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martha varcoe sturdy Breaking

Cover image: Martha Varcoe Sturdy, Untitled #410 (detail), 2014. Resin on steel, 41 x 41�. All images courtesy of Katie Huisman.

martha varcoe sturdy Breaking

Published in conjunction with the exhibition Martha Varcoe Sturdy Breaking Winsor Gallery May 8 - June 7, 2014

winsor gallery 258 East 1st Ave Vancouver, B.C. V5T 1A6 +1 (604) 681 4870

Untitled #289, 2014. Resin on steel, 30 x 30�

Martha Varcoe Sturdy: Breaking By Alex M.F. Quicho

“Art is always present when [people] live sincerely and healthily.” Official Bauhaus Prospectus, 1919 When Bauhaus was founded in 1919, its initial and radical mandate called for the integration of all artistic fields – in education, but also in life. Martha Varcoe Sturdy would have been a model Bauhaus student. Trained formally in sculpture at the Vancouver School of Art (now the Emily Carr University of Art and Design) and a mother of three at the time of her graduation, Varcoe Sturdy leveraged her artistic practice as a means of survival. She is the artist-designer as Bruno Munari, writing Design as Art in 1966, envisioned her: “an artist useful to society because [she] helps society to recover its balance, and not to lurch between a false world to live one’s material life in and an ideal world to take moral refuge in.”i The false world that Munari means is the world of flash commodity goods; the ideal world is the world of “pure art” as it was known in pre-Bauhaus times. It’s the artist-designer, ostensibly, who is able to bring us full-circle into the real world with all of its magic and practicality. Martha Varcoe Sturdy does this. Her work, inspired by nature and made as much by earthly processes as they are by hand, is sensible and decisive. It is as deeply connected to the environment as it is to those interior human practices of meditation and mindfulness. Though Varcoe Sturdy doesn’t subscribe to any particular spirituality, what she does speak about is the importance of looking long and deeply. The naturally confounding forms of gongshi, or Chinese scholars’ rocks, have been encouraging this mode of looking since the rise of the Song Dynasty (960—1279 AD), when they were prized as meditative objects by the prevailing intelligentsia. (An unnamed curator from the Tate Modern first made the memorable comparison between scholar’s rocks and Varcoe Sturdy’s work.) Their play with scale and association opens their observers’ minds into

grasping ideas of infinity, the universe, and the sublime. Picked out from their surroundings for very specific qualities (of asymmetry, resonance, texture, and landscape or figural resemblance), the “as-is” aspect of gongshi is crucial to their reception. Their link to the natural world provides the entryway into existential mediation. It’s less known that gongshi are often altered, though always in a way that masks the craftsman’s involvement. These alterations are made not to exert some sort of artistic autonomy, but instead to highlight even more the stone’s latent qualities of form. There is a strong relationship between the gongshi craftsman’s hidden hand and Varcoe Sturdy’s methods of working. The time that she spends in the quietude of the woods, closely watching the snow pillowing on cedars or the ice gathering in the river, is reflected in her respect for both natural forms and found materials. Vivisected cedar trunks – hauled out of the Pemberton wilderness singlehandedly by Sturdy herself – keep an imposing presence in her studio space. Like a craftsman revealing a curve in the gongshi with his chisel, Varcoe Sturdy cut and sanded away at the wood to reveal the curves and knots in the tree’s timeline of growth. The newer works aren’t physically found, of course. Their jagged forms are made of synthetic resin, which is smashed and poured out onto steel canvases. But the resin’s blue tint and rippling surfaces are a convincing stand-in for ice, Varcoe Sturdy’s current fixation. Gathered in a room together, they project a cooling sensation; one almost expects an auditory component to the gathered shards, which bring to mind the pop and crack of the subject in nature. The thing about ice, of course, is that it is constantly in a state of change. Melting, freezing, or even sublimating, it is always slipping into a separate state. Varcoe Sturdy satisfies the human impulse to seal down what is, by nature, ephemeral. In doing so, she allows for an even closer appreciation of a commonplace material. (And the transience of ice is an apt subject for a suite of works that, as semi-representational sculpture-paintings, fluctuate in and out of genre.) Having hiked, snowshoed, driven, taken trains, and ridden her horse through it, it is no secret that Martha Varcoe Sturdy is an enthusiast of the Canadian wilderness. She isn’t the first one to be, either. Canadian art has a long history of both wrestling with and being at peace within its landscape. One needn’t look further than Emily Carr’s twisted woodlands or Lawren Harris’ stark

Untitled #415, 2014. Resin on steel, 42 x 42�

Untitled #419, 2014. Resin on steel, 41 x 41�

glaciers to see how the wilder parts of our nation have historically taken hold of our cultural imagination. To hear Varcoe Sturdy speak of her relationship to her surroundings is to understand that she is an inheritor of these passions. Her work is firmly rooted in her particular experience of the ‘bush’ – she speaks of the nascence of each sculpture in terms of natural phenomena she has witnessed: minutiae such as the wonder of lifting sheets of ice off of winter puddles as a child, or the cool velvet of north-facing moss on yesterday’s hike. These interests may seem to exist at odds with the physical processes that shaped Breaking and, indeed, a large amount of what Varcoe Sturdy has produced over the years. She works in resin and steel because, in her own words, “they are most comfortable.” In her own life, the lineage of these industrial materials traces back to hours spent in the foundries and metal shops of the Vancouver School of Art. There are echoes of the action painters of the 1950s in how she shatters slabs of hard resin by throwing them down, or pours liquid resin – as Pollock once poured paint – across the surface of a ‘steel canvas’ laid flat on the ground. Her Crunch series shows the exertion of a body against rigid industrial matter: she folds, torques, and crumples large sheets of brass with her bare hands in a way that could be endurance-based performance art, though she insists on working in private. As such, Varcoe Sturdy’s works are human-made as much as nature-born. The contrasts – between woman and wild, between intent and accident – are classic dichotomies that nonetheless retain their power when addressed with strength and clarity. When Martha Varcoe Sturdy speaks about her methods, she is drawn to particular words: clean, pared down, simple. Calm, beautiful, strong. The mindfulness of her approach extends to the expansive serenity of simply looking at each work. In the end, it’s all about peace and balance. Ice on the surface of a lake.


Bruno Munari, Design as Art, 1966. Translated by Patrick Creagh. Penguin Books: Middlesex, England. p. 27

above Untitled #423, resin with lightbox, 14 x 27 x 16� left Untitled #295, resin on steel, 36 x 24�

Untitled #408, resin on steel, 72 x 60�

Untitled #290, resin on steel, 24 x 18�

above Untitled #294, resin on steel, 24 x 36� right Untitled #296 (detail), resin on steel, 36 x 24�

Untitled #293, 2014. Resin on steel, 30 x 30�

Untitled #293, 2014. Resin on steel, 41 x 41�

above Untitled #293, 2014. Resin on steel, 30 x 30� left Untitled #416, 2014. Resin on steel, 53 x 42�

Untitled #410, 2014. Resin on steel, 41 x 41�

Untitled #418, 2014. Resin on steel, 41 x 41�

Untitled #417, 2014. Resin on steel, 53 x 72�

Untitled #411, 2014. Resin on steel, 53 x 53�

Untitled #406, 2014. Resin on steel, 41 x 41�

above Untitled #412 (triptych), 2014, Resin on steel, 48 x 96� right Untitled #292, 2014. Resin on steel, 24 x 18�

Untitled #421, 2014. Resin on steel, 18 x 22 x 18�

Untitled #422, 2014. Resin on steel, 18 x 22 x 18�

Untitled #420, 2014. Resin on steel, 48 x 48�

Martha Varcoe Sturdy: Breaking  

Exhibition catalogue for Martha Varcoe Sturdy's 'Breaking' at Winsor Gallery.

Martha Varcoe Sturdy: Breaking  

Exhibition catalogue for Martha Varcoe Sturdy's 'Breaking' at Winsor Gallery.