Reflections on Contextual Collecting and Making
As part of the 2020 DESIS x Shumka Centre Satellite Residency, My partner, Zara, and I have started a practice-based studio – Studio Peal. Our first project as a studio asked participants to collect materials in a personally contextual place, and to make something with those materials. We are hoping to address the value of memory in objects and how memory can change or distort artifacts; and how care can be imparted to a place through collective connection.
The following is a reflection I wrote after my own attempt at contextual collecting and making.
As much as I hate to admit it, I know every lyric to Deana Carter’s 90’s hit, “Strawberry Wine”. It was a song that an older girl in our ragtag neighbourhood child gang, or however you’d like to envision it, would play over and over again, every summer. In 1999, middle-lower class suburban groups of children ran wild in the small town I grew up in. Clusters of kids could be found territorially defending turf by blocking the road with bikes and rollerblades and skip-its.
We lived on Silverdale Ave. Much like the other streets in our town, two-level box houses with faded vinyl siding lined the streets, sun-bleached lawns spilled out into gravel sidewalks, and strips of rubbery tar patched and mottled the crumbling pavement of the street. Silverdale, however, had secrets that only those who lived there were truly privy to. Behind these houses, behind my house, we had access to a gully, that led to a forest, that led to Silverdale Creek. Because of this proximity, nature often came up to meet us on the street in the form of moles, snakes, birds, and sometimes migrating swarms of frogs.
Silverdale tries to hide these secrets. If you stand in the middle of the road and look East, it will look as described – houses, pavement, gravel, a few poorly kept fruit trees. But if you venture further, past the horizon point, it begins to curve downward. The houses come to an abrupt end on each side like a movie set, giving way to large fields and overhanging trees. It begins to wind, further and further from the bright, hot, sticky tar pavement. The air cools and draws you down further, the forest pulls in on both sides, you begin to hear the water running parallel to you- it has been with you the entire time. You follow this down until you can see the water, see where it pools, and see where you can enter.
It was this place that I spent most of my childhood summers. As my house was closest to the Silverdale’s vanishing point, our gang would collect in my driveway every morning to ditch bikes and scooters before our trek down the hill. We would spend the kilometre walk singing songs, laughly loudly, prodding our siblings. The place where the water stilled, we affectionately called the Beaver Pond, as there were rumors of a large beaver living somewhere in the mire.
The trailhead that led into the Beaver Pond was dark and often overgrown. Thorny grass reached out to scrape ankles as we marched in towards the water. To us, this world was our own. It was so rare to see another person, much less an adult, appear while we were there that when they did we often hid off the path, watching their moves as if they were invaders in our secret land. We were free to do as we pleased otherwise. We’d jump in the creek, scream at the sight of pinching crayfish, dig into the clay beds to create slides. We’d often find large snakes resting on the grasses beside the creek, watching us as we’d been watching others. As the sun began to dim, we’d collect ourselves and climb our muddied bodies out of the creek and hike back up the hill, clay drying and cracking on our skin as we walked.
When we started this project about material and context and place, the Beaver Pond is the first place that came to mind for me. Our family had moved far away by the summer of 2000. While I may have visited the area later in my teenage years, adolescent cares had taken the place of my childhood mysticism. Now as an adult studying design, reflecting back on these moments of unreasoned kinship and sympoiesis affords me an understanding of the values within hidden knowledge (magic) and individual and collective experiences (intersubjectivity). I knew then, that the childhood gangs of 7th Ave/Wren St a few blocks away had no knowledge of why the Beaver Pond was so important. We were careful about who we brought down there, in fear of outsiders tarnishing our paradise with misunderstanding or ridicule. Now I wonder, what kids from the other streets would’ve thought had we brought them there on a sunny day, grouses laughing at them from hiding places in the reeds.
Initially, Zara and I wanted this project to be about finding and making with clay in contextual areas. We thought that the process of making with clay – digging, molding, drying, firing – would be a very involved way of understanding the environments that are important to us and our participants, and that by creating an object, these understandings could be imbued in a material yet tacit way. I remembered my hands being deep in the bed of the creek, squishing smooth gray clay through my fingers. Through research and at least through memory, I knew that this clay would be perfect for a naturally collected clay body.
Our family moved back to our childhood town after about three years of elsewhere. We bought a house on the other side of the town, about a two hour walk from our Silverdale home, and my mom has lived there ever since. On my 31st birthday this year, my husband and I drove out to her house and stopped at the Beaver Pond so I could collect clay for my project. While my birthday is in July, it was a cold and overcast day. We pulled up to the entrance that was now marked clearly with a sign “Silverdale Creek Wetlands”. The entrance to the trail was open and well kept. I was aware that this area had been relegated as a protected area sometime in the past 20 years, and that some work had been done to preserve the wildlife and flora. As soon as we exited the car, we were swarmed by mosquitoes – something I had forgotten about in my nostalgic musings of the place. My husband has always had sweeter blood than mine, and was attacked so ferociously that he had to head back to the car for refuge.
I followed the wide gravel trail alone, trying to remember where we cut off to enter the swimming hole. The place had been manicured in a way that made it friendly and inviting for anyone visiting; no longer did thorns tug on your pant legs, urging you to turn back. A large information board appeared with bright, comical illustrations of beavers and birds explaining the surrounding habitat in terms that touring parents could explain to their children. “Ah, the beaver was here”, I thought to myself.
As I walked on, I realised that the entire layout of the beaver pond had been altered. No longer were there beaten paths to the babbling creek, instead viewing docks were placed along the trail to view the artificially flooded wetlands. I felt as if I was a tourist now too, my connections to the grasses and the snakes were no longer outwardly relational, I had no material kin to confer with, to corroborate my memories. I walked along until I reached an irrigation ditch that cut through the path. As a tourist now, I no longer felt the authority to take, to dig into the earth. The earth had turned over and left me, as I had left it years ago. I instead decided to try finding clay in an irrigation ditch crossing the path. This, I knew, was not made by the Beaver Pond. I pushed plastic meshing aside, trying to dig deep into the side of the hole, looking for that smooth clay that I could still feel in my mind’s palm. I pulled up silt, mud, gravel, dirt, all of which was placed here in the creation of the pathway. Water rushed into the cavity. The clay was hidden, beyond the reach of the path, below the surface of the still water. Digging in vain, with gritty wet hands and knees I left, swinging a sloshing bucket containing a few scoops of this muck, mosquitoes trailing behind.
In researching the Silverdale Creek Wetlands after my visit, ducks.ca writes of our Beaver Pond: “back then, Silverdale Wetlands was an overgrown, abandoned field where a passerby was as likely to spot an empty chip bag as they were to see wildlife.”1 As an adult at that time, I may have seen it this way too. Ducks.ca also mentions the incredible work done by scientists to preserve and protect the species in the area, by controlling the water levels and eradicating invasive species. It’s here, in my phenomenological understanding and memory of the place that I feel that story, and our project, becomes important. I did not use the gritty mud to make a clay body. Instead, like the riddle, I took something away to make it bigger – I made a hole. A hole representative of the loss of place, the loss of proof. My love for the Beaver Pond was felt by others in new ways, ways that meant that a childhood understanding would not be sustainable for the place itself. In its wildness, it left itself vulnerable to those that didn’t see the magic, smell the rushes, feel the water. I remember, at the end of the summer, sometimes a small group of us would go down, just to spend the day playing, making new paths through the long grass. Sometimes, if it was late enough in the year, the fins of salmon would cut through the surface of the shallow creek like blades, shifting quickly then out of sight. The restoration of this land has allowed more salmon to return and spawn, without fear of bullfrogs eating their eggs.
In recognising these connections, it’s apparent that individual experience can evolve and combine to new ways of caring collectively. This project, through discussions with mentors, has changed from being clay-bound, to allowing room for all and any material with a personally historical context to be used. Zara and I have begun receiving responses to a recent call-out that invited friends and colleagues to participate in place-based contextual making. Similar themes of mystery, knowledge passing, and phenomenological sharing have come up. While this project, for us, is still in a state of flux, it’s malleability lends itself to the ever changing environments and stories that weave our histories.
If you would like to take part in this project, please reach out to us at email@example.com.
Note: Silverdale Creek Wetlands is located in Mission, BC, which sits on unceded Sto:lo territory.2 On top of this, Mission is home to one of the longest running residential schools in Canada, closing its doors in 1984.3 When talking about history in land, it is imperative, especially as a settler, to acknowledge and work toward modes of decolonization, which includes directing work that supports land stewardship and protection.
1 Lower water levels help drive out invasive species – DUC BC. (2016, June 21). Retrieved August 06, 2020, from https://www.ducks.ca/stories/pacific-interior/water-levels-drive-invasive-species/ 2 Sto:lo Nation official wants more cities to recognize unceded First Nations territory. (2017, January 04). Retrieved August 06, 2020, from https://www.straight.com/news/671876/stolo-nation-official-wants-more-cities-recognize-unceded-first-nations-territory 3 Ela, A. (2015, September 15). St. Mary’s Mission, BC. Retrieved August 06, 2020, from https://habitualrunaway.wordpress.com/2014/05/09/st-marys-mission-bc/