ICONOGRAPHY: Why Do You Keep Doing That?

ico•nog•ra•phy n. the imagery or symbolism of an artist or body of art.
By Jody Farrell

Vicki Hotte, 7 Bulls, LeavingVicki Hotte’s cow paintings stemmed from her desire to continue her art once she’d returned to her Beaverlodge area ranch from a University of Victoria arts program. “We raised cows, so I’m used to them. I know the way they look in any position, the shape they take. I recognize them as a whole, and as individuals.

“Her first images dealt with these sensitivities to the animals. They were automatic sketches, not planned. Gradually, she explains, her cows took on the meaning of the continuum of life. “They’re so.cowlike. Placid. Fat. So “there”. I imagine that even 10,000 years ago, they looked the same lying down as they do today. They have been around so long they’ve become part of the earth.”

Hotte began adding washes to the background for a little “atmosphere.” These were purposely nebulous: they were neither pasture nor fixed location, but rather a sense of air movement or dust. Later, the cows adopted something of a Biblical reference. One of the Hottes’ herds was skinny by nature, and got Vicki thinking about the Pharaoh’s dream of thin cows that came out of the river and ate the fat ones. She developed water-like background washes, which eventually doubled as skies. “The sky became the universe, with the cow as part of that universe.”

The recent sale of the farm and move into Grande Prairie has Hotte working the cow image as more of a pattern, or motif. A memory. She’s done cows in clay, and lately, has begun carving a cow design out of plexiglass. The plastic medium’s transparent nature gives a dreamlike, skylike quality to the animal. “They’re a personal symbol; my mark,” Hotte explains.

Robert Guest - Third Marker Along Adams RidgeRobert Guest’s recent exhibition at The Prairie Art Gallery entitled ‘Symbols in the Landscape,’ featured Inukshuk-style markers the artist encountered while working in isolated lookout towers for Alberta Forest Service. His landscapes, done first as watercolours or drawings, not photographs, capture the incredible detail of the changing weather and surfaces of mountain ranges few of us will ever see.

He is fascinated with symbols he finds in nature, including full moons, Indian tipis, and forest fires. These too, frequently appear in his work. “Most people relate to objects on a symbolic level,” Guest says. “To me, symbols in the natural world stand for ideas and suggest stories or adventure apart from the literal. They add to the mystery. His painting ‘Third Marker Along Adams Ridge,’ shows a structure made to look like a traditional Native Inukshuk, located within three miles of the North border of Wilmore Wilderness Park, near Grande Cache. Guest figures markers like this one were probably built after 1950 to direct the traveller across a ridge. It can get foggy in these higher peaks, and people get lost or disoriented. Hunters and hikers follow the markers whose sequence eventually brings them to a road.

Unfortunately, that third marker was toppled sometime last spring by what Guest figures must have been lightning. Its precariously high domain left it open to such forces of nature. The large pile of rubble that remains pays homage to impermanence and change.

“They talk,” Guest says of the Inukshuks. “The wind wound through (third marker), sifting a musical sound. In hot weather, mosquitoes gathered behind it, making a loud hum. They didn’t bite though. Maybe they’re just partying.”

“The marker directs your attention upward. It also casts an odd shadow. Like a person. A companion in what is otherwise a world of rock and fog.”

Jocelyn Morgan - Spiral Bracelet & EarringsIt’s hard for Grande Prairie jewellery artist Jocelyn Morgan to pinpoint exactly when she began incorporating the spiral into her work. It was definitely there in her days at Emily Carr College in Vancouver in the 1980s. “But I’d travelled a lot too, and was always drawn to symbolism,” she recalls.

Morgan, whose father is a consultant for oil companies, spent early years abroad. Repeated patterns she encountered in Africa, the Middle East, and later, Ireland, influenced her creative style. The spiral, in particular, found its way into Morgan’s world, its layers of meaning winding themselves into her everyday habits. She credits “working” the spiral for getting her through some very tough times.

“That idea of a swirl that starts in the middle and moves outward can be seen as doing two things. It can represent an inward and downward, or upward and open, flow of energy,” Morgan explains.

A person facing hardships so intense as to feel on the verge of implosion might envision a spiral of bodily energy drawing itself inward and down. But it can, with conscious effort, be worked in the opposite direction. Morgan finds that, worked inwardly, the spiral gets smaller, invisible, perhaps finite, where, worked outwardly, it would appear to have no end. The possibilities in directing that energy outward would be limitless. Years of consciously working the spiral is not only visible in her art, but has transformed Morgan into a soughtafter yoga practitioner.

“I love the more whimsical spiral, too,” Morgan says of her chosen icon. “The whirling dervish; the fern we find in nature; the swirl in the ocean, and its shells. I love all of those images.”

Paula Fiorini's Raku Polar Bear

Paula Fiorini’s obsession with bears began with, of all things, her travels on board ships. The ceramic artist, now living in Whitelaw, near Fairview, spent many childhood years sailing between Montreal and South Hampton with her travel-bug parents. “I came to know a lot of the crew. You would stand on deck and look at the wash, and all that green foam.”

Fiorini suspects that these misty water wonderlands, along with shipmates’ tales of spotting the elusive “polar bear on the iceberg,” infused her with a lifelong passion for the animal.

“I see so much fluidity, humanity in the bear,” she explains. “People ascribe things to them, like left-handedness. Their form, their whole being, speaks to people.”

Her ceramic raku bears allowed for a hollow inside, a feature Fiorini finds as important as the sculpture’s visible exterior. “I’m fascinated by that universe within.”

Fiorini also holds the creator accountable for a work’s permanence or durability. “If you’re going to make things, you have to take responsibility for them. If the world shifts, they have to have what it takes to survive.”

This sense of duty for one’s creations, along with a certain character in author Philip Pullman’s novel ‘The Golden Compass’ influenced Fiorini’s decision to take up welding.

“I was sculpting bears, using different glazes, trying always to make them bigger. In order to make them as big as I’d like, I had to make them solid. They were too heavy though. Not right.” Somehow, the resulting clunkiness no longer gave that fluid quality that, for Fiorini, is the essence of the bear.

‘The Golden Compass’ bear wore armour. Fiorini identified strongly with this character, and began toying with the notion of incorporating metal protection into her bears. The armour parts of her works would be welded together; the visible “bear” parts would be raku ceramics. The combination would meet her desire to increase its scale, while both keeping the animal fluid-looking and giving it that added durability should something shift in the atmosphere.

Fiorini is still getting proficient at welding. And the big armoured bear? It presents the kind of challenge that keeps her awake at night. She’s sketching plans and thinking it all through.

“It’s all in my head, baby,” says a determined Fiorini.

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