Saturday, June 20, 2015

It's a journey of discovery

"We are stewards of the land, on a journey of discovery."
 Gerten Basom
Gerten Basom is the artist behind the new signage plaques, to mark our pollinator patch locations across the city. Gerten combines her love of nature and her passion for art to create images that further her message: that we don't own the land; we are caretakers of it. I chatted with Gerten a few weeks ago about her journey to reaching this awareness.
Daughter of German immigrants, Gerten was born and raised in a rural area of Peterborough. Her mother hand planted 2000 seedlings in her early 20’s, of mixed pine, spruce and hemlock on what was then barren land. “56 years later, it's become a forest. We grew up with that, we were very much aware of the environment around us," Gerten reminisces. And "like typical Germans," Gerten describes her family as always being out on the trails, hiking the Kawartha territories, camping at the lakes.
"We became deeply acquainted with the land," she says. "Being outdoors was who we were--exploring ponds, fields, building forts. It was all one big adventure."

At school, the elementary school principal, an "outdoors" guy and biologist, furthered the children's understanding and appreciation of nature. He would read Farley Mowat novels to his  students; "That shapes you at that age," Gerten reflects.
Her visual arts practice has always been there, she says, that journey beginning with a dynamic grade 5 art teacher. What followed was a rather circuitous route, from York University (where the message was to "think outside the box,") and then a decade later, Dundas Valley school of Arts, Ontario College of Art, and finally, at home at McMaster University.

I ask Gerten, why the reconnect to art ten years later?

She reveals that she had a critical, life-changing moment when in 1992, she read an article in Time Magazine about the ozone layer disappearing. "It was like someone had flipped a switch in me. I was horrified, terrified. I was worried about the future of my kids," she recalls. She describes feeling intuitively that what she had to do was reconnect with art making: "I had to explore methods of bringing something across to people, about protecting the environment. It was an awakening."

Back to art school at the Dundas Valley School of Art (DVSA), Gerten took "plein air" classes which she equates to birding, "because you are absorbed in the environment, sensing every nuance, the light changing, each blade of grass moved by the wind and each sound. You are in the moment and you look to what that is in order to translate that onto paper or canvas."
It was during the art program at McMaster that Gerten became aware of the concept of "regionalism," that awareness of a local place.

"As it is in Europe, regionalism is all about a specific area -- the food, the wine, the regional geography, so why not create art that focused on the area I was living in?” Since Gerten has 2 acres of land in rural Ancaster, she recognized an opportunity to do something tangible that would have a direct impact on the biodiversity of the land, while at the same time inform her painting.
The property includes a small bog, a treed lot, streams that filter down from the North and lead to the Grand River, as well as open fields. She and her husband have installed nesting boxes for bluebirds, woodducks, and tree swallows. She removed ornamental shrubs in favour of native pollinator plants.

In turn, they are visited by a diverse number of birds, butterflies and pond/stream creatures.
She enjoys a daily 5 km, pedagogical walk where she'll immerse herself in the environment, and reflects on what she observes through her art making.
Gerten praises Jen Baker of the Hamilton Naturalist Club (she's been a member of the club since  around 2000) for the mentoring she's received and for the work Baker does through the land trust program to protect natural heritage areas in Hamilton. "You get to know all the Hamilton sanctuaries. Land trust is critical, it's a major move in the right direction," Gerten says, "Baker increased the opportunities for club members to wake up to what is out there, the connections, what we could do to help."
"We are living in a mini earthly paradise, what with the birding, marshes, the lake, the escarpment, the RBG, making a community from all sides."

Gerten is proud to say that she has been keeping a record through her journaling in terms of pollinators, in much the same way she did as a kid.

Every journal page starts with the weather conditions, the season, a log of the birds she is observing and has noticed an increase of birds and butterflies on the property, hopefully, through her efforts.
Gerten expresses an excitement at learning new bird calls (using Peterson tapes and birding books) and has just recently identified a sparrow from her childhood, that she realizes, "I had been hearing all along."

Gerten's passion for protecting the land lead her to purchase 100 acres in the Elzevir Flats (Hastings County) for conservation only. She describes the land as being smack in the middle of the Canadian Shields, where the limestone, granite and Lowlands come together. It is a very special place ("called The Land Between"), a unique and newly recognized space known as an “ecotone” and is part of a 12,000 year old passageway from Georgian Bay to Lake Ontario, that the First Nations people's used as their hunting and fishing grounds.

There is so much to explore on this land and Gerten is making sure she is doing so in collaboration with conservation and land trust groups and area neighbours, in an attempt to understand the geography as well are re-present how we should steward our lands. It's these grassroots movements that commence the changes, and that includes the way we think about land: like the first peoples, Gerten thinks of herself less as an owner of the land, "I will never really own these properties. You can't take it with you, so we need to rethink how we map, and slice up the land. Making art and presenting it to the public is one method of opening people’s eyes to this sort of thinking”.
A myriad of ideas have been translated into a body of art work which is emerging, based on the  “Land Between” property.
"Open your eyes, explore the land. You have to be like a child again, to see things the way you did when you were young!"  Gerten enthuses. It's no different from art making which she considers to be equally a journey of self discovery and self development. Picasso famously said as much; "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a life time to paint like a child."