Martha Varcoe Sturdy’s “Breaking”

Amazing grace.

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Throughout Canada, one of the first signs of spring is the thawing of the ice; what was once an essential element in the wintery landscape turns ephemeral, evanescent, and after a gradual process of melting by day and freezing again by night, eventually the ice is gone. And though Vancouver typically is among the first of Canadian cities to welcome mild springtime weather, winter seems late in leaving the Winsor Gallery as Martha Sturdy slows the seasonal transition and asks her audience to slow with it, to take a moment, take a breath, and take it all in.

This mindfulness is at the heart and soul of Sturdy’s “Breaking”, a mixed media series that invokes the world’s natural beauty and is not only inspired by ice, but inspires through ice. A quiet calm comes from the contemplation of this phenomenon; where once there was water, suddenly there are crystals, and though they shimmer like glass shards in the light of the sun, they are also fated to vanish by that very light, leaving no trace save for water’s silvery sheen. It could almost be miraculous, if it wasn’t so common. And that is the crux of Sturdy’s exhibition; her work elevates the simple, elemental elegance of the natural environment into the art gallery.

This mindfulness is at the heart and soul of Sturdy’s “Breaking”, a mixed media series that invokes the world’s natural beauty.

“I think that as I’ve aged, I’ve become more contemplative, and maybe a little teeny bit wiser,” says Sturdy with a humble, yet knowing smile. “I walk around and I look at the environment, I smell the trees, I look at the earth, I see the snow and the ice, and the environment in general, and the sense of peace. And sometimes—and this has to do with my age and wisdom,” she adds with a slight smirk, “sometimes we’re so busy being busy that we actually don’t take advantage and appreciate the amazing beauty of our environment.” Throughout the past five years, Sturdy has regularly pursued her creative practice at her farm in Pemberton Valley, a region where the icy radiance of winter and spring forests served as the impetus for “Breaking”. The perception of ice is subjective and unstructured; as Sturdy points out, ice can be conceived of as gigantic glaciers or tiny rivulets, and in considering its subtlety or its sublimity, it reminds people to appreciate aspects of life and landscape that are too-often overlooked in contemporary society, but for which they should feel very lucky.

Though Sturdy emphasizes “slowing down”, both for herself and for others, it seems impossible that the intrepid Martha Sturdy could ever do just that. The artist is turning 72 later this year, and is still hiking, snow-shoeing, and horseback riding, while constructing her visually-striking wall sculptures using canvases of cold-rolled steel and resin that she smashes herself. “I never make anything that’s light and ladylike,” explains Sturdy, a statement seemingly at odds with her elegant style and gracious demeanour. “I started using resin in second year of art school, at Emily Carr. And I loved the colour, the ability of the colour, the depth that you can get because when you do resin, it’s putting colour right through.” In “Breaking”, this colour is a brilliant, translucent blue which creates a fluid motion of freezing, melting, and flowing in the various works, and contributes a visual depth to the canvases as if the audience has been veritably transported into Sturdy’s crystalline wilderness.

Just as the process of creating these works of art is slow and measured, so too is the process of enjoying them. “Each one has its own story, and there is a story, and there’s a lot of beauty in the simplicity” says Sturdy. “But to be simple is hard. When you make something and it’s really busy, it can be wrong, but there’s so much junk in it that you cover it up. But when you do simple, it has to be good, because there’s no hiding.”

Sturdy is fond of the metaphor of “winning”, which is part of her playful attitude towards art and adventure.

Sturdy wants her works to create a space of contemplation and reflection, even if it means taking time to think about nothing at all; she considers contemplation to be an embodied experience as much as it is a state of mind. The works, with their physical, phenomenological presence and their meditative philosophy, facilitate a space where the serene immanence of the natural world is melded with the transcendence of human imagination. In commenting on the works’ protrusion from their steel backing into the gallery space, Sturdy states, “I want those pieces to be aggressive. Because that’s how you wake up, and then I’ve won.”

Sturdy is fond of the metaphor of “winning”, which is part of her playful attitude towards art and adventure. “It’s about the way you look at your life, and if you don’t have fun and experiment, then what is the point? I talk about winning as if it was a game, but it’s really…” Study thinks for a moment.  For Sturdy, winning means that the artist’s message is accessible to her audience. That is the objective of the game of art, and making art is how the game is played. Examining the aesthetics of her sculptural series, Sturdy describes that “In sunlight, it’s amazing. It just glows. So I’ve never seen this before. I didn’t observe anybody else doing this. I’m just dancing to my own little tune, carrying on, having fun.” Fun, rightly so, is the quintessential element in Sturdy’s work ethic. “It just happened that way,” says Sturdy of her exploratory process. “Because when you play, which is what I do, the world opens up to you.”

Read more about artist and designer Martha Sturdy.

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May 8, 2014