Artist’s work comments on consumer culture
By Jenn Watt
Published Oct. 24, 2017
A large, dead root hangs from the rafters of the A-frame building at Fleming College, its limbs winding toward the floor below. It looks grubby and gnarled, its joints out of joint. Upon closer inspection, the root’s limbs are actually a kind of prosthetics made of old metal pipe, a fishing rod or used pencil.
The creation, which looks very much alive, is balanced partially on a table leg, with another tendril stretching into a plastic water bottle on the floor, as though it might sip up the rainwater that artist Jennifer Norman has collected during her time working on the piece.
Over the summer, Norman has been visiting the Dysart et al landfill to gather materials for her work, and returning to this A-frame at Haliburton School of Art and Design to put it together, all the while creating hand-drawn portraits of the root and her other creations, which are smaller prosthetics made to be attached to surrounding trees.
Norman was this year’s Reclaim artist in residence and said she enjoyed her work so much that she decided to stay on until October, when the residency would have ended in August.
Her work points to the burden we place on nature through unchecked consumption and the lasting legacy of our garbage in the finite natural environment. The futility of creating prosthetic limbs for trees is a reminder of the damage done to the environment and the inability of our culture of excess to fix it.
Norman has been interested in the environment and human pollution for most of her life. She grew up in Sudbury and remembers a culture at the time less concerned by pollution.
“We boasted the biggest smokestack in the world for a very long time,” she said. “We would go and sit and get a Dairy Queen and watch the slag [from industry’s smelting operations] being poured on a Friday night.”
The damage done to that city “was severe,” Norman said, but noted Sudbury has since spent millions to clean up the environment.
She now spends much of her time thinking about our effect on the environment, collecting human debris as she travels and making it into art. After Norman constructs her sculptures, she then sits down to create a portrait. While her root installation may never look exactly the same after being moved to another gallery, her drawing documents just how it looked in Haliburton.
The artist says there is something meditative in creating the portrait.
“It’s almost me processing the pain, the difficulty of it, through the work,” she said.
The dead root has a devastating quality about it, alone in the centre of the room.
“The tragedy is almost dripping from it,” she said. “To take it and put it there [in the portrait], to glamorize it, takes it out of context.”
The drawings, while accurate down to the smallest detail, do seem to remove some of the pain from the subject matter. (Norman said she was inspired in part by memento mori, or artworks that remind the viewer of the brevity of life.)
In HSAD’s announcement of Norman’s residency, the college stated that she would be gathering information about the Haliburton community and its waste.
Norman, who currently lives in Toronto, said she’s enjoyed the people and landscape so much that she is now looking for real estate in the area. While she wasn’t sure how people would react to an artist arriving to pick through their garbage, she said she was welcomed.
“What I find interesting about the work I’ve been doing … once people understand what I’m doing and feel less threatened by what I’m doing I get these gifts,” she said. People would find items from their own garbage they thought would help with Norman’s endeavour and bring them over for her to peruse.
“That means they’re looking at their garbage a bit differently too,” she said.
A fan of Canadian environmental icon David Suzuki, Norman said she’d like to take her work to a more political level, addressing scavenging laws that restrict re-use of items in the landfill.
Haliburton’s debris consists largely of construction waste, which could easily be repurposed. Norman has seen companies in the United States that have made lucrative businesses out of rethinking waste, taking discarded items and making them into treasured objects.
Norman’s next stop is in Ottawa, where she has an exhibit in April. After that, she hopes to return to Haliburton.
“This particular place is pretty magical,” she said.