Let there be light (and other natural resources)

Mantle, a new group exhibit at the Art Gallery at Evergreen in Coquitlam, to open Saturday

Three years ago, when Kevin Michael Murphy was preparing his master’s thesis at the University of Guelph, he took a road trip to the Oil Museum of Canada in Oil Springs, Ont.

The aim of his environmental studio art was to record the journey — in a single take — by focusing solely on the sun, the source of energy that once fuelled the living organisms that are now drilled out as oil.

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As passenger, the former Coquitlam resident travelled the 2.5-hour distance a few times, using various methods to capture the bright light and some landscapes along the way. At one point, he even mounted a sled on the top of the vehicle for the camera position.

But it was a suction cup on the roof, which he secured with his hand the entire way, that proved to have the best quality for the continuous shoot.

The result “is a central image that becomes really kind of entrancing,” Murphy said Monday from his home in Toronto. “To cut it or interrupt it would do a disservice to the video because I wanted to mirror the trip.”

The pilgrimage in a gas guzzler to the site of the first commercial oil well in North America is part of a larger group exhibit that opens Saturday at the Art Gallery at Evergreen.

Titled Mantle, the show is not only a creative investigation into the energy source and the origins of petroleum but, also, a reflection of human connection to ecology over time.

Curator Katherine Dennis, who knew Murphy while studying visual art at UBC, also assembled works from four other artists with Lower Mainland links, using Lafarge Lake (a decommissioned Lafarge Canada sand and gravel quarry) as her backdrop for the display, which touches on “geology, resource extraction, Indigenous knowledges and deep time.”

Besides Murphy’s Sun Machine video, Dennis selected Diyan Achjadi’s Drift, a drawing and print installation that spans 30 feet and includes images of land formations, clouds and insects.

Dennis put Sean Alward’s Liquid Mountain on the opposite wall, a painted and print series that delves into the evolution of rock using pigment from clay scooped up along the Fraser River.

Holly Schmidt’s Amalgamate is a sculpture made out of industrial runoff (rock dust made into mud, then turned into cob bricks) while signs of life by Tsema Igharas is a cairn also using rock material from a construction site and riverbed; it takes the form of a wool blanket.

An Igharas photo, titled nose against the glass, that’s exhibited in the gallery’s front window, is from the artist’s Emergence series, which speaks of natural glass mined by the Tahltans and used for trade.

For the show, Dennis gathered artistic pieces that speak to natural versus social systems as well as climate change.

In the video Sun Machine — which is projected onto the floor to figuratively show the sun burning into the Earth and mimicking the process of drilling an oil well — Murphy said, “It’s too easy to say [the oil industry] is an experiment gone awry but it’s the catalyst that’s taken where we are. I’m reluctant to see any of these things in black and white terms.

“I think the outlook for humans is pretty worrying,” he added. “I think part of my project — and what I’m becoming more and more interested in — is imagining to try to step outside of ourselves…. That’s where I would locate the hope.

“And my hope is that the rest will follow. I’m less hopeful about technological fixes that don’t encompass a paradigm shift but technological fixes can be part of the solution.”

Kevin Michael Murphy and Holly Schmidt will give an artists’ talk at the Art Gallery at Evergreen (1205 Pinetree Way, Coquitlam) on Saturday at 2 p.m. The opening reception for Mantle is on July 17 at 6:30 p.m. Mantle is up until Sept. 1. 



Toronto artist Kevin Michael Murphy snapped this self-portrait via an oil-slick pool of water during a break from his studio work for a series to be shown at Wood Point Art Projects in New Brunswick.

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