All highways into Prince George, the “capital of the north” of British Columbia, lead travellers past some form of the forestry industry. From the east, the Canfor pulp mill sits at the confluence of the Nechako and Fraser Rivers, emitting chemical plumes. From the south sprawls a wasteland of trucking companies, such as Peterbilt and Lomak. At the inland port, freight-train cars full of pulp chips and two-by-fours wait to be shipped, in time moving across the river and along the cutbanks.
These aspects of the forestry industry appear, to many, to be seamless in the landscape, integrating themselves into the city’s consciousness. And they mark a dichotomous identity of success and struggle. The forestry industry has been a driving force behind BC’s economic growth for many decades, but in recent years it’s experienced significant bust cycles as the mountain pine beetle epidemic swept across the northern and central regions of BC, wiping out great stands of trees (some say up to 70 per cent) and leaving what many came to see as devastation.
It is not surprising that artists of northern BC and nearby Alberta, then, would be drawn to focusing on aspects of the forestry industry, whether materially or thematically. Here are five area creators who explore aspects of this complex—and often contradictory—force, with resonances relevant across a nation that (knowledge-economy fanfare notwithstanding) remains largely dependent on natural resources.
Susan Barton-Tait: Casting the Everyday
Susan Barton-Tait, originally from Ontario, has worked with handmade paper during most of her artistic practice.
After relocating to Prince George 12 years ago, Barton-Tait began using pulp board, a byproduct of logging pine-beetle-kill trees. Many such trees were put through a chipper and then processed into pulp board.
As a result, pulp board is available in plentiful supply here, for if there are any flaws in the product, it cannot be shipped out. Thus it became a natural choice of material for Barton-Tait, and she began building a body of work around it.
Much of Barton-Tait’s work focuses on casting prosaic objects, which she displays in her studio window in downtown Prince George. Simple, straightforward, using a palette of only white, Barton-Tait’s cast walls, fruit, vegetables, tables and chairs are compelling.
Barton-Tait has cast firewood and large-scale rocks that hang weightlessly from the ceiling. The work is ghostly, standing guard in the window for passersby to witness. Her pieces, made from the byproduct of trees long dead and stemming from an industry that is in a constant state of flux, acknowledge and honour the death of trees, as well as the industry that provided the material from which her work was born.