This week we’re sharing our conversation with Julia White, artist behind The Ripple Project, the winning proposal for Great Art for Great Lakes Owen Sound.
On October 27th, 2017, The Ripple Project was officially unveiled to the public at The Roxy Theatre with the help of Mayor Ian Boddy and MPP Bill Walker.
The Ripple Project is a series of laser-cut steel sculptures created by Owen Sound artist, Julia White. White based the sculptures on drawings of water and stories of Lake Huron contributed by participants during a number of workshops.
“It has truly been an inspiring experience” says White, “to work with my community and gather and weave together diverse voices and perspectives about what water and our great Lake Huron means to us. I hope that our collaborative installation continues to be a source of inspiration, hope and vision for my community around all aspects of water and our Great Lake. It is such a treasure.”
Here’s what Julia had to say about her experience creating collaborative, community-engaged artwork.
GAGL: Who is Julia White? Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am a sculptor, originally from Toronto who, after my Queen St. West rent went up in 2000, followed ancestral roots to a round house in the country with a creek and a forest of trees. I love to create dreamlike sculptural landscapes with abstract forms, many of which are inspired by the land I now find myself in. My husband and I met at Queen’s doing our BFAs and so we inspire each other a lot, working in the studio together, just like at school. Our kids are artists too so we have lot of fun living out here! We built a big studio and set up a welding and woodworking shop in an old airplane hangar that was on our land. It is great because I really do have the space to create big, bold sculptures, which I love. I don’t copy nature, but work in an organic way, often weaving, wrapping, knotting textiles and rubber over steel forms that I create, like a bird building a nest or a vine winding up a tree. I am very interested in networks of all kinds so this theme finds its way into my work a lot. So yes, I create enigmatic abstract forms that become installation experiences, using a creative process that is uninhibited, yet deliberately refined. Another way I enhance the experience is by incorporating elements of light and sound as well.
“There was a feeling of awe for sure, at what is possible when we work together. That is an important feeling to cultivate.”
GAGL: Let’s start by talking about your motivation to create community-engaged, collaborative artwork.
I find that art is a powerful tool for change in the world as it works on a different level, deeper than words. Instead it has the ability to speak to feelings that are often shared yet not easily articulated. I find that working on a collaborative art project with the community elicits a feeling of excitement and hope and empowerment from people as they come together to create. Boundaries are dissolved and a sort of magical space is created where there is an openness to possibility. I spearheaded a giant mural for the Institute of Urban Ecology in British Columbia once-upon-a-time that every child in a big school had a hand in painting. I created the design, incorporating images of native plants, animals and culture into it that helped to bring awareness of the local habitat. When you work on art with your community you have a sense of pride, and working together and this brings about a sense of empowerment that change is possible. I will never forget the look on all of those kids faces when the wall was unveiled. There was a feeling of awe for sure, at what is possible when we work together. That is an important feeling to cultivate. When we are creative, even if we don’t think of ourselves as artists, we tap into an innate power within us, that is also in nature and it feels good, expansive, limitless. When I saw this GAGL project and that it had to do with water (something I feel passionate about) I had to apply! I am very happy that I did. It has been a very rewarding experience for me.
“I called it this because I realized, that although this one project wouldn’t make that connection more stable within everyone in the world!… it would certainly make a ripple, and that is enough.”
GAGL: What makes a community, a Great Lakes Community? i.e. What do you think motivates people to care about their great lakes?
In a time where screens are so front and centre, it is important to physically engage people with the beauty of our lake. In other words, and David Suzuki speaks about this, we have to find ways to get people outside and into nature that we are not separate from, in order for people to really connect with the land, the lake. That connection is paramount; if we feel a deep relationship with the magic and mystery of nature, then we will fight to protect it. I moved to the country because I know how much it feeds my soul to be in my forest, to sit beside the creek and listen to the water flow. That is why The Ripple Project was so great to be a part of. It allowed me to share my passion about finding creative ways to deepen this relationship to the wild currents within the world and ourselves, through art. I called it this because I realized, that although this one project wouldn’t make that connection more stable within everyone in the world!… it would certainly make a ripple, and that is enough. I feel that it has been successful for sure. I feel it helped to amplify and clarify and give expression to the feelings that the community has about our lake. The Ripple Project allowed for people to take a moment and reflect and share these feelings, that normally, in our busy culture, might not be given airtime. I feel that the Water Columns themselves will continue to be beacons of light and hope around water, our lake, for generations to come. This is good. Afterall, it is important. WATER is LIFE.
GAGL: What have been your favourite moments creating The Ripple Project?
I loved the moment when the title clicked, The Ripple Project, as mentioned above as I realized that I, we, didn’t have to change the whole world with regard to our relationship with water but could make a ripple and that that was enough. I also loved the Ripple Maker Days when I could witness the joy and peace that people seemed to be feeling sitting at the table, marker in hand. It was lovely to watch them ponder their relationship to their lake and to give it voice. There was a lot of excitement really as they knew that their design would be laser-cut into steel and they liked the permanence of that. It made people feel special. I also loved, well, not at first maybe, but loved it when the water came through in a torrent at the Meaford Farmer’s Market and streamed right under the water gathering vessel and ‘blessed’ all of the drawings thus far collected. Some of the images dissolved but that was okay as it brought water itself right into the design process that later became part of the Water Columns. I also loved tracing all of the creative ‘water offerings’, 120 in total, as I entered into the creative mind of each anonymous community member who made a contribution. It was a true delight. I got quite attached to each piece really and so it was hard to break them down for the final piece, but ultimately satisfying when I allowed myself to be like water and dissolve them down. It was my intention to put the essence of each offering into the work, not so much to show the entire drawing, so it was fun when I got into that flow. I am happy with the result. The Water Columns emanate a feeling that the drawings all contained, rather than the details and so I am satisfied! It worked! The last favourite thing was the moment that I put the lights in. I almost cried. They were even more beautiful than I expected.
GAGL: What is your advice to other artists that are curious about community-engagement public artwork projects?
Go for it! Our world needs more community art to inspire and delight and empower us. Truly, we need leaders who are open to what is becoming, rather than just rehashing what is. We need innovators and new ideas to take root and a community-art forum provides that opportunity. In terms of advice, I would say, get still and open to ideas. Listen for what comes and see if you can feel what would inspire people. That is really what it is all about. It is also important to be passionate about the subject of the art too, I feel, as that is what will really engage community. For me, I had just finished a body of work, Water Shadows, that is all about water. It is something that I am passionate about and was thrilled to have this opportunity to create something with community for the community from this platform. People love to be part of something like this. It is very satisfying work.
GAGL: What are the other types of art that make up your body of work?
I mentioned Water Shadows above–it was an installation of sound sculptures featuring field recordings of water that I made in my Grey County/South Georgian Bay community. When one moved through the sculptural landscape, the sound of water blended with other sounds in the environs such as crickets, birds, airplanes and distant engine sounds, dissolving boundaries and allowing for a wide diversity of voices to be heard. This installation was made out of steel forms that I then wrapped and wove with strips of recycled bicycle inner tubes collected locally. My intention with the work was to celebrate water by allowing it to speak for itself in its own voice. My body of work previous to that was called Forest of Columns and it is an evolving installation of tree-like light sculptures. Appearing to grow out of the gallery floor this installation was organically arranged, referencing the enchanted forest as a place of inspiration and insight, transformation and sanctuary. I have a smaller version of this installation at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto right now (unitl Jan. 07/17) as part of the show 12 Trees: Let There Be Light.\
“Our world is so busy and outwardly-focused that I want my work to be about creating a potent point of connection to that place of stillness within. I am very interested in creating sanctuaries of sorts when one can just Be while providing the fertile ground for what is Becoming.”
GAGL: If there were not any constraints, what would your dream project be?
If there were no constraints, I would love to do a big art installation that would be installed permanently in a more public space, outdoors, like a park. When I originally applied for this it wasn’t established yet where the work would be going, so I designed a larger installation for outdoors, with five columns (in the end we did 3). I would love these or something else to be put in that kind of place as I feel there is a need for art to be accessible to the public on an everyday basis. People have often seen my work and said how they would love to see my work outside in parks where they could just ‘be’ with them, or sit within the space created. Specifically, I have had a lot of people say they could see the ‘water temples’ that I created for Water Shadows with rubber and steel, translated into bronze. That would be amazing (and expensive!) Our world is so busy and outwardly-focused that I want my work to be about creating a potent point of connection to that place of stillness within. I am very interested in creating sanctuaries of sorts when one can just Be while providing the fertile ground for what is Becoming.
Check out The Ripple Project Unveiling!