Tina Martel: tenuous

by Wendy Stefansson

Tina Martel laying fown paper on the Silverado's tire and wheel well. Photo by Lena Gilje.

Tina Martel laying fown paper on the Silverado's tire and wheel well. Photo by Lena Gilje.

Down a quiet stretch of prairie dirt road on a northern Alberta summer day moves a white pickup truck. Only it’s not a truck. It’s paper. And when it moves, there is – according to mixed media artist Tina Martel, the work’s creator – “an incredibly organic feel” to it. “It’s almost like an animal when you watch it, because it sort of flops, and flops itself over and it looks like a truck momentarily and then all of a sudden, it skitters.”

The work is called tenuous, and it’s a life-sized cast of a half-ton truck made entirely out of handmade paper. tenuous was Martel’s creative vision, accomplished with the support of the Prairie Art Gallery. However, the scale and logistics of the project required her to mobilize a whole team of volunteer artists including husband Doug Wills and a number of students from Grande Prairie Regional College, where Martel has been teaching art for the past seven years. Working in a tent erected on the corner of 99th Street and 101st Avenue over a period of two weeks in July, the team mixed pulp in Martel’s large industrial mixer. The pulp was then formed into large sheets which were carefully applied to the outside of a 2008 Chevrolet Silverado, working the sheets together in the places where they joined. Days later, when the paper was fully dried, the team had to tear the cast in several places in order to remove it from the truck, re-joining the paper to make it whole again. The paper truck was then transported several blocks to the site of the annual Street Performers’ Festival, where it was displayed for the duration of the festivities. Subsequently, it was photographed and filmed in several locations: first blowing in the wind, and later dissolving back into pulp in a large vat of water. Martel has plans to use the sheets of paper she pulled from the truck-returned-to-pulp for ongoing mixed media work.

Martel, who generally works alone as an artist, enjoyed working communally on tenuous. “There was something very ‘barn-raising’ about it,” she laughed. Widening the circle still further, Martel and her team included members of the public in the process, completing the entire project in full public view. “Making the whole thing right from start to finish so that they can see the process …. I find that really engages people. They love to see how things are made, right? So then it [creates] … a dialogue. They’re coming in … day by day and seeing us lay the paper down, and seeing how much work goes into it, and just talking about it in a different way as it comes to a finished product.” This call-and-response between artist and audience was captured in digital recordings, and will ultimately form an audio loop accompanying the video outgrowths of this project.

Tina Martell and various volunteers unloading the finished 'truck'. Photo by Lena Gilje.

Tina Martell and various volunteers unloading the finished 'truck'. Photo by Lena Gilje.

tenuous was in the planning stages for well over a year before it came to be. Along the way, Martel was told it couldn’t be done. Technical issues involved in getting the paper off the truck were of concern, but in Martel’s opinion: “Those were just details.”   More serious was the concern that paper was not a strong enough material. And yet the surface and the nature of paper was absolutely the point, for Martel. “It needs to be that organic surface,” she insists. “I want to make sure that when you see this thing, you’re actually going: ‘That’s paper.’ It’s not imitating something else. It is paper.” Paper is intrinsically fragile and perishable, and yet at the same time handmade paper has been known to last for centuries, far outlasting the people who made it. The irony, then, of something as powerful as a half-ton truck being interpreted in a material as delicate as paper, is that it may well be that the paper outlasts the truck.

Martel couldn’t have foreseen and wouldn’t have wished for the closing of the General Motors plant in Oshawa announced in June of this year — the very plant where the Silverado she used as her model was likely forged. The closure of the plant, precipitated by high gas prices and changing attitudes towards the environment, was heralded by many as the death of the pickup truck and the end of an era. The strange synchronicity of this event with Martel’s tenuous adds a level of poignancy to the artwork. It’s hard to imagine northern Alberta without pickup trucks; they are as iconic here as oil pumps and canola fields. The paper truck – named “tenuous” because the word means “thin, fine, and so easily broken” (according to MAC dictionary) – may well be an image of the future of the truck as a vehicle. The white, paper truck blows away down the road like the ghost of a truck; like the memory of a truck.
And yet at the same time the incongruity of a truck that bends and buckles and “skitters” is clearly playful. In this work, Martel sets up apparent contradictions that conflicts with our expectations – the powerful interpreted through a medium that is fragile; the mechanical through the organic, the rigid through the flexible; the masculine and the rugged through the feminine and the vulnerable. She comments: “What I’m really interested in is the space in between [these poles] … negotiating the space between the two extremes.”  Somewhere between extremes, Martel finds a gentle irony about the culture of the truck, and an honesty to her own experience. She hesitates, then gestures with her two hands. “You have art here and life there, and you’re trying to … maybe not resolve them but negotiate the space between them, so that you can make work that makes sense [relative] to … where you live and how you live and what you do, and what you’re surrounded by. You know, I always tell my students: you need to make authentic work. And authentic work is about your experiences, where you are, who you are, what you’ve done, and that brings a different level to it.”


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