Marlene Creates

Marlene Creates is an environmental artist and poet who lives and works in Portugal Cove, Newfoundland, Canada. This conversation took place via e-mail, May 2014.

Bach: You moved to Newfoundland in 1985, but the first installment in your current body of work began in 2002. What prompted the shift from the memory maps and public signs of your previous work to the intimate exploration of the forest surrounding your home? Was it the result of an epiphany or simply the next iteration along the continuum of your work?

Creates: For many years, I traveled to find my subject matter, and then there was more traveling involved to exhibit it. I had misgivings for quite some time about the jet-setting and sustainability of my carbon footprint as an artist. Largely for that reason, in 2002 I dramatically changed my practice when I moved from a townhouse in downtown St. John’s to a six-acre patch of boreal forest on the outskirts of Portugal Cove, a fairly rural coastal community in Newfoundland.

Since then, my work has been based on a ‘slow’ engagement with this one particular place, focusing on the sensorial aspects of the environment. I’m doing this precisely because so much of our information and experience is mediated through a preponderance of technology.

This specific site underpins my whole practice now, and my work has become more and more dematerialized. Most of it takes the form of video-poems, a locative internet project, and in situ public walks with readings of site-specific poems. I don’t feel I need to travel any further afield for subject matter. I’m always an artist-in-residence now –– in my own place. Besides, I’ll never live long enough to take in everything that’s here.

Bach: The idea of a perpetual artist-in-residence is fascinating, and it makes a lot of sense when imagining the impossible task of grasping the entirety of a place. The approach, then, would be to slow down and fine-tune the parameters. In the statement for Larch, Spruce, Fir, Birch, Hand, Blast Hole Pond Road, for instance, you write: “I’m slowly tuning my body and my reflexes to its [the six acres of boreal forest that I inhabit] details. I’m coming to know this habitat by engaging with it in various ways: corporally, emotionally, intellectually, instinctively, linguistically, and in astonishment.” Is this what you mean by your use of the term ‘relational aesthetics’?

Larch, Spruce, Fir, Birch, Hand, Blast Hole Pond Road

Creates: Yes, that’s certainly an important part of it. In working with this patch of boreal forest, I’m not only a spectator, but also an active, subjective participant. My work is where the inside (my mind) and the outside (the environment) meet. I see my work as a co-production with the environment, but I’m definitely the lesser agent (or catalyst) in the production. I think of it as ‘tuning’ as well as ‘being tuned by’ this patch of boreal forest.

As I understand it, the term ‘relational aesthetics’ was originally used [by Nicholas Bourriaud] to describe an art practice that includes social relations where the artist is the catalyst. In that light, the in situ public poetry walks are probably even more ‘relational’. These events are based on walking, observing, listening, talking, and exchanging knowledge. They have included collaborations with nature poets, natural historians (a boreal ecologist, a geologist, and a wildlife bird biologist), acoustic sound artists, and contemporary dancers –– all serving as portals to connect people to the boreal forest ecosystem and to each other through aesthetics.

I also see serving on the Advisory Committee on the Environment for the local town council as part of my creative practice. I believe the arts can take a leading role in social and cultural change, which is exactly what the environment needs.

Sometimes I work totally privately, taking a photograph of my hand on one of the trees I’ve differentiated in the forest (Larch, Spruce, Fir, Birch, Hand); sometimes I write a poem; sometimes I take videos of the little waterfall in the Blast Hole Pond River day after day, recording the changes through the winter from the same fixed point; sometimes I haul blowdowns and deadfalls from the paths (and cut them up for firewood to heat the house); and sometimes I take a group of people on a walk along these paths and simply use my voice to vocalize site-specific poems, in the belief that there’s a power in people being together, body and soul, in the natural environment. And sometimes I lay a small bonfire for guests to gather around after a poetry walk in The Boreal Poetry Garden.

Bach: So, by tuning this place, you are acting as an agent in helping shape the visitor’s perception of the forest both aesthetically and culturally, and you are, in turn, tuned by the forest as a natural outcome of your collaboration. Sounds like a fair exchange, and not that far from the leave no trace approach to wilderness stewardship. What role, then, does conservation play in this work, perhaps with the town council? The reason I ask is that if we were discussing such a plot of land in Southern California, there would most certainly be a long-running, often acrimonious, battle between developers and local land advocates.

Creates: When referring to tuning the site, I’m also thinking about the physical work I do every year to remove deadfalls and blowdowns from the paths, though I know that hard-line ecologists wouldn’t touch or remove anything. I do leave the standing dead or dying trees (‘snags’) because the cavity-nesting birds such as chickadees need them, as well as birds like woodpeckers need them for insects. But once they fall over, then I remove them. My gardening principles in The Boreal Poetry Garden are: plant nothing; ‘weed’ nothing; no digging; no fertilizing; no watering; harvest only blowdowns (for firewood); walk; sit; skinny-dip in the river; watch; listen; smell; feel; wait. My art is a way to respond to the world’s beauty and worth as it comes to my attention, or –– I should say –– my attention comes to it.

There is no question of a developer affecting this particular patch of boreal forest because I am the legal landowner. But ‘owning’ thousands of native trees, wildflowers, shrubs, mosses, lichens, a rock formation of hardened lava from volcanoes that erupted under an ocean about 700 million years ago, in addition to a stretch of the Blast Hole Pond River that’s constantly flowing through the site, is an absurd notion. I don’t see the site and all its beings as ‘belonging’ to me; rather, I see myself as the caretaker or steward of it for a period of time. This is why I try to avoid referring to the site as a ‘property.’ . . .

This patch of boreal forest is adjacent to a large wilderness area that, until very recently, had no protection. Over the twelve years that I’ve lived here, I’ve written letters to the various town councils advocating a change in the zoning of the area from rural (which would allow development) to protected watershed. I’m happy to report that, with the election of a new, more environmentally-concerned town council last fall, there is a Stewardship Agreement close to being signed that will protect the whole watershed area. I cannot take full credit for this, but I think someone finally did listen.

However, in other parts of our township, whole hillsides of boreal forest have been clear-cut and all the vegetation removed, right down to the bedrock, for suburban-style development. Even a significant hill near me –– which had a name, The Pinch, and was solid rock –– was blasted and removed to put in a few houses. We’re getting monster houses on small, bare lots at a time when the enlightened way of building (and, indeed, the traditional way in this community) would be just the opposite –– small houses surrounded by native vegetation on large lots.

Bach: Native vegetation on large lots makes sense for many reasons, and one, I assume, is to allow for the meandering of the Blast Hole Pond River. Suburban style development seems an ill fit for a wild watershed, unless plans have been made to mitigate the threat of seasonal flooding. Here in Southern California, the Los Angeles River was transformed by the Army Corps of Engineers into a concrete flood control channel, but through sustained effort by the Friends of the LA River, some progress has been made in restoring sections of the river to its original riparian ecosystem. You mentioned earlier that you see your political work as part of your creative practice; how does this environmental advocacy fit into your oeuvre (and vice versa)?

Creates: Quite apart from the aesthetics of it, an impermeable concrete flood control channel seems precisely like the opposite solution for runoff management, so I’m glad to hear some vegetation is being replaced along the Los Angeles River.

Now back to aesthetics because I believe there are political and social dimensions to all aesthetics, as well as to the environment. It’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that hospitality, aesthetics, and culture are interconnected forces that can be brought to bear on our experience of and appreciation for the environment. That’s exactly the sub-text of the in situ poetry walks. These walks fit my vision that the wilderness can be a place where art, the environment, and social interaction can intersect.

I spend a lot of time grappling with questions about identity, community outreach and contemporary art practice in a rural context. Perhaps the most difficult part of my endeavour is finding creative, community-based solutions for watershed protection and other local environmental issues. As you’re interested in walking, you may like to know that we also have a new Pedestrian Safety Group in our town, in which I’m participating too. An alarming fact we just learned from the police is that, compared to four years ago, there are now 37 thousand more cars on the road in our region of Newfoundland (the Northeast Avalon Peninsula).

The event I host in The Boreal Poetry Garden that has the most overt advocacy dimension is an ‘open mic’ held in conjunction with 100 Thousand Poets and Musicians for Change. This is an annual event that takes place on the same day all over the world –– in 2014 it will be on Saturday, September 27th. You may know about it because it was founded in the San Francisco Bay area in 2011. It’s based on the belief that the arts can bring about change. Each local event is inclusive and organized around the themes of peace and sustainability. At my ‘open mic’, we walk together as a group and gather at certain spots in the forest where we watch and listen to each other perform poetry, music, song, improvised dance, and story-telling on the theme of the environment. I also pass the hat as a fundraiser for the Brother Brennan Environmental Education Centre and last year it raised over $500, which allowed two underprivileged children to attend a program at the centre.

Bach: With the in situ aspect of your poetry walks, and your artistic and political commitment to the local region, could you talk about your incorporation of local vernacular? I imagine that part of your attraction to words such as brishney, mawzy, or tuckamore is that they simply sound wonderful rolling off the tongue!

Creates: Did you find brishney, mawzy, and tuckamore on my website? I can’t remember where I used these particular terms, though there are some local terms in some of my video-poems in A Virtual Walk of The Boreal Poetry Garden, and several terms for ice and snow on this page of my website. Or did your extensive and careful research include looking online at the Dictionary of Newfoundland English?!

[Bach: I found the list of terms here.]

The Newfoundland dialect is an abiding inspiration for me, partly because of my interest in the relationship between language and the land, and partly because some of these words would have been in the mouths of my Newfoundland ancestors. And, exactly as you imagined, I love the sound and feel of them. These local terms are precise, practical, evocative, sonic, and lyrical, and knowing them helps one actually see the phenomena.

I think you’ll appreciate this aspect too: Some recent studies in linguistics have found correlations between geographic factors and the shape of sound patterns in human language. I’ve had an inkling that there was something like this going on, but never had it confirmed until recently.

I’d like to underline that Newfoundland vernacular is not slang; it’s a dialect of English in its own right, and it’s a fragile intangible cultural artifact. Many Old English words from 17th century Wessex survived in Newfoundland after disappearing in England. Some of the other linguistic groups that settled Newfoundland include Scots and Irish Gaelic, Welsh, Norman and Breton French, Portuguese, Basque, and Spanish. Of course, previous to European settlement, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador was inhabited for over 8 thousand years by a succession of people, known as the Maritime Archaic Indians, the Thule, the Groswater and Dorset Eskimos, the Beothuk, the Mikmaq, the Innu, and the Inuit. So there are words from many linguistic groups in the local vocabulary. And many new words arose because of the particular circumstances the settlers found here –– like ice and snow!

Bach: What a rich and nuanced history…one that you’ve mapped throughout your work. Going from the mostly urban/suburban St. John’s to the mostly rural Portugal Cove, do you think your relationship to the mapping aspect of your work shifted? I’m thinking of your bodies of work photographing found signs — informational messages designed to guide people to a specific location or to be aware of a specific, local hazard, landmark, or prohibition.

Creates: From the hundreds of public signs I photographed during a decade, there’s one I’d like to mention. It’s probably my all-time favourite sign, and it happens to be about walking too. It’s one of the photographs from Around the Water’s Edge, St. John’s Harbour, Newfoundland 1995.

This is the text in the sign:


There were several of these signs at crosswalks in downtown St. John’s when I moved there in 1985. When I first saw it, I thought, “I love this place –– a place where there is such a courteous relationship between drivers and pedestrians.” But it turned out to be even better than what the sign suggests. I found that if a person even stands at the edge of the street just looking like they might want to cross, cars will stop.

Unfortunately, there are no more of these signs –– I think this is a photograph of the last one. They’ve been replaced by the generic walking person with an extended arm, without the instructions. But I’m happy to report that some drivers will still stop for pedestrians trying to cross the street, arm extended or not.

Bach: How is this relationship between driver and pedestrian different in Portugal Cove?

Creates: I live at the end of a quiet, secondary road at the point where the pavement stops and it turns into a dirt track leading into the wilderness. There’s no mail delivery to the houses on our road, hence almost every day I walk to the post office, which is about 1 km away. In light of your question, I’ve been thinking about that walk, which is only on two roads, but they’re very different –– there’s the one I live on and then, at the bottom of it, I turn onto the main road, where the post office is located. When I’m on my road, most drivers of any on-coming traffic –– like neighbours or drivers of delivery trucks, whether I know them or not –– usually nod or wave; and many drivers that overtake me from behind beep to say hello. But as soon as I get to the corner and turn onto the main road, none of that happens. I’m sure both the interaction on my road and the lack of it on the main road are due to the speed at which people are driving. On neither road does crossing it entail any driver stopping for me, as it does in downtown St. John’s. Different contexts entail different virtues.

Bach: This walk could be categorized as ‘walk-as-errand’, but I imagine that this particular function may be less noteworthy to you than the walk-as-ritual, a repeated coverage of the route between your home and the post office. How better to know a place than to walk it, repeatedly, through different seasons and conditions, in differing states of mind and spirit? What differentiates this walk from a specific ‘artistic’ walk like those associated with The Boreal Poetry Garden? What happens in your creative process whereby the walk inspires you to make art about it? This is an issue I’ve been investigating in my own work for many years: at what point does everyday experience, prosaic or extraordinary, get transformed by the impulse to transform it into art? When is a walk ‘just’ a walk?

Creates: The alternative to walking to the post office would be driving (or riding a bicycle, but the road is very steep). So when I started walking there, I did it for environmental reasons. But you know, when something is good, it’s usually good in more than one way and I eventually came up with 10 good reasons for walking there instead of driving. Among them is observing the seasonal changes, as you suggest. And, in addition to getting to know the place, I’ve gotten to know many of the people living between my house and the post office, including the children. I’m sure I wouldn’t meet any of them if I didn’t walk. And it’s reciprocal –– I meet them when they’re outside their houses, not when they’re inside or in their cars. Even if they don’t know my name, they know me as the woman who walks to the post office.

And here’s good reason #11: Last week, one of the children who knows me stopped me on my way to the post office and asked me if I would help her and her two friends pick up garbage along the road. So she went into her house and came out with a bunch of garbage bags. My little ‘walk-as-errand’ became a digression with 3 young girls as we filled six large bags with garbage and recyclables. And we all had a great time together. Now there’s an example of aesthetics, social interaction, and the environment intersecting at their best!

Your questions about the difference between the walk to the post office and a walk around The Boreal Poetry Garden are thought-provoking. I think my state of mind and the kind of attention I pay are different in each place. When I’m walking through the boreal forest around my house, there’s a question in the back of my mind when I’m paying the deepest attention: “This? . . . . This? . . . . This?” The longer version of it would be, “Can I transform this into a poem, or a photograph, or a video, or some other kind of project?” Something extraordinary, like the aftermath of a hurricane (of which there have been two since I moved here), certainly provokes that question. But, with the right attention, all it might take is something prosaic, like a root or a rock.

Coming up with an artistic response to Hurricane Igor in 2010 was an antidote to the loss of many trees. I collaborated with an ecologist and scientist, Dr. Andrew Trant, on that project. He was able to date the age of the felled trees by using a very high-power microscope on cross-sections of them. He determined that the oldest trees were over 125 years old. But, interestingly, the diameters of the trees did not relate directly to their age: the largest ones were not the oldest, and the smallest ones were not the youngest. Instead, the diameters related to the features of the location in which the trees were growing: the amount of exposure, the depth of the soil, etc. It was fascinating to find out how old the trees are around me. All of the ones that were felled by the hurricane were older than I was, and had been standing through my lifetime, hence the title: Our Lives Concurrent for 58 Years Until the Hurricane.

Bach: This collaboration with Dr. Trant makes perfect sense in the context of the hurricane, but with your in situ poetry walks in The Boreal Poetry Garden, how do you choose your collaborators? What connections are there between this performative work and other more active participatory works in your oeuvre (The Distance Between Two Points is Measured in Memories)? Or works by other artists that may have inspired these cross-disciplinary collaborations?

Creates: I choose my collaborators from either knowing them personally, knowing their expertise (or both), or thinking of something that I myself would like to hear or see happen in The Boreal Poetry Garden or learn about its ecosystem. Then I look for someone who can fulfill that wish. My collaborators have ranged from experts in the sciences (boreal ecology, local geology and wildlife) to other art forms (literature, music, dance).

I’d like to mention that starting the in situ poetry walks was a practical solution to a simple problem, and they have become a major artistic, collaborative, environmental, and social endeavour. This is how it happened: I had been composing short, haiku-like poems, handwriting them on small cards, installing them in the spot that the words refer to, and then photographing them.  But a problem arose when some of my poems became too lengthy to write on small cards. So it occurred to me that the solution was to read the poems out loud to people in situ. In 2005 I started inviting people to the site to go on a poetry walk, and I’ve held several of these events every summer since.  I believe there’s an aesthetic dimension to simple, practical solutions, and over the years I’ve found this to be very helpful, more economical and, increasingly, ecological.

I’ve never really thought about any connection between the current collaborators in The Boreal Poetry Garden and the people who drew the memory maps for me in the late 1980s. Thank you for asking about that, because it gives me the chance to see how both undertakings embrace and delight in what other people know, say, and do. In all cases, the collaborations are based on the fact that I don’t work from my imagination. That’s because what other people contribute is better than anything I could make up. The branch of philosophy with which I identify is Phenomenology, and I try to operate within that mode when approaching both the external world and other people.

Regarding work by other artists, until recently I’ve felt quite on my own. But thanks to the very digital communication systems that have made our experiences of the world so mediated, there are several online networks that I participate in, such as the Walking Artists Network, the Women Environmental Artists Directory (WEAD), the Ecoart Network, the Performance and Ecology listserv, the Place Location Context and Environment (PLaCE) Research Centre, and the Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada (ALECC) that are a source of inspiration, critical exchange, and confirmation, as well as hope. I’m starting to feel that there is a very active critical mass of people out there with whom I am in accord, and that certainly includes you, Glenn Bach.

Bach: Describe your collaboration with Elizabeth Zetlin and Jedediah Baker on A Virtual Walk of the Boreal Poetry Garden. The site is technically sophisticated, and a video-poem like River of Rain is substantially more nuanced with its layers of texts, images, and sounds than any separate treatment could have been. I imagine that this outcome was shaped by the specific perspectives that your collaborators brought to the project.

Creates: Elizabeth Zetlin (Ontario) is the artist and poet who introduced me to video-poetry; Jedediah Baker (St. John’s) had done a locative internet project linking short videos of personal stories –– his own, as well as other people’s –– about New York City to a Google map. (I wanted to use an aerial photograph, not a map, and I was able to get a very high resolution one from the provincial Department of Environment & Conservation.) I conceived of the virtual walk from what I had learned from both of them, and then they helped me achieve it.

River of Rain is the most complex video-poem I’ve done and I’m pleased you noticed it. By using a combination of images, my voice, and text, I tried to convey the ability of human consciousness to be in two places at once: both perceiving the exterior world that’s right in front of us and generating a medley of interior thoughts (which are represented by text over stills, and include my memories of things other people had said). The concluding montage gestures towards the relationship between language and landscape. The human voice –– starting with meaning and ending with murmur –– replaces the sound of the river.

Bach: Earlier you state that one of the reasons for honing in on a slow engagement with one particular place is because of the preponderance of technology as mediator, yet A Virtual Walk of The Boreal Poetry Garden is one such interface. Could you talk about the contrast between the immediate, haptic, and intimately personal experience of walking the boreal forest and the virtual interface of its documentation? Perhaps this is an issue with the work of all land artists: what is the work, the original experience or the presentation of it (Richard Long’s walk scores, or Andy Goldsworthy’s, and your own, photographs of transitory interventions in the landscape)?

Creates: The proliferation of digital geographical technologies –– including Google Earth, tracking devices, and satellite navigation systems (such as GPS) –– have revolutionised our geo-spatial positioning in both our everyday places and remote spaces. Several years ago I even considered creating GPS-triggered smartphone recordings of my site-specific poems. I also toyed with the idea of installing weatherproof solar-powered audio players in the forest that would play recordings of my poems for visitors. As my goals have become clearer, these ideas now seem very counter-productive. But at the time I felt it was the kind of whizbang thing that could help me receive the support of an arts grant. I still think it would be a lot easier to spark interest for a grant by proposing a project using new technology than saying that what I’m going to do is simply stand at certain spots in the forest and read my poems out loud to people. It’s hard to get across the multi-sensorial dimensions of these poetry walks, and the ripple effects from the social interactions that occur.

It turns out that people love going on a walk through the forest and having someone read poems to them. The events in The Boreal Poetry Garden are completely booked up every summer, and some people come back year after year.

You’ve put your finger on the paradox of A Virtual Walk of The Boreal Poetry Garden. I made it because the number of people who can actually come to the site in Newfoundland is fairly limited. Also because I love video-poetry (it’s a perfect genre for someone like me –– a visual artist who loves language). Unfortunately, the Virtual Walk does lack the kinaesthetic, sensorial aspects of a real walk, as well as the power of people being together. And, by the way, I did receive a grant to produce it.