Canadian Art

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Wanda Koop: Into the Woods

Southern Manitoba Aug 2012
An exterior view of Wanda Koop's cabin near Riding Mountain National Park An exterior view of Wanda Koop's cabin near Riding Mountain National Park

An exterior view of Wanda Koop's cabin near Riding Mountain National Park

Wanda Koop drives slowly along a narrow track that winds through aspen and spruce forest. Ahead of her, a family of ruffed grouse bobs and scuttles. The mother and her adolescent chicks are a bit too dim, it seems, to remove themselves from the car’s path and into the shelter of the woods. Or perhaps they’re too inexperienced with the world of automobiles. Eventually, they wander off and Koop pulls up to a clearing on the wooded hillside where a small, hand-built cabin stands.

From a distance, it resembles a miniature modernist house, with a gently slanting roof and exterior walls of glass and painted wood. Up close, vernacular and sustainable inflections emerge: the windows aren’t broad sheets of glass, but multi-paned and wood-framed, reclaimed from a Victorian house under renovation in Winnipeg, 240 kilometres away. Most of the cabin’s posts and beams have been salvaged from other construction or demolition projects in the city, where they were measured and cut, and have been transported to this remote place for careful assembly without power tools. The wee structure is modestly furnished: a fold-out bed, some old wooden chairs, a scuffed and scratched table, a butane cooker and a small enamel stove. In the screened porch, there’s a Formica-topped wooden cabinet that has followed Koop here from a succession of studios. She bought it, secondhand, when she was 18.

The “zero-amenities” cabin that Koop shares with her partner, design-builder Steve Hunter—the man who planned and constructed it—overlooks Manitoba’s Rolling River valley and, beyond that, Riding Mountain National Park. Atop the Manitoba Escarpment, the park and its environs are a crazy quilt of lakes and streams, prairie grasslands and boreal forests, aspen parklands and eastern woodlands—and attendant wildlife.

The area is also one of blessed retreat for many urbanites, including this internationally acclaimed artist whose Winnipeg studio is a constant storm not only of creativity, but also of ringing phones, barking dogs, buzzing doorbells, exhibition planning, art-world hospitality and community service. Recently, the noise and stress levels have been amplified by road and bridge construction in her South Point Douglas neighbourhood. During the week, Koop solves the problem of social and business demands, and head-pounding incursions, by painting late at night. On spring, summer and autumn weekends, she heads into the woods.

Thirty kilometres from the nearest town, the cabin is truly off the grid, without water, electricity or phone service. No cellular signal, no Internet hookup, no Skyping, Tweeting, texting, emailing or social networking possibilities. The only sounds on this warm summer day are the sweet-sweet-sweet of yellow warblers, the shisk-ka-day-day of boreal chickadees and the gentle shushing of the wind in the trees. In the late afternoon, great grey owls hunt overhead, a reminder that these woods are nesting grounds for North America’s largest member of the Strigidae family.

They are a reminder, too, that the pioneering conservationist and mythmaker Archibald Belaney, popularly known as Grey Owl, was once a “caretaker of park animals” at Riding Mountain. Despite Belaney’s false claim to aboriginal descent, Koop admires him for his life-altering commitment to saving some of the last remnants of wilderness at the centre of our continent. She and Hunter feel equally committed to conservation: they regard their cabin as a temporary dwelling, and their role as “stewards” of the 84 acres of pristine forest surrounding it. “It’s such a gift,” she says. “We’re privileged to be here.” The cabin, she observes, “is a sort of a baffle. We see all kinds of animals pass through.” She lists those she has observed—black bears, elk, white-tailed deer, fox, lynx, coyotes and dozens upon dozens of bird species—then she adds, “The silence, the absolute silence. And the beautiful stars at night.”

Enfolding herself into wild nature was not always such a peaceful prospect for Koop. “When I first came here, I couldn’t imagine being alone in the woods. The unknown was so great,” she says. “I’ve travelled a lot and I’ve camped a lot, but I’ve always travelled with people or I’ve been in a designated campground. This was different—it felt so uncharted.” Pivotal to her overcoming her fears was a six-week artist’s residency at a cabin in Riding Mountain National Park, which she undertook in 2007. It was the off-season, no other campers or cottagers around, and she had no phone contact with the world. What she did have was a couple of up-close and unsettling encounters, one with a black bear and one with a too-persistent stranger who arrived by boat. Rather than entrenching her fears, however, these experiences helped her overcome them. “Over time, I’ve come to find this huge, amazing place part of who I am. It’s not something separate.”

The engaging Deep Bay series of landscapes, posing questions about our relationship to wilderness and how we culturally construct an idea of nature, emerged from that residency. Still, Koop is not bound to the landscape subject by her cabin’s natural setting. Throughout her career, she has also cycled through periods of abstraction and a culturally charged form of portraiture. “I have a tendency to move along too quickly in my work,” she observes. “This place allows me to take the time to see where I’ve been and where I’m going.”

Given her cabin’s remove from all things digital and mechanical, it is a paradox that Koop has come here now to further develop her latest series of paintings, Face Time. Initiated less than a year ago, this work plays expressive variations on the theme of a human face suspended on a network of wires. They’re not the kind of heavy wires that might comprise the armature of a clay or plaster sculpture—although there are intentional evocations of that process in this imagery, along with allusions to historical art’s aspiration to shape a physical ideal. Rather, these are the kind of wires that plug us into a whole array of music, video and communications devices and networks.

On first viewing, the unsettling images are suggestive of androids, and certainly they have evolved from Koop’s interest in robotics and nanotechnologies. But the surprised, apprehensive and alarmed expressions that she is painting are not those of machines, nor are they about some sci-fi future. They’re intensely human and reference who we are now, suggesting how being constantly plugged into web- and mobile-based technologies may be shifting our neuronal pathways, altering our psyches, reconfiguring our consciousness. Face Time addresses the evolutionary consequences to our individual humanity when we merge the data ports between our brains and our digital delivery systems.

Still, the emotions that play across the faces Koop paints do relate to the way we construct ourselves as social beings. They allude, too, to the impact of social media and mobile devices on our ability to recognize emotions and to be present—physically present—in a relationship. The apprehension that she portrays parallels the unease many of us feel with the changes that are implicit in the way we communicate, although she maintains that Face Time is not a negative judgement, but an exploration. (Koop is decidedly not a Luddite. For decades, she has employed video in partnership with her painted work, and she is also extremely fond of her iPad, which she uses to dash off notes and photos to friends and colleagues, as well as to develop, assess and review images.) This series is a way of charting the psycho-emotional shifts, even the neuro-physiological changes that are occurring as our individual brains respond to contemporary culture’s state of digital hyper-connection.

As for the undigitalized cabin in the woods, it is a place where Koop can pull images and ideas out of her deepest self. “When I’m working up here, I can shut off everything that’s going on for me in Winnipeg,” she observes again. “I lug resource material and sketchbooks up here and I can dream.” She looks off into the forest as the shadow of a great grey owl glides silently past. “I can dream.”

This article was first published online on August 23, 2012.

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