Landscape as Canvas

I think I've received the first critique of one of my recent outdoor sculpture installations. I had selected a large, undulating grassy area for this 3-piece sculpture and was busily setting the work in place. Some movement behind caught my attention. When I turned to look, I was staring into the eyes of several sheep just six feet away, busily munching and observing an "artist at work!" This is one of the joys of engaging with the landscape as canvas. The unexpected - be it weather, variations in the land, or animals as critics! Several months after this installation and the sculpture is still in place. The sheep must be satisfied with my work or, at least do not consider it an intrusion. This may stack up as one of my more favourable critiques!

Note: Elemental is a tribute to three women whose dedication to the natural environment I admire - Jane Goodall (represented by water), Dian Fossey (represented by "fire" - bowl of charred wood) and Birute Goldikas (represented by earth)

Elemental by Ben Goodman

bent glass, steel
60"H x 72"L x 48"W

Elemental - Fire detail
Detail image of the 'Fire' bowl in Elemental

Most sculptors yearn for a large space in which to place their work, and to be able to minimize the amount of visual "noise" surrounding it. "Don't Fence Me In", the title of a song from the 1930's, is the lament often heard from sculptors. Interior space, whether in galleries or private homes, is often at a premium for placing sculpture. Three-dimensional work needs room to breathe. Outdoor installations meet this need admirably. Using the landscape as a "canvas" for sculpture installations provides a unique creative opportunity for artists by removing the confines of interior space and opening up a refreshing new freedom of expression, both in creative style and scale. Land sites provide diversity of setting - flat or undulating, open or forested, waterfront or hilltop and often with views of distant hills and the ocean. This landscape setting adds measurably to the enjoyment of the work by the viewer.

Baobab by Ben Goodman
found wood, lumber, crushed glass

40"H x 16L" x 16W"

In choosing a site, "do no harm", must be the watchword, with no massive changes to the landscape. The work must be a good fit - either site specific, or "at one" with the surrounding land. There are sites however, where massive changes to the land might be beneficial - abandoned quarries, clearcuts, and old fuel storage sites for example. These uses have already changed (harmed?) the landscape so using this land for sculpture installations may be considered restorative. The range of materials that can be used is only limited by ones imagination. Using materials that will be altered by the impact of weather and time can add dramatic appeal to the work. When working with the "landscape as canvas", the artist is ever conscious of the natural transformations constantly at work in nature. Transformations taking place through the impact of weather and time on natural and made surfaces; the mark making by animals and insects, the effects of tides on shorelines, rusting of steel, patina of age on wood, the magic of snow coverage. These variations of light, weather, season and siting can be inspirational and at the same time, intimidating. All of these variables do expand the range of design and technique available to the artist.

Watcher closeup detail by Ben Goodman
Watcher - detail

Essentially, what we see in nature's landscape is a record of the passage of time - that passage from "then until now". This notion is captured admirably in a line from a Rudyard Kipling poem "And what is Art whereto we press Through paint and prose and rhyme When nature in her nakedness Defeats us every time?" This makes the idea of a sculpture walk through the forest eminently sensible. The combination of the artists' work and natural transformations provide an abundance of sensory pleasure - it will be up to the viewer to consider how successful this "marriage" of the natural and the made has worked.

Long respected for the quality of their work, artists on Saltspring Island on Canada's West Coast, are increasingly engaging with the landscape as a canvas, exhibiting in both private and public outdoor venues. One venue on Saltspring Island initiated a program for sculpture installed outdoors in 2008. A love of sculpture, space to put it and a generous spirit - that's what came together to spark the idea of a sculpture garden and public sculpture trail on the grounds of the elegant Hastings House Country House Hotel. "Bringing art to Hastings House has been an active interest of mine right from the start" comments Bonny O'Connor who with Jerry Parks, owns Hastings House. "A suggestion from a local sculptor (Morley Myers) a few years ago motivated us to consider using our gardens and park setting for sculpture exhibitions. Our clients have enjoyed the experience and we have received favourable feedback from the public. We plan to continue this program of an outdoor gallery as long as the level of interest from the artists and the viewers is sustained." The public trail and private gardens at Hastings House provide about ten acres of space with many site opportunities.

Watcher, one of a series by Ben Goodman
found wood, bent glass, concrete
72"H x 12" x 12"

Margaret Day, well respected in the arts and owner of The Point Gallery is one of the three coordinators for the 2009 program at Hastings House. "In a part of the world where garden and design play such an important part in so many peoples' lives this (outdoor sculpture) is an area of art collection that is not explored as much as it deserves to be." Margaret goes on to say "The relatively domestic setting of this country house hotel gives visitors a chance to see the possibilities for their own property. In the strongest pieces the artists have reacted to the environment. Nature itself has become a component. The result is a three-way dialogue between, artist, nature, and the viewer." Another of the coordinators, Morley Myers comments - "Sculpture takes on a new context when placed in an outdoor setting. It acquires an unexpected strength and can be very harmonious with nature. For the viewer, outdoor installations provide the opportunity to experience art without the perceived pretensions often experienced in a traditional gallery setting. So both the artist and the viewer gain an enhanced quality of experience."

For the artist, this experience "connects us to a place, time, season - even a particular tree" comments Ron Crawford, the third coordinator for the Hastings House exhibit. "A walk through the sculpture garden becomes an opportunity for surprise and contemplation".

Other publicly accessible outdoor venues exhibiting sculpture installations include: Salt Spring Woodworks, installations at The Point Gallery, Harbour House, Rotary Park and Grace Point Square, and of course, the charming "gremlins" on the Mt. Erskine hiking trail. Celia Duthie and Nicholas Hunt, owners of Salt Spring Woodworks have a fresh view on outdoor installations - "Our exhibition this year, entitled Inside/Outside, shows the natural progression from studio furniture, that exists in the interstice between architecture and art, to pure sculpture which interacts with landscape, urban environments and the public." Celia and Nicholas were the coordinators of the 2008 outdoor exhibition at Hastings House.

2009-Never Again by Ben Goodman
Never Again
glass, steel, concrete
20"H x 36"L x 15"W

Anthony Matthews, an independent curator and Assistant General Manager of the Harbour House Hotel commented: "We are actively working to enhance the grounds through the development of extended gardens, farm and orchard, and the addition of sculpture on the Hotel's grounds. A sculpture park is the next logical step. Many of the guests who stay in the hotel have come to Salt Spring Island in part because of the active arts scene and we want to 'close the circle' and provide an enhanced art experience for these tourists outside of the commercial gallery".

There are well over one hundred sculptures installed out-of-doors on the island including the forty sculptures installed at Hastings House, sites at other publicly accessible venues and sculpture placed in private gardens. My own vision for sculpture on Saltspring Island using the landscape as a canvas includes sites on waterfronts, in parks and at ferry terminals. I can see sculpture mounted on the tops of dock pilings. And what could result from sculpture installations as a part of new property development? There is some logic to this as Saltspring is marketed as an arts destination. Considering our climate and the amount of time we spend in our gardens, and observing the viewscape from our homes, there are many possibilities for further installations. While premature to call this recent interest in outdoor sculpture a movement or trend, there is clear evidence of a future direction. A refrain from the lyrics of Don't Fence Me In - "Oh give me land, lots of land..." has been heard and responded to - at least in part!

Ben Goodman

Essay first published in Aqua magazine, Driftwood Publishing Ltd. July 2009

See more of the
'Landscape as Canvas' series

Nature in her Nakedness - small image
Nature in her Nakedness
Ben Goodman

Ben lives on Saltspring Island. He is a graduate of the Ontario College of Art, past president of the Glass Art Association of Canada and past editor of the Contemporary Canadian Glass journal. His views on "landscape as canvas" have been influenced by his equestrian travels around the world.

Landscape as Canvas Installations: 2010 - 2011


Website designed, hosted and promoted by AG WebServices