Sarah Davidson works between drawing and painting to investigate the interconnected organisms of the natural world. She holds a BFA from Emily Carr, and is currently earning an MFA from the University of Guelph.
Web Editor Sarah chatted with Sarah Davidson about the conversation between science and art, plant cognition, and some killer book recommendations. Enjoy!
Would you mind telling us a little about yourself?
I'm originally from Ottawa, but I went to art school in Vancouver at Emily Carr. I graduated in 2015 and hung out in Vancouver for a couple of years. Right now, I'm in Guelph doing an MFA. I have one year left to go. In the summer, or sometimes year-round, I work as a hiking and climbing guide.
How did you get into that?
I used to work as a canoe guide when I lived in Ontario, then I got hooked on climbing and moved out west.
Do you spend most of your time in Guelph, or come back here often?
Well, I live in Guelph right now. I come back often to work and see family, but I'm pretty much in Ontario otherwise.
Do you mind telling me a little about your work? Any themes that are often present in your work?
I work on paper, somewhere between painting and drawing. My recent work is also somewhere between abstraction and figuration. It has lots of flat shapes, which could be critters, and recognizable fragments of animals and plants. It looks biomorphic, like body parts. The paintings deal with space the way a weaving or a quilt would, flat planes up against one another. In some spots it’s hard to tell what’s background or foreground, or they switch as you look at them and become sort of porous, like camouflage. In some sense, my art is about how I think it would be great if we had a more porous relationship with the so called ‘natural’ world.
The stuff I've been doing recently comes out of researching a bunch of scientific illustrators, like Ernst Haeckel, who was a German, Darwin-era scientist and illustrator, and Maria Sibylla Merian who was a little earlier, pre-Linnaeus. I'm also drawing on biomorphic abstraction, so more the history of painting, which think is related. For instance, Hilma af Klint (a Swedish abstract painter) was totally stealing from Ernst Haeckel's compositions.
I have no desire to recreate natural history illustrations, because I think it's a bit problematic. Going to other countries and cataloguing plants and animals, there's an inherently colonial thing going on there. But Maria Sibylla Merian’s illustrations are interesting because she studied the life cycles of insects and demystified them—literally, this was an era where European people were like, "Caterpillars just magically reproduce!" Her illustrations occupy a funny place in art history, they're usually shown as ornamental drawings, but really, she was one of the first Europeans to say, "No, plants and animals are interconnected in these complex ways, and they have life cycles..." she was basically an ecologist, before that word existed. I could keep going...Ernst Haeckel came up with the term ‘ecology’, and his work and this Swedish mystical painter Klint’s are very alike. That’s interesting to me, to think about how science and art are connected systems of thought.
Could you tell us about your creative process? What's your relationship with the work that you do?
I tend to just work all the time no matter what. I'm always drawing. There's a lot of stuff I make that never sees the light of day. There are weeks or months where most of the stuff I make is just process. It doesn't turn into anything that I would show to someone, but I think that's just part of the making.
I'm not really thinking about who the audience is, when I'm in my studio. There are deadlines I have to meet, so I know I have to produce certain things. A certain amount of work for a show, or something. But I never go into it thinking, "I'm going to make four paintings that will be these dimensions". I just work, and then edit it down later, when I have to commit to doing something with the work.
I get totally lost in the problem-solving of making a painting coherent, making it into something that should all be on the same piece of paper. I often figure out the solution right as I'm falling asleep.
I'm hearing you say "problem-solving" and "solution"; it's an interesting way of talking about painting.
I used to make work where I'd do these mixed-media drawing paintings, and then cut them up, and save the scraps that I liked as specimens... which was easier in a way, because I just cut out the bits that worked out. It's harder making one composition cohere. I feel like I'm playing a game of chess with myself. I'll make a move with a colour and then be like, "Ah, damnit".
What are you working on right now?
I just started making some paintings based on photographs by Karl Blossfeldt, he was a photographer who catalogued plants. His whole thesis was that ornament in human design comes directly from the natural world. His photos all look very architectural and perfect. It's a very cold, exacting view of nature. My paintings don’t look anything like his photos, I’m stealing forms from him and adding very saturated colours and a lot of drawing.
Are you a morning person, or a night owl?
Do you have a favourite comfort food?
Sushi. The cheap stuff. Not a particular place, like the $7 sushi special.
Do you have a favourite animal?
Maybe a weasel.
Do you have any pet peeves?
People who walk slowly in front of me.
If you could travel to anywhere, where would you go?
I'd like to go to Patagonia.
Do you have a favourite book?
I have lots of favourite books. Right now I'm reading The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing.
Do you have three favourites, that you'd recommend?
Ursula K. Le Guin. Not a particular book, but I like her stories. Renata Adler is an amazing fiction writer, read Speedboat. I'm also reading a book right now called Gathering Moss. It's a cultural history of moss.
There are a couple of people in my life reading The Secret Life of Trees.
That book is great, but it's a bit over the top. There's a New Yorker article by Michael Pollan that's about the same stuff, like trees communicating, and the research around it. I think it does better justice to the science, he gives a bit more context to where he's getting all that information from.
On a related note, Mort Garson's album Plantasia is awesome. It's from when the "Secret Life of Plants" came out in the 70s, which was a totally pseudo-scientific New Age book, about plants listening to music. The book basically made scientists afraid to talk about plant communication for years, because it was like a joke, but it had a huge cultural impact, people playing Beethoven for their plants etcetera. Anyhow, great album.
I love how people react to the idea that plants are more aware than we might think.
Oh, yeah. Anyone that's spent time in the forest knows that it's true, on some level.