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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by Jody Farrell[caption id="attachment_217" align="alignright" width="350" caption="Laine Dahlen. Fall Afternoon. 1993. Oil on canvas."]http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/artwork-07-big-350x277.jpg" alt="Laine Dahlen. Fall Afternoon. 1993. Oil on canvas." width="350" height="277" /> [/caption]Laine Dahlen is projecting slides of his landscape paintings onto a screen in the visual arts studio. Slowly, I begin to lose all sense of time. There’s something so polished, so pristine about these fields and hillsides, that for a moment I wonder if it is the work of some long-dead master I’m viewing. I’d seen a couple of Dahlen works before, but the detail and old world feel of these images throw me into another era altogether. My drive west across the Alberta border to his space in Dawson Creek, BC’s Northern Lights College has landed me back farther than just the one hour time difference.While all of Dahlen’s landscapes are local — some near Peace River, others toward Spirit River — the paintings, given their deliberate rendering and style, could easily be taken for over a century old. Grande Prairie artist Jim Stokes, who years ago was himself inspired by a Dahlen landscape in the Prairie Art Gallery’s Permanent Collection, says the works call to mind those of 19th century painters Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet.Those artists’ meticulous and deliberate pieces — unlike the more direct, somewhat brash paintings that came later in the 19th century — feature layers of underpainting and carefully built-up compositions. Dahlen’s works draw from such masters’ techniques.“His landscapes are more realist, not loose, not impressionist,” Jim remarks when, a week after the Dahlen interview, I am still humbled by what I have seen and am pressing Stokes for historical references. “They are not painterly, but solid, built up, more like those that came just before and influenced impressionism.”Dahlen’s creative abstinence of late has him calling himself less a painter and more a teacher.  Stokes recalls his frustration at a similar comment Dahlen made at a recent arts symposium: “I just wanted to shake him when he said that ...‘How can you say that?’  I thought.”But Dahlen, who at 60 concedes to having “one foot in the nineteenth century,” maintains that truly calling oneself an artist requires constant devotion and practice.“I am such a traditionalist. Part of me would like to see the old guild system like the seven year system in Florence, where you worked under one person,” Dahlen says.[gallery exclude=2,4,5 columns=2]He despairs at the seemingly dwindling practice of master techniques and realism. The excess of flat imagery coming out of our fast-paced technological world has resulted in students who, though many have a flair for animé and tattoos, show little aptitude in the studio. It’s perhaps in defiance of high-tech domination that Dahlen does not use computers and describes himself as digitally illiterate.And yet in his single-year, eight-month course, he somehow manages to whip even the most perspective-challenged into shape. Val McMeekin, a former student and studio  assistant of Dahlen’s who went on to complete a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Lethbridge, Alberta, says her only instruction in traditional technique came from him. And while she sometimes faltered under his drive for perfection, she has no regrets about apprenticing under the teacher she affectionately dubs “Master D.”“He is a fabulous teacher and artist, very traditional. Of the artists I know, he is probably the most talented drawer and painter. I am glad my first classes were with him.”McMeekin found Lethbridge University art instruction, in contrast, to be completely conceptual. “They do not teach the basics of painting and drawing. In many cases it doesn’t matter if one can draw these days,” she remarks.Dahlen teaches a wide range of painting methods that include imprimatura or underpainting, glazing (painting a thin transparent layer over a pre-existing one.), scumbling (layering a broken passage of colour over an underlying colour); and also a variety of media, including collage and silkscreen. McMeekin is grateful for Dahlen’s instruction on the deliberate building-up of layers, and recalls the considerable attention he gave to colour temperature and the push-pull effect of cool and hot colours.He is indeed fascinated with dualities and the interplay whereby elements can be both complementary and opposite. And not just the background-foreground spatial elements created in paintings, but the negatives and positives found in life itself. Several of his figurative works, while built up in the same manner as his landscapes, include an element of storytelling filled with double meanings, borrowed and reversed imagery, and elements both dark and humourous.The Dealer, a painting Dahlen made for himself, includes an homage to Edouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergère. To further push the intrigue in an already mysterious painting, Dahlen has flipped Manet’s barmaid’s reflection in the mirror. He painted her in a direct style, as opposed to the more traditional, built-up techniques employed in painting the coat of the man in the foreground. Another woman in the back sports a mask. “It all has to do with mirrors, what is reality, and what isn’t,” Dahlen says. [gallery exclude=1,2,3 columns=2] Dahlen uses the painting to encourage, even provoke his students. This work, along with his trompe l’oeil surrealist painting Mysteriarch, betrays a fondness for manipulating reality. His collage Anima, named after psychologist Carl Jung’s term for the male’s unconscious, inner feminine personality, is also rife with dualities and double-meanings.“He most definitely has the trickster in him,” McMeekin says of her former instructor.Still, Dahlen wishes he were “looser” in his work. Collage makes for more experimentation, allowing the “crazy and cockeyed” to reveal itself. “I am fond of it,” he says of the technique that culls from existing materials, photos, clippings, and art to create a new, assembled whole. “I’m more likely to grab two photographs that I would never have combined had I composed the image myself. Your subconscious takes over.” But even here, Dahlen will go to great lengths, adding and scraping layers of graphite in one, and lifting off images using lacquer thinner in another. “It’s still tight,” he says of his style.By the end of the conversation, which has spanned several hours if not centuries, Dahlen is toying with the idea of retirement. He’d been vague earlier, saying that a rumour had circulated last year —“perhaps a wishful one”— following a celebration of his 30-year anniversary as a teacher. He spoke of a “hunger” for his kind of instruction, and wondered who might give it if he were to leave. Now however, having talked at length about those many years of coaxing creativity out of others, and nodding to some drawings he’s made of a would-be studio, Dahlen appears to be warming up to his own creative drive.“I’m an old bugger,” he says with a smile and a shrug. “Maybe it’s time.”
10 years ago

by Jody Farrell[caption id="attachment_217" align="alignright" width="350" caption="Laine Dahlen. Fall Afternoon. 1993. Oil on canvas."]http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/artwork-07-big-350x277.jpg" alt="Laine Dahlen. Fall Afternoon. 1993. Oil on canvas." width="350" height="277" /> [/caption]Laine Dahlen is projecting slides of his landscape paintings onto a screen in the visual arts studio. Slowly, I begin to lose all sense of time. There’s something so polished, so pristine about these fields and hillsides, that for a moment I wonder if it is the work of some long-dead master I’m viewing. I’d seen a couple of Dahlen works before, but the detail and old world feel of these images throw me into another era altogether. My drive west across the Alberta border to his space in Dawson Creek, BC’s Northern Lights College has landed me back farther than just the one hour time difference.While all of Dahlen’s landscapes are local — some near Peace River, others toward Spirit River — the paintings, given their deliberate rendering and style, could easily be taken for over a century old. Grande Prairie artist Jim Stokes, who years ago was himself inspired by a Dahlen landscape in the Prairie Art Gallery’s Permanent Collection, says the works call to mind those of 19th century painters Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet.Those artists’ meticulous and deliberate pieces — unlike the more direct, somewhat brash paintings that came later in the 19th century — feature layers of underpainting and carefully built-up compositions. Dahlen’s works draw from such masters’ techniques.“His landscapes are more realist, not loose, not impressionist,” Jim remarks when, a week after the Dahlen interview, I am still humbled by what I have seen and am pressing Stokes for historical references. “They are not painterly, but solid, built up, more like those that came just before and influenced impressionism.”Dahlen’s creative abstinence of late has him calling himself less a painter and more a teacher.  Stokes recalls his frustration at a similar comment Dahlen made at a recent arts symposium: “I just wanted to shake him when he said that ...‘How can you say that?’  I thought.”But Dahlen, who at 60 concedes to having “one foot in the nineteenth century,” maintains that truly calling oneself an artist requires constant devotion and practice.“I am such a traditionalist. Part of me would like to see the old guild system like the seven year system in Florence, where you worked under one person,” Dahlen says.[gallery exclude=2,4,5 columns=2]He despairs at the seemingly dwindling practice of master techniques and realism. The excess of flat imagery coming out of our fast-paced technological world has resulted in students who, though many have a flair for animé and tattoos, show little aptitude in the studio. It’s perhaps in defiance of high-tech domination that Dahlen does not use computers and describes himself as digitally illiterate.And yet in his single-year, eight-month course, he somehow manages to whip even the most perspective-challenged into shape. Val McMeekin, a former student and studio  assistant of Dahlen’s who went on to complete a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Lethbridge, Alberta, says her only instruction in traditional technique came from him. And while she sometimes faltered under his drive for perfection, she has no regrets about apprenticing under the teacher she affectionately dubs “Master D.”“He is a fabulous teacher and artist, very traditional. Of the artists I know, he is probably the most talented drawer and painter. I am glad my first classes were with him.”McMeekin found Lethbridge University art instruction, in contrast, to be completely conceptual. “They do not teach the basics of painting and drawing. In many cases it doesn’t matter if one can draw these days,” she remarks.Dahlen teaches a wide range of painting methods that include imprimatura or underpainting, glazing (painting a thin transparent layer over a pre-existing one.), scumbling (layering a broken passage of colour over an underlying colour); and also a variety of media, including collage and silkscreen. McMeekin is grateful for Dahlen’s instruction on the deliberate building-up of layers, and recalls the considerable attention he gave to colour temperature and the push-pull effect of cool and hot colours.He is indeed fascinated with dualities and the interplay whereby elements can be both complementary and opposite. And not just the background-foreground spatial elements created in paintings, but the negatives and positives found in life itself. Several of his figurative works, while built up in the same manner as his landscapes, include an element of storytelling filled with double meanings, borrowed and reversed imagery, and elements both dark and humourous.The Dealer, a painting Dahlen made for himself, includes an homage to Edouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergère. To further push the intrigue in an already mysterious painting, Dahlen has flipped Manet’s barmaid’s reflection in the mirror. He painted her in a direct style, as opposed to the more traditional, built-up techniques employed in painting the coat of the man in the foreground. Another woman in the back sports a mask. “It all has to do with mirrors, what is reality, and what isn’t,” Dahlen says. [gallery exclude=1,2,3 columns=2] Dahlen uses the painting to encourage, even provoke his students. This work, along with his trompe l’oeil surrealist painting Mysteriarch, betrays a fondness for manipulating reality. His collage Anima, named after psychologist Carl Jung’s term for the male’s unconscious, inner feminine personality, is also rife with dualities and double-meanings.“He most definitely has the trickster in him,” McMeekin says of her former instructor.Still, Dahlen wishes he were “looser” in his work. Collage makes for more experimentation, allowing the “crazy and cockeyed” to reveal itself. “I am fond of it,” he says of the technique that culls from existing materials, photos, clippings, and art to create a new, assembled whole. “I’m more likely to grab two photographs that I would never have combined had I composed the image myself. Your subconscious takes over.” But even here, Dahlen will go to great lengths, adding and scraping layers of graphite in one, and lifting off images using lacquer thinner in another. “It’s still tight,” he says of his style.By the end of the conversation, which has spanned several hours if not centuries, Dahlen is toying with the idea of retirement. He’d been vague earlier, saying that a rumour had circulated last year —“perhaps a wishful one”— following a celebration of his 30-year anniversary as a teacher. He spoke of a “hunger” for his kind of instruction, and wondered who might give it if he were to leave. Now however, having talked at length about those many years of coaxing creativity out of others, and nodding to some drawings he’s made of a would-be studio, Dahlen appears to be warming up to his own creative drive.“I’m an old bugger,” he says with a smile and a shrug. “Maybe it’s time.”
10 years ago

by Jody Farrell[caption id="attachment_217" align="alignright" width="350" caption="Laine Dahlen. Fall Afternoon. 1993. Oil on canvas."]http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/artwork-07-big-350x277.jpg" alt="Laine Dahlen. Fall Afternoon. 1993. Oil on canvas." width="350" height="277" /> [/caption]Laine Dahlen is projecting slides of his landscape paintings onto a screen in the visual arts studio. Slowly, I begin to lose all sense of time. There’s something so polished, so pristine about these fields and hillsides, that for a moment I wonder if it is the work of some long-dead master I’m viewing. I’d seen a couple of Dahlen works before, but the detail and old world feel of these images throw me into another era altogether. My drive west across the Alberta border to his space in Dawson Creek, BC’s Northern Lights College has landed me back farther than just the one hour time difference.While all of Dahlen’s landscapes are local — some near Peace River, others toward Spirit River — the paintings, given their deliberate rendering and style, could easily be taken for over a century old. Grande Prairie artist Jim Stokes, who years ago was himself inspired by a Dahlen landscape in the Prairie Art Gallery’s Permanent Collection, says the works call to mind those of 19th century painters Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet.Those artists’ meticulous and deliberate pieces — unlike the more direct, somewhat brash paintings that came later in the 19th century — feature layers of underpainting and carefully built-up compositions. Dahlen’s works draw from such masters’ techniques.“His landscapes are more realist, not loose, not impressionist,” Jim remarks when, a week after the Dahlen interview, I am still humbled by what I have seen and am pressing Stokes for historical references. “They are not painterly, but solid, built up, more like those that came just before and influenced impressionism.”Dahlen’s creative abstinence of late has him calling himself less a painter and more a teacher.  Stokes recalls his frustration at a similar comment Dahlen made at a recent arts symposium: “I just wanted to shake him when he said that ...‘How can you say that?’  I thought.”But Dahlen, who at 60 concedes to having “one foot in the nineteenth century,” maintains that truly calling oneself an artist requires constant devotion and practice.“I am such a traditionalist. Part of me would like to see the old guild system like the seven year system in Florence, where you worked under one person,” Dahlen says.[gallery exclude=2,4,5 columns=2]He despairs at the seemingly dwindling practice of master techniques and realism. The excess of flat imagery coming out of our fast-paced technological world has resulted in students who, though many have a flair for animé and tattoos, show little aptitude in the studio. It’s perhaps in defiance of high-tech domination that Dahlen does not use computers and describes himself as digitally illiterate.And yet in his single-year, eight-month course, he somehow manages to whip even the most perspective-challenged into shape. Val McMeekin, a former student and studio  assistant of Dahlen’s who went on to complete a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Lethbridge, Alberta, says her only instruction in traditional technique came from him. And while she sometimes faltered under his drive for perfection, she has no regrets about apprenticing under the teacher she affectionately dubs “Master D.”“He is a fabulous teacher and artist, very traditional. Of the artists I know, he is probably the most talented drawer and painter. I am glad my first classes were with him.”McMeekin found Lethbridge University art instruction, in contrast, to be completely conceptual. “They do not teach the basics of painting and drawing. In many cases it doesn’t matter if one can draw these days,” she remarks.Dahlen teaches a wide range of painting methods that include imprimatura or underpainting, glazing (painting a thin transparent layer over a pre-existing one.), scumbling (layering a broken passage of colour over an underlying colour); and also a variety of media, including collage and silkscreen. McMeekin is grateful for Dahlen’s instruction on the deliberate building-up of layers, and recalls the considerable attention he gave to colour temperature and the push-pull effect of cool and hot colours.He is indeed fascinated with dualities and the interplay whereby elements can be both complementary and opposite. And not just the background-foreground spatial elements created in paintings, but the negatives and positives found in life itself. Several of his figurative works, while built up in the same manner as his landscapes, include an element of storytelling filled with double meanings, borrowed and reversed imagery, and elements both dark and humourous.The Dealer, a painting Dahlen made for himself, includes an homage to Edouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergère. To further push the intrigue in an already mysterious painting, Dahlen has flipped Manet’s barmaid’s reflection in the mirror. He painted her in a direct style, as opposed to the more traditional, built-up techniques employed in painting the coat of the man in the foreground. Another woman in the back sports a mask. “It all has to do with mirrors, what is reality, and what isn’t,” Dahlen says. [gallery exclude=1,2,3 columns=2] Dahlen uses the painting to encourage, even provoke his students. This work, along with his trompe l’oeil surrealist painting Mysteriarch, betrays a fondness for manipulating reality. His collage Anima, named after psychologist Carl Jung’s term for the male’s unconscious, inner feminine personality, is also rife with dualities and double-meanings.“He most definitely has the trickster in him,” McMeekin says of her former instructor.Still, Dahlen wishes he were “looser” in his work. Collage makes for more experimentation, allowing the “crazy and cockeyed” to reveal itself. “I am fond of it,” he says of the technique that culls from existing materials, photos, clippings, and art to create a new, assembled whole. “I’m more likely to grab two photographs that I would never have combined had I composed the image myself. Your subconscious takes over.” But even here, Dahlen will go to great lengths, adding and scraping layers of graphite in one, and lifting off images using lacquer thinner in another. “It’s still tight,” he says of his style.By the end of the conversation, which has spanned several hours if not centuries, Dahlen is toying with the idea of retirement. He’d been vague earlier, saying that a rumour had circulated last year —“perhaps a wishful one”— following a celebration of his 30-year anniversary as a teacher. He spoke of a “hunger” for his kind of instruction, and wondered who might give it if he were to leave. Now however, having talked at length about those many years of coaxing creativity out of others, and nodding to some drawings he’s made of a would-be studio, Dahlen appears to be warming up to his own creative drive.“I’m an old bugger,” he says with a smile and a shrug. “Maybe it’s time.”
10 years ago