy and art style. In the classical view a line is a series of independent points, static and separated by some measure of space. Whitehead defines a line as a series of ellipses, one overlapping the next, each connected to the next in a stream – it is reality defined by its shaping. My Fluidity works are abstract representations of this dynamic view, looking at the world and events as a continuations of far reaching processes.

   Reality through the lens of Alfred North Whitehead’s Process Philosophy is a river of mass and energy shifting form one state to the next, where beginning and end is subject to perspective. It’s a way of looking at existence where now is a veneer on a structure that reaches into infinity, the surface tension on an ocean wave.  Like a river, the jungle’s mass and energy is in a constant flux with things growing, falling, decomposing and fuelling other growth. In another way I thought of the roads as rivers to which the trails flow into, penetrating areas which were otherwise difficult if not impossible to reach reshaping them into farmlands, cities, reserves, etc., and eventually back into swamps, forests and jungles.  I was excited to be making these connections, taking a wider and deeper look at Chocó region and finding a cohesive way of channeling all my varied experiences and connecting them. I was already painting different aspects of the environment and all it would take is a certain perspective -a wide enough vista – to singe the connections.

Art and/as Process – Biodiversity residencies (part3)

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I am still wrapping my mind around the fact that one of the most diverse and dynamic systems of life, with thousands of species of plants, animals, insects and fungi rises from an average of 8cm (3”) of soil in the Chocó region.

Exposed roots after a landslide

Exposed roots after a landslide

     The jungle floor is a carpet of roots, rotting leaves, fallen branches, vines, lianas, dormant seeds and nuts as well as sprouting plants. Under this skin of life lay layers of loose rock, clay and sand. Unlike the temperate forests of the northern hemisphere where nutrients, from decomposing matter, soak into the top and subsoil for gradual recovery by the root systems, in the jungle the cycle is a lot more dynamic.  Humidity, high levels of rainfall and a steady, year round sun cycle ensure that life thrives and with it death and decomposition.  The roots of almost all the plants and epiphytes have a symbiotic relationship with a fungus (mycorrhiza) which lives in them. The fungus helps the plants decompose bio matter and recover most of the nutrients almost entirely by themselves. With the amount of rain fall and mostly clay under the thin layer of slanted soil, most nutrients would be washed into the river system if it wasn’t for the carpet of roots which like a sponge suck them up perpetuating the cycle of growth-death-decay-rebirth.

     The diversity and sheer number of species feels like a crowded TTC* streetcar, if everyone was OK with multiple people sitting on top of one another during rush-hour. The dense forest makes it work. Each plant, animal and insect species has a place or rather a niche of their own. A great example of this is the variety of species of humming birds found in the area. There are over 40 species in the Chocó region alone, over 100 in Ecuador. Each species varies in size, beak shape/length, plumage, etc. and has a unique ability to access a food source while sharing others.  It is this kind of complex balancing act which permeates through the ecosystem.

Violet-tailed sylph, photograph by Jonathan Janse

Violet-tailed sylph, photograph by Jonathan Janse

     I arrived at the same time Jonathan Jansen did, a self-described “crazy” birder.  He is there to conduct research into the possible connection between telling a birds age by the quality of its plumage. The research entails catching as many birds as possible so that he could examine them and gather observations, amassing data in order to examine patterns. This gave me the opportunity to see many different species up close. Their size always seemed heavier than it actually was while their heartbeat was ferocious and eyes clear and sharp just like their beaks. The colours found on the feathers, the gradations form one tone to another are amazing. There is one particular bird, the Green Crowned Brilliant, that I can still see when I close my eyes. It was one of the first I got to see up close to admire its green plumage. Looking at the area above the beak the rich olive green shifted to a bright gold as though a beam of light pierced the dense foliage of the jungle. I have never seen something quite like it in nature, the way the feathers shifted from olive green to gold was mesmerizing and truly beautiful.  So beautiful that supposedly the Maya used to make robes out of the feathers of humming birds for their kings.

     As part of the decay, falling debris is a constant. If you raked a trail in a few days it looked as though no one did so for a while. Leaves fall restlessly during the rainy season and I was told by Nicole, co-founder of the biological reserve, that it’s even more intense during the dry season since everything sheds in order to maximize moisture storage.

     Another amazing adaptation to changing conditions is the ability of a palm to move from one location to another with more favorable lighting. Appropriately named the “walking palm”, it can move up to 20cm in a year by growing roots which cascade down covered in sharp spikes. It reminded me of a rocket taking off, its main trunk jutting off in to the sky supported by a plume of roots. Having established a direction it cuts off its connection to the roots facing away from the light growing them towards the location it will better thrive in. The establishment of new roots severs the ones behind as it moves forward towards the light.

A gap in the jungle foliage created by a fallen tree.

A gap in the jungle foliage created by a fallen tree.

     In contrast the large mahogany and golden mahogany trees that grow in the area create thick, gothic buttress like roots to support their stature. Given the terrain, steep valleys of loose gravel layer covered by different types of clay, it’s amazing the height and size a lot of the trees reach. When these giants do fall, they open large swatches of the jungle to secondary succession so that the forest is in a constant state of tearing itself down and rebuilding, allowing for new species to dominate.

     Often the fall of these giants can be attributed to lianas and their more sinister cousins the strangle figs. The strangler figs germinate in the canopy sending down thin, hair like wisps towards the ground. Once on the ground the wisps take root and begin to grow sprouting leaves that will eventually outperform those of the tree while gaining in thickness and weight. The roots coil themselves around the tree eventually totally encasing it. The tree dies as the strangler fig coil fuses itself around its dead, rotting carcass eventually leaving a hallow space where the tree use to be.

     The ancient forest is constantly reborn. A complete system in a constant rebalancing act, adding and subtracting, changing. I realized I was surrounded by the embodiment of becoming, a key idea in the work I have been developing so far in Toronto.  It was obvious that my original tentative framework for the project “The Shape of Loss” represented only a section of a cycle. The roads facilitated the change of the land into farms but it did not end there and the project I am a part off is an example of that. Even without human intervention the landscape constantly reshapes itself so change was the common denominator in what I was observing.  My time here was beginning to gel all that I was seeing and experiencing. I was working on a few watercolours in different locations while continuing my daily walks. Soon it would pay off big time.

*(Toronto Transit System)

Art and/as Process – Biodiversity residencies (part2)

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One of the key responsibilities of a volunteer at Un poco del Chocó is the maintenance of trails which meander fluidly through the terrain. Unlike roads, they do not divide land in such a way as to prevent certain animals or birds from crossing over them, since certain species avoid open areas due to fear of predators, leading to habitat fragmentation.

     The jungle being a dynamic system of life-death-decay-rebirth creates and sheds life matter at an impressive rate. There is always a demand for raking and trimming of foliage on the trails in order to minimize the risk of stepping on a snake, slipping or tripping. The more physical tasks involve building and repairing stairs as well as cutting and removing trees and bamboo that happen to fall onto the trail. In case of occasional landslides there is digging, moving dirt and struggling with gooey to rock hard clay.

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A section of a trail collapsed onto a lower section. Landslides are relatively common during the rain season.

 

     The 15 hectare biological reserve is “in the transition zone between two biodiversity-hotspots, the Chocó and the Tropical Andes” (unpocodelchoco.com). Five kilometers of trails cover a portion leaving most of it to the fauna and flora, undisturbed by humans. This piece of paradise is located on a side of a ravine with the base camp at 1200m and the Pachijal River acting as a boarder 250 meters below. The yellow trail weaves for half a kilometre almost directly down before abruptly turning towards the base, once reaching the river. An average walk up takes about 45 minutes. “Racing” could shave it down to a breathless and near fainting 15 minutes, after a few weeks of trail walking.  The other three trails zigzag lengthwise along the side of the valley, each with its own character. The difference of elevation allows for access to various levels of the canopy, a key feature of the area. I had the opportunity to observe birds and plants that otherwise would be invisible up high in the dense foliage of the cloud forest.

     Hundreds of stairs snake around trees, down steep slopes and over roots with a gentle, sculptural presence. A braced piece of wood with packed clay forms each step ranging roughly between 12cm (6”) and 30cm (12”) in height.  Palm wood is used here do to its ability to withstand rot (up to 10 years as opposed to the average of 3 months for other tree species). Building or repairing stairs is a challenging physical task. First, the 1 meter (3’) long palm pieces are brought down to where they are needed 1-3 pieces at a time, each weighing about 10kg (20 pounds). After splitting certain pieces to make spikes on site, a hoe is used to dig out a straight line into the earth. A piece of palm is then placed on the line with two spikes bracing it from the front. Clay fills the gaps, rammed with a piece of flat wood to compact it.

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A small section of the yellow trail leading up to the base

 

     There was something to discover with every walk through the jungle. Bamboo shoots ruptured silently through the earth and orchid flowers hung heavy with water. Dozens of types of insects and birds filled the forest with sounds. Trespassing on an adjacent valley farm to paint the opposite side, I listened to a cicada begin its call. The next one fallowed with in a second, so did the third, forth,… by now the first finishing. And so it went, a shimmering suggestion of a wave that appeared at the edge of perception became a sound tsunami as it passed my area, moving well past the other edge through the valley like a human wave in a stadium. The warm air seemed to vibrate with the sound of the cicada.

     Elsewhere orange and brown tarantula spiders lazily moved in the shadows. I saw an armadillo race into the forest faster than I could ever imagine an armadillo move.  One morning, as a small group of us were making our way towards where a set of stairs needed repair, we stumbled onto ocelot tracks close to a cuckoo watch station. I would have missed them but luckily Wilo, one of the founders, was with us and he has an extra sense about these things. (Latest update about the ocelot Click Here)

     During a clandestine evening, walking the trails in a heavy downpour Bothrops punctatus, a sister of the very dangerous fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper) slipped down in front of me to our mutual surprise. She coiled with raddle shaking, looking straight into my eyes. Grateful for the warning I took a step back, crouched and took a photo. Paying attention not to slip or make sudden movements I admired her stone mosaic like skin while she slid away in the opposite direction.

     A week later, on the green trail, a small leathery black and yellow snake darted out of nowhere towards me lunching into the air. Moving to the side just in time for it to fly by my legs I watched it disappear into the bush letting the adrenaline flow through my body, big smile on my face.

     On my way for a swim, walking around a large mahogany tree I surprised a group of Rufous-fronted wood quails. The group split in two opposite directions leaving one thoroughly confused as to which way to run. It was a great opportunity to have a good look at him, its red breast plumage seemed to shimmer amongst the warm greens of the jungle. Its’ confusion, as it paced this way and that was amusing and it took him a good thirty seconds to make up its mind as to which way to run.

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Bothriopsis punctata is a venomous pitviper species found in South America and Panama.

 

  Walking the trails stimulated my imagination and put me in direct touch with a level of biodiversity I have not experienced before. One thing that was becoming clear to me about my tentative way of framing my research under the title “The shape of loss”, was that it was to limiting, to narrow a view to try to fit all the impressions the environment was making on me. There was something much more interesting happening here and loss was only a part of the equation…

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Art and/as Process – Biodiversity residencies (part1)

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There was nothing unusual about the flight from Toronto to Quito. For a few minutes in line at U.S. Customs I thought I might not make my flight as the line was huge and my flight was leaving in less then an hour. I landed in Quito 12 hrs later. Got into my Hostel at 2 am and crashed. Did not realize it then but the altitude in Quito, combined with jetlag and the flue I have yet to fully recover from left little energy in me. After breakfast I got out my travel itinerary that had details and broad strokes about different sections of my 80-day research trip. Found myself staring at the page section that only had the name of the place I was going to without any other details. The longer I stared the more anxious I began to feel, thinking that somehow the details would fill themselves in.

    Next came the questions: do I have enough money, is my Spanish good enough, what bus do I need to get to the terminal… In my tired state I was forgetting that that section of the trip was left undefined for a reason. I closed the itinerary, took a deep breath. This was something to be resolved later as other pieces of the trip would unfold. I had more pressing concerns now, like buying a new hat since I left mine on the plane, dammit.

    Getting to “Un poco del Chocó” biological reserve took about 4hrs from Quito. 30 min on local transit across the sprawling city, 2hrs on a regional bus and 45min in a 4×4 on the one road that gets to the reserve. A road that become important to me later on.

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Un poco del Chocó view from one of the trails

    The reserve is located in the Chocó region of Ecuador and is situated between 950 and 1200 meters above the sea level. It protects a small part of the ecosystem that once covered most of the region. It is a biological hotspot, with a great biodiversity that is in danger of disappearing; 83% of forests in Ecuador have been cut down since the 40s.

    My goal was to observe and learn from the researchers about how biodiversity is studied and understood. Parallel, I conducted my own observations, made watercolour studies and took photos of what interested me.

    Five days into the experience, I hit a wall. With so much stimulus I was having a hard time fitting the pieces with my initial idea for the work that would address the loss of biodiversity. Working with watercolours has proven to be a lot harder than originally expected. The humidity changed the watercolour pencils making them gummy, things took much longer to dry and regular rain and bugs made a lot of the locations I became interested in difficult or impossible to paint in. Then my camera stopped working do to moisture.

    In order not to focus on the negative I focused on what I still could do. Every weekday I worked for the first half of the day helping to maintain the reserve, learning about different plants and ways of working with bamboo or palms. Walking the 5 km of the reserve trails had multiple benefits. They gave access to different levels of the tree canopy, waterfalls, areas of secondary succession and the river.With every walk there was a new discovery and things seen before could be seen during different parts of the day in a new light. The second thing that provided me with a lot if interesting information’s and way of looking at things were the conversations with the student researchers. I was lucky to have arrived when two were just completing their research and another two were arriving to start. Each had their own uniqe perspectives and experiences to share.

    On the second weekend, Jonathan, one of the new arrivals was going to walk to Las Tolas. It is the nearest village, about 12km up the road and it’s about 700 meters higher then the reserve. Up to that point I did not give much consideration to the road as it was outside the reserve. Wanting to break the routine and see more of the area I went along with him and another researcher, Jaimie. They were both starting their research related to different bird species. The walk proved a crucial experience on my way to figuring out how to fit the pieces of what I was experiencing. It was my first sunny day there as it rained for the most part in the weeks prior. I found interesting locations to paint in without the aforementioned problems and the road gave me a much broader perspective on the surrounding area. Jonathan also volunteered to take photos on his phone for me during the walk adding to my already fruitful day.

    The next weekend I was left alone on the reserve. The volunteers and researchers would usually leave on the weekends to see other parts of Ecuador and this time Nicole and Wilo, the owners, left as well for a much deserved break. Nicole left me a phone in case of emergency. On Saturday I went out for what were now my regular walks on the road. I had a few different spots 4 km+ from the reserve where I liked to paint and meditate. They were located at different parts of a hill around 1500 meters above sea level. On my way there I came across a trail of leaf cutter ants which a lot of their soldiers running back and forth. As I was about to voice my usual lament of not having a camera I realized that I actually had one, Nicoles phone. I used the rest of the day to document all the spots I found on my daily trail and road walks that for one reason or other were interesting to me. 143 photos later my situation changed fully. I was content and a pattern was beginning to emerge…

Art and/as Process – Inspiration/Motivation

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Inspiration or motivation for making an art work can come from … well anywhere. I started out making art by drawing things I enjoyed. Now making art is part of my process of experiencing and thinking about the world I am in.

     My work with Fluidity got going, although I didn’t know at the time, because of the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The event happened at a time when I was looking for a new direction in my work. Following the incident, I felt frustrated at my own seaming ineptness to act on, or rather against such tragic events. As a way of moving past this frustrated feeling I turned to my creative process. In researching the media generated in relation to the spill I came across a Ted talk by Carl Safina; where he tells a story of a dolphin “begging for help” as oil leaks out of its blowhole. The story inspired me to draw “Wakan Tanka, Human and the Drowning Whale” where Waken Tanka, Great Mystery in Lakota spirituality, is seen infusing life back into a landscape tainted by an oil spill. Wakan Tanka became part of the project because I have just finished a painting of Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a Canadian Inuit activist. In wanting to do more research into First Nations and the inherent respect for nature that is part of their culture, I came across this spiritual figure. The drawing was distributed in Toronto and Montreal as a zine, explaining the story behind the drawing and its elements.

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Wakan Tanka, Human & the Drowning Whale – custom paper, crayons, acrylic paint, 121.9cm by 243.8cm, 2010

What stuck with me after I finished the project were the ‘fluid shapes’ framing the drawing. The shapes stand in for the four elements: Earth, Wind, Water and Fire, a reality from which the figure draws energy for the beam of light/life. That flowing reality inspired me to further explore, through my artwork, ideas of reality as a perpetually changing, interconnected process. I became interested in the relationship between being and becoming of elements which make up reality, such as ourselves.

     “2011 Fluidity” portrays locations in Toronto as an interconnected flow of elements making up a whole. “2012 Fluid Shapes” explore change by transforming paintings on plywood into three dimensional forms of variable arrangements. “2013 Fluid Shapes” through forceful manipulation of luan embody a metaphor for human interference in nature, changing it to suit our whims. “Fluidity: Actual Entities and Occasions of Experience” centered on interconnectivity by portraying figures as outlines blending, into one another and their negative space environment.

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Fluid Shape #6 – 13cm x 8cm x 5cm, Luan, paper, acrylic, tung oil, 2013

    My next body of work will, like the “Wakan Tanka and the Drowning Whale” drawing, directly address the rapidly changing environment duo to human actions, this time focusing on the dramatic loss of biodiversity. What I am really excited about is that the work will be based on research that includes my own visit to the places I am reading about. My project proposal, to observe and learn, has been accepted at a biological research station in Ecuador and a wildlife rescue centre in Peru. Both institutions work towards preserving biodiversity through research, conservation and education. While there I will learn about the topic first hand and participate in the institutions work. My goal is to absorb as much as possible while painting watercolour studies as a catalyst for the work to be made back in Toronto.

     That frustration I felt at the time of the British Petroleum 2010 oil spill has acted as a catalyst for personal growth in a way I never expected. Through the motivation of waiting to do something, no matter how significant, it inspired me to do a great deal, some of which I touched upon here.