All of this talk of “old-fashioned” ways of performing a task reminds me of an artist from Waterloo County. The very first time I met Reiner, we got to chatting about the local gypsum mines in Paris, Ontario. He told me about his friend, Christopher Van Donkelaar who is an iconographer. Reiner was helping him with his “100 Mile Art Project” Adam Naming the Animals, fashioned entirely from local materials – pigment, paint, and panel.
I offered to research the location of the long extinct Paris gypsum mines, and accepted Reiner’s invitation to be part of the collection party. That summer, we traveled to quarries, beaches, and other mineral localities throughout Southern Ontario in search of pigment bearing rocks. Reiner and I, you might say, were romancing the stone.
Back in his studio, Christopher pounded and powdered the rocks into pigments. He raised chickens for the egg yolks to use as binder, grew woad for blue pigment, found a source of black pigment from fossilized mastodon tusk, and another source of black from magnetite sand on the shores of Lake Huron.
One sunny Saturday, we loaded Chris’s VW, the guys in the front and I in the rear next to buckets, trowels, and other collecting gear. We were in search of marl, a critical component of the colourfast Maya blue pigment that is particularly rich in polygorskite clay. From the back seat, I directed them to the marl lakes that I knew from summer holidays during my 20’s. I recalled the unpleasant mushy ooze that squished between my toes as I waded out into the lake.
Now, thirty years later, the lake is a tony cottage enclave. Public access is strictly prohibited. We drove up and down the cottage lanes, three and four-bedroom homes lined the road, cheek by jowl. No way could we causally wander to the water’s edge, pretend to take in the lovely scene, maybe dip a toe or perhaps a margarine container or two and scoop up the muck.
Not to be put off our goal, we drove around looking for a spot away from the built-up area.
“Ah, this looks good. Pull over here!”
Chris looks in his rear-view mirror, notices a car behind him, so he keeps driving. We loop around and return to the site. Son of a gun! A truck approaches from the other direction. We keep driving.
Three times a charm: we disembark, I stand watch at the road, while Reiner wades out into the ooze, and Chris takes pictures. Reiner quickly fills five-gallon pails of the goop, hustles it up to the car, and we take off with our loot.
Thereafter I referred to the getaway car as the Marl-mobile.
As we drove from site to site that summer, I’d be in the rear, while up front, Chris queried Reiner on chemical and physical properties of minerals and how to best extract the desired elements. If you were to quiz me on any of the technical details related to geology, chemistry, iconography, paint, and pigment, I would probably falter and fail miserably. However, I did learn some things:
- Crush a blue rock and you get green. Crush a green rock, you get white. Go figure.
- Always bring a change of socks.
- Everything I need to know about magnetite, I learned in the sandbox. Thanks, Dad.
- Christian Dior has never been to a rock quarry.
- Remember to look up: if you keep you head always down, and your focus narrow, you will miss so much of the bounty that the universe has to offer.
Finally, a lesson I know you’ve all heard before, but it bears repeating: the end result is not the only important factor of your experience. All creative endeavours are like that, but I tend to forget. I usually only see what is before me, that is, the final product. What I forget is that the journey is just as important.
Chris’ icon, the finished product of the 100 Mile Art journey, contains more history, science, and more love and romance (in both senses of the word!) than a gallery visitor could ever realize.
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with a nod to Suzanne who wrote “Look up at the sky and not your feet. The view is better.”