State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

Beachcombing with Sally Thurlow

Shorelines are transformative areas and they are where most of us live. As our world heats up shorelines threaten to become areas of dramatic upheaval. Places like the Maldives Islands are disappearing under the rising ocean, Venice now floods regularly with locals wearing rubber boots out for their morning Americano’s and surges from hurricanes threaten major cities around the globe. Presently debris from the Japanese tsunami is finding its way all along the western edge of north America making beachcombing an act of advocacy for climate change rather than an atavistic activity or a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

Sally Thurlow is an artist who understands shorelines with a mystic’s devotion. Her work is a rumination on decades of experiencing what shorelines offer us and teach us. It can be seen presently on at the Red Head Gallery in Toronto after a very successful exhibition at the Visual Arts Centre of Clarington. There is a nicely made catalogue for the exhibition I would encourage you to buy as Sally is also a good writer and very articulate regarding her work.

Sally’s art on the surface is truly lovely. She creates some of the prettiest work around and for sheer aesthetic enjoyment one can just enjoy her found objects and beautifully created mixed media pieces without getting deep. However Sally is also very smart and her work has a strong intellectual rigour that the beauty of her work can easily belie.

Foremost Sally’s work tells stories and is suggestive of ancient routines. Beachcombing is a part of her process and her relationship to the shorelines both at her home on Lake Ontario and a recent residency at Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland can attest to an artist who fully appreciates what the water gives back after what we have thrown away or lost.

Thurlow began this investigation into shorelines with her traveling exhibition Canoe Dreaming years ago inspired by the Inuit’s resourceful use of debris in making their shelters and boats. I saw this work and it has never left me. Now, with new stories such as pioneering Newfoundlanders dragging their unwanted items out onto the ice so that they sink in the spring, Reclamation looks directly at the tossed items found in that netherworld between water and earth, sky and land and life and death.

Swimmer by Thurlow on the shore of Lake Ontario; haunting and playful.
Swimmer by Thurlow on the shore of Lake Ontario; haunting and playful.

The work is divided into Figures, fused driftwood figures eerily evoking the damaged human and animal form; Vessels, gorgeous stiff screen material formed from being molded onto rocks and then tipped upside down; and Shards, huge renderings of bits of broken domestic china. All three ideas perfectly elucidate Thurlow’s ideas of transition, transformation, ebbing tides, pebble beaches, water and land pushing and pulling back and forth. While she bronzed some of the driftwood figures giving them a stronger sense of civilized identity (they are statues suddenly, homages etc.), they still seem windswept, sundried and the end result of a tossed-out-from-the-sea idea. Perhaps it is the little cane or bits of wire holding their suggested limbs upright; this tiny bit of humanity makes their abandonment even more poignant.

Or maybe not, perhaps they are saved and not abandoned. And this is where Thurlow’s work really begins to ignite. The Vessels at first appear to be decorative, they are anything but. In fact their dark screen design and the rocks and shells held within immediately reminds one of the kinds of industry found on shorelines such as fishing and shipping. The bits and pieces caught up in our life’s ongoing process of living globally. The Shards hang like ancient stone discoveries; they’re pieces of us from the past or the future. These bits of china speak to our ever present domesticity and its own process of how it transforms our lives. Together these sculptured items, both lovely and thoughtful, make us think about our own relationship with the water both literal and as a metaphor for what is hidden in us.

Sally uses the phrase ‘wandering in the inquiry’, a notion given to her by an architect friend William Woodworth. She is right to use this phrase to describe how her work comes together for she is a traveler in the spiritual realm held within her relationship with nature’s forces. She finds items from the beach and then transforms them into objects that wouldn’t seem out of place in reliquaries. While collecting Thurlow becomes a transmitter of our complex relationship with nature. However her tone is hopeful, playful and bright. These are things we have cherished, or are cherishing or should cherish. And twisting them into the familiar makes them part of us.

Artists are at their best when they find subject matter that illuminates their voice. Landscape inspired artists are most successful when they see themselves written on the surface of the land; that our role in nature’s cycles is seen as significant. This is the new romance with the wilderness. I always find some of the best work is done by those who create with love or a search for it (destructive forces are included here as well). Sally Thurlow’s work is filled with unexpected joy as well as the somber. It is a delicate balance that you can tell she relishes. Sally is like a mystic who wanders between worlds creating sparkling oracles for us to learn from.

Reclamation by Sally Thurlow is on now at the Red Head Gallery in Toronto until June 15. Catalogues are available.

State of the Arts will return June 21

9 thoughts on “State of the Arts”

  1. what a great blog about a wonderful artist and woman… Sally is indeed special. Her ‘Canoes’ are impossible to forget, as are her ‘wood’ creatures, whimsical and and, somehow, ‘alive’. Her creativity is boundless. There are so many more huge things she has done… her headboard for the bed is among the many

  2. Working with Sally on this video was a great experience.
    Copy and paste this link if clicking doesn’t take you there:

  3. Steven, I think the video is really well done. I very much enjoyed it. Saving it to show over and over… Sally did so well

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