Tag Archives: Cobalt

the wind and the rain

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

The wind and rain hit the side of the house so relentlessly and powerfully all night that I assumed when I would wake the next morning everything would be blown away. But as the sun came up over the field, beyond the garden and work shed it was business as usual; Molly the dog running about, birds flitting about on empty trees and the southern Ontario sky moodily moving clouds back and forth – grey, lavender, white and grey again. Morning in farm country. It is an entirely different kind of morning than in the forest.

I am in southern Ontario installing an art exhibition that is the consequence of a residency. The landscape, with farms and hollows is completely different than where I live which is foresty, rugged with Precambrian shield rocks and has hundreds of lakes. Where I am now there is one, huge great lake. But as it always is when we embark and then embed ourselves in different landscapes, we feel comfortable in our relative discomfort. I admit to being a home body; I like being in my jammies and reading and hanging out on my property and wandering up my road. So, when I travel and even if it is only somewhere else in Ontario it has an impact on my psyche.

Winter is coming. A foreboding tag line if there ever was one. The turn onto our road last winter – yeah, we get snow.

Ontario used to be a place with fairly consistent weather; rain in in the shoulder months, snow in winter and heat in summer. The sun always around and appearing regularly. Ontario weather is now no longer that consistent. Our summers are a mixed bag, sometimes wet and cold, sometimes too hot, our winter starts later and later and when the snow comes it comes in heaps and there seems to be crazier and crazier rain storms. This past year I witnessed flooding I had never seen before in lots of places in the province. It is alarming for sure and with the fact that my life has been built around trekking across the landscape to make and exhibit art, I have to say I am not filled with the greatest of optimism that this will become easier, in fact I think these ventures will become harder. Secretly though I also think that perhaps we might have to stay home more (quiet little yeah!).

Being a landscape inspired artist in an era of accelerating climate change isn’t exactly what I bargained or readied myself for. Listening to the rain last night in that 19th century farm house with its huge wooden doors and big heavy windows – the kind you can sit in on a pillow and create poetry in – was exactly where I hoped I would be one day when I was young girl obsessed with Mary Shelley and the Brontes. Unfortunately loving stormy nights doesn’t fill me with Gothic ecstasy anymore, they come too fast, too hard and go beyond drama into something far scarier and foreboding. Climate change is ruining my love of Goth. Storms now cause power outages and we can’t use our water – this isn’t romantic, it’s boring. Dark foreboding skies are still beautiful, but they can also mean that a heavy rain will probably make the door jamb in my house leak. So, this is where I am now. I moved into a gorgeous log cabin in the woods, a romantic setting if there ever was one only to have all the sensuality of violent weather drummed out of me. Climate change you suck.

I WISH I thought climate change was a hoax, I would probably be more able to pretend that on a stormy night I am sitting with the ghosts of Shelley and Byron trying scare each other until it stops raining. No such luck. I listen to the wind howl in a way that seems completely psychotic, not eerie or evocative, just simply psychotic and try to distract my fear of our roof coming off by watching Netflix and praying that the internet holds. Ok, I may be waxing a bit dramatic here. These storms aren’t relentlessly ubiquitous yet.

The thing is I have always loved the weather in Ontario and in all parts of Ontario. One year we got stuck in a blizzard and had to stay in our hotel an extra couple of nights outside of Cobalt on Lake Temiskaming. It was amazing really. Our hotel had a fireplace so, if the power went out we’d still be warm (it didn’t) but watching the snow sweep across the lake, it’s power and beauty an almost ethereal and translucent spectral event – made for a very memorable couple of days.

The morning after, strange swirling forms of vapour rose off the lake spiraling to the blasting sun as though the very air was giving blessings to the universe. I could not possibly make art our of such an event – there was no need really. We drove slowly away toward home and of course I was happy and relieved however changed, because the landscape, the weather and the movement through time that others refer to as travel had made its mark upon my soul. A reliable sense of things in our atmosphere seems to be vanishing – I shall hold its poetic power as long as I am able.

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State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

My life has generally been a Nightmare Before Christmas…*

There are really no advantages to being brought up in suburbia except for Halloween. Suburban kids can really rock the candy take on that night or at least we could in my day. I used to use a pillow cover and have to empty it at least once. And then there was the year my brother and I dressed as Luke and Leia from Star Wars, before Return of the Jedi – weren’t we prescient! Pictures taken and extra candy amounts poured into our pillowed bounty. Beyond that Halloween plunder my memories of living on the outskirts of Toronto are one vast episodic dystopia of strip malls, ravines full of shopping carts, being pointedly ostracized, having to hide my Echo & the Bunnymen records from those Journey zealots, and generally being bored beyond recognition. Saying I hated my early adolescence doesn’t begin to address my real disdain for it.

I did however have one thing going for me; I was destined to be an artist. Many years later I realized that in fact those stultifying days were good for my burgeoning creativity. Perhaps I was fueled by anger a little bit or maybe I was just someone who didn’t fit in anywhere else. Suburbia is in fact a perfect laboratory for pushing young people into self invention because it offers nothing but car and shopping conveniences. I guess there is church… oy, but that is a much bigger conversation that I won’t get into here. I moved effortlessly into the creative field without any wits about whether it was a sound idea.

This mammoth canyon is  right in downtown Cobalt (100' down). Like an ancient temple with a lake running beneath it - there is a strange sensation while visiting that you actually might be dead.
This mammoth canyon is right in downtown Cobalt (100′ down). Like an ancient temple with a lake running beneath it – there is a strange sensation while visiting that you actually might be dead.

Halloween today always makes me think about my life as an artist; possibly because it is a night of invention, creativity and imagination. I kind of like Guy Fawkes day better or even Mexico’s Day of the Dead but there seems to be a universal dead thing going on this time of year. Unlike other holidays that pay homage to something Halloween shines a (dayglo or black) light on the primordial side of ourselves. This year I spent the lead up to All Hallows Eve in Cobalt, Ontario. Cobalt is a town that was once the silver mining capital of the world. In the 1920’s it was bigger than Toronto. Close to the shore of Lake Temiskaming and surrounded by hills that are now carved out in dramatic ways, making the landscape one huge public sculpture, Cobalt is now a much less version of its former self. Like any historic place whose heyday has since past, Cobalt has a poignant ambiance. It is also very Goth due to the vast array of abandoned mine shafts right in town and the near death experiences you can have exploring them. Lake Temiskaming itself is a huge, deep austere lake that also serves as the source of the Ottawa River. Its own historic anti-glory comes in the form of a massive fire in 1922 that razed every town within spitting distance right down to the shore of my grandmother’s birthplace Haileybury.

I was there for an exhibition culminating in the several years of trips I have taken there, sketching, painting and writing about its landscape. Cobalt fascinates me in a peculiar way that I find impossible to verbalize. While roaming around a deep, cavernous shaft, our guide and friend Perry described the environment as being something you feel not something you can know or intellectually ascertain. In this age of virtual reality and academic incantations about everything, I love the fact that someone would mention how an actual experience is what is needed to understand place. It is true for many experiences but very important for these places that were once carved up by human beings, polluted with tailings and mountains of slag only to be reborn in many ways through nature pushing back.

Cobalt’s destroyed-ness and its vanishing remains from that era make it ghostly indeed. Not just because it is a community that has seen its day and wherever you look there are markers for its past glory but mostly because there is a duel between what happened there and the natural world’s relentless strive to take it back. Some areas will remain dead, but many are being reclaimed. This tension makes Cobalt a very unique place.

I didn’t think that as I brought my exhibition to Cobalt I would want to do anything else creatively with it but… the area draws me in for reasons that remain mysterious. Or are they? When I think about where I wanted to live as a young girl it was always a storm circled castle on a cliff, or a magical cave – anywhere but Burlington, Ontario. Perhaps this is how you find these places, by pushing your creative self throughout your life toward that mercurial inspiration that makes art.

* this of course refers the wonderful film A Nightmare Before Christmas by Tim Burton who also seemed to turn his suburban upbringing into a creative career.

What remains of the silver mines at the Temiskaming Art Gallery
until November 23rd.