Mary Ann Steggles profiles the work of Canadian visual artist Michelle Wilson who has been using her creativity to tackle environmental contamination and return the landscape to its natural state.
Michelle Wilson is a Canadian visual artist currently living in London, Ontario where she is a PhD student at the University of Western Ontario (UWO). Michelle completed her MFA at the School of Art, the University of Manitoba where she created speculative historical fictions, often from the perspective of the non-human. As she moves forward from life as a graduate student in Manitoba, she wants to do work “that draws in human and the more-than-human community, pieces that listen to the communities of non-humans and what they need.” She aims to create art that contributes to those relationships in a reciprocal way and prioritizes that relationship over the demands of the gallery. In everything she does, Wilson contemplates the legacy that she leaves as an artist.
Michelle is inspired by the writing and activism of Robin Wall Kimmerer and, in particular, her book Braiding Sweetgrass. Like Kimmerer, Michelle wants to locate herself and her work through a complete understanding of place, not as an Indigenous person but as a settler attempting to naturalize herself by “an understanding embodiment, science, history, culture, and humility.” In her book, Kimmerer talks extensively about the land and how Indigenous and settler culture use it. The land and the waterways are important for Indigenous ceremonies as well as for the people. A good example is a rite, common in Northern Manitoba, where the father takes his new-born child in a canoe down the river to show them and tell them that they are a part of this place. This is where, for generations, their people have hunted and gathered, fished the clean rivers and lived peacefully.
This is, of course, not the case with the colonists. The taking of the land and the transforming it with industry was, in their minds, part of the progress of humankind. Wilson recognizes that humans have transformed the land on which we live to a point where we are all nearing what some call the sixth mass extinction. As an artist, a mother, and an environmentalist, Wilson wants to regenerate the land to the point where it was before colonization.
Michelle Wilson is currently working on a site-specific project in an area of London, Ontario that has been designed as an Environmentally Significant Area. It is an area that she has been interested in for several years and one recognized by many as a toxic wasteland. For Wilson, the spot shows promise because of flora and fauna reclaiming the space. At one time, the artist collected blackberries from the fence line around the old paint factory site. She wondered just how toxic these summer fruits were for the people who continually gathered them to eat.
Wilson enlisted the help of Dr Sheila Macfie at the University of Western Ontario to help her have them tested for heavy metals. The tests revealed high concentrations of lead. One was 1.4 mg/kg while 0.2 mg/kg is the acceptable maximum. What could Wilson, as an artist, interested in leaving a legacy of being conscious and ethical do to help return this abandoned land into its former pristine self before industry destroyed it? What did the ground need from her to recover? In her research, she discovered that the area once was home to cattails and other native plants that helped improve the soil and water quality in the area.
Wilson’s interest in science and the environment led her to understand that the blackberries growing in the area of the old paint factory are taking up lead from the soil in a process known as phytoremediation. Michelle Wilson is collecting more and more of the poisonous berries. She will eventually turn these into a dye to make a textile map of the human and animal trails through the area. Wilson will obtain the GPS coordinates of all the paths by having groups walk and explore using apps on their phone to map the walks. She has already begun to mentor three undergraduate students by guiding them through the coves for them to help her with her project and, at the same time, inspiring them to create their own environmental pieces about the land.
One of the most exciting aspects of this project is a series of simple unfired clay vessels that Michelle Wilson has constructed. I want to focus on the term ‘unfired’ for a moment and reflect on the substantial change Wilson is employing to the medium. After participating in an online webinar on the impact of Manitoba Hydro’s mega-dams on the northern communities of Manitoba, Wilson embraced the notion that for ceramics to have an impact, the work does not have to be fired. Indeed, transforming malleable clay into vessels and then firing it in an electric kiln in excess of 600oC will ensure that the material will never return to its state as raw clay. Instead, it will exist in the environment for millennia.
Wilson was able to witness the destruction to the life of the Indigenous people of Northern Manitoba by Manitoba Hydro’s flooding of the lands and deforestation for the transmission lines. She witnessed the devastation on the clear lakes with mercury levels that will now take at least two decades to dissipate. Wilson took this knowledge and employed it in her work about the toxic landscape. In doing so, she uses the raw clay vessels to propagate the cattail seeds and other native grasses. “I will return the whole piece to the earth, allowing the clay itself to be recycled for future generations.”
For Michelle Wilson, returning the landscape into the pristine site that it was before humans contaminated it is the least she can do as both an artist and as a human-being. She hopes that the plants will filter the water and the soil in a way that will eventually create a healthy environment for future generations to enjoy.
Mary Ann Steggles is a Canadian contributor with an interest in environmental reform and the intersection of art, particularly ceramics, and social activism. She recently retired from her position as Professor at the University of Manitoba to devote her time to writing full-time.