Countless artists have found inspiration on long walks in the outdoors, and their works help us visualize and understand our place in the landscape.
Nineteenth-century painters expressed wonderment (and ownership) over the North American colonial frontier in their theatrical canvases; in the 1960s, the Situationists tried to experience familiar cities in new ways, using randomized walking routes and remixed maps. Members of indigenous societies around the world have developed practices combining visual art, map-making, spiritual tradition and oral history. Contemporary artists such as Richard Long have framed walks in the countryside as artworks in their own right.
The spare but inviting works in Blueprints for a long walk, the exhibition by Lisa Myers currently at Urban Shaman, echo many of these artistic approaches to landscape. Myers employs various media and techniques to map ordinarily invisible lines of family history, cultural memory and sensory experience onto the contours of the physical terrain.
The exhibition follows the railway lines that skirt the northern shore of Lake Huron, documenting two "long walks" that took place in Northern Ontario almost a century apart. Around 1919, Myers' grandfather set out on foot from Sault Ste. Marie for the town of Espanola some 250 kilometres away, subsisting for days at a time on wild blueberries growing along the tracks. In 2009, Myers and two family members set out to reconstruct his route and retrace his steps.
In the gallery, a row of 54 postcard-sized etchings, each featuring the same repeated image of weathered train tracks, guides viewers along the length of one wall. Varying only in how darkly they were printed, the images create a film-like flickering effect that elegantly reinforces a sense of monotony, singular focus and the passage of time.
A series of screen-prints maps out a section of the route near Blind River. One print shows the area's topography, another its waterways and a third lays out the path of the Canadian Pacific Railway -- three ways of approaching the landscape and moving through it. (That same Canadian Shield terrain appears again, on a vastly different scale, in a video where Myers pans across the ground beneath her, following cracks and seams in the exposed bedrock.) While the land and water are printed a muted brown, the CP tracks are a striking greenish blue; an ink that Myers made by hand from crushed blueberries.
The berries crop up repeatedly, in meandering train tracks printed onto the wall with a carved rolling pin, splashing like river-water in a stop-motion video and staining a collection of long-handled wooden and ceramic spoons. A further nod to the artist's grandfather, they're also an unexpected reminder we engage with the landscape with all of our senses, including taste, as we move through it.
When Myers's grandfather left Sault Ste. Marie, he was running away from the Shingwauk Residential School towards home. We don't learn the ultimate outcome of his "long walk" or even his name, but that one piece of information colours every aspect of the exhibition, imbuing the thoughtfully considered landscape with an emotional urgency. Myers doesn't simply tell her grandfather's story -- she embodies it, giving it tangible form and granting us rare access to ephemeral sensations -- the insistent rhythm of railroad ties, the taste and texture of crushed blueberries -- that animate a personal but crucial history and the landscape in which it played out.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.