Seabirds befouled with black ooze are potent symbols of the havoc oil spills can wreak on marine and coastal ecosystems, but the ebony plumage of the bird in Mark Hobson’s “Pelagic Cormorants: Diving for Gobies” is entirely natural. Nevertheless, viewed in the context of the Art for an Oil-free Coast exhibit now touring British Columbia, the painting’s message is unequivocal: wildlife and petroleum products don’t mix.
Artwork: Mark Hobson
The exhibit, featuring 63 paintings, drawings, sculptures and carvings by 50 artists, reflects concerns about the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline project, which is currently under review by Canada’s National Energy Board. The project, proposed by Enbridge Inc., would involve building a 731-mile pipeline to transport up to 525,000 barrels of diluted bitumen a day from the Alberta oilsands to BC’s north coast. From there, the oil would be loaded into tankers and shipped to ports in Asia and the northwestern United States – starting with a 115-mile passage through inner coastal waters.
This remote and largely unspoiled area hosts a rich diversity of birds and mammals – including whales, grizzly bears and more than 120 species of marine birds – and nurtures significant salmon populations. Its biological richness has many people concerned about the risk associated with having more than 200 tankers a year negotiate the navigationally challenging maze of narrow channels and islands.
As an artist, Hobson felt the most effective way he could express his opposition to the Northern Gateway project was with his paintbrush. Last winter, he began talking with fellow artists and environmentalists. By springtime, they had a plan, coordinated by the nonprofit Raincoast Conservation Foundation, to invite 50 artists to bear witness to what’s at stake.
Since most of the coastal region through which the tankers would pass is not accessible by road, the artists and their support crew traveled in a small flotilla of boats provided by eco-tour operators. Their two-week June cruise took them deep into the heart of the threatened area. They roamed rocky shorelines, followed salmon-spawning streams into the rainforest and visited isolated First Nations communities. On deck and on shore, they sketched, painted and carved, and absorbed the beauty and grandeur of the surrounding wilderness.
The results of this creative expedition are impressive. The works range from sweeping landscapes to intimate close-ups, in a wide diversity of media: acrylics, watercolors, pastels; a cedar mask by Heiltsuk carver Ian Reid; Brent Cooke’s feather-perfect bronze sculpture of bufflehead landing; an exquisite oak, pewter and glass bowl crafted by Cheryl Samuel and titled “Everyone Waits for the Salmon.” All of the pieces are being sold by auction, with proceeds going to the Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s Oil-Free Coast campaign, but the collection will continue to exist within the pages of a book – also called Art for an Oil-free Coast – with a foreword by scientist David Suzuki and an afterword by National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence Wade Davis.
The work is both a tribute and a call to action. “We’ve got to stand up … and protect this,” says Reid. “And that’s what we’re doing as artists. We’re fighting. These are our tools, our weapons, to save the coast.”
Credit (both photos): Sherry Kirkvold