The Art of Protest

By

Back Issues, Summer 2012

June 19, 2012

Quarry opposition has produced an explosion of creativity as artists, in groups and individually, have joined ranks in protest, brandishing paintbrushes, cameras and musical instruments.

Canola, Michele Johnston. Photo by Sandiwongartist.Com.

“Paint me a picture or tell me a story as beautiful as other things in the world today are terrible.”
American writer & environmental activist Rick Bass

For many opponents of the proposed mega quarry in Melancthon, the call to arms was a call to the streets – to rallies in Honeywood and Toronto and to the long march from Queen’s Park. For others, it was a call to the keyboard – to set the blogosphere abuzz with posts and petitions.

For artists, it was a call to their muse.

Rusty Trio, Bronwyn Fitz James. Photo by Sandiwongartist.Com.

Rusty Trio, Bronwyn Fitz James. Photo by Sandiwongartist.Com.

Quarry opposition has produced an explosion of creativity as artists, in groups and individually, have joined ranks in protest, brandishing paintbrushes, cameras and musical instruments.

In the spirit of the grassroots activism by which environmental victories are frequently won, the artists’ goal is not only to stop the quarry, but to foster an alternative vision of the future for the community, farmland, water and animals they believe it imperils. In the process, as Claudine K. Brown of the Smithsonian puts it, they help to “imagine the world as it could be … and, in doing so, create new realities.”

Stand… or Fall? Sandi Wong. Photo by Sandiwongartist.Com.

Stand… or Fall? Sandi Wong. Photo by Sandiwongartist.Com.

Sandi Wong is the driving force behind Artists Against the Mega Quarry, a loose collective of artists united in their protest against the quarry. She believes art can be a powerful rallying tool. “All art is a form of expression, of telling the world what we see, feel and think,” she says. “By expressing our emotions of fear of loss or joy of beauty, we find others who feel similarly, and we form community.”

Wong’s sense of community was galvanized when, in its quarry development application, the Highland Companies described the area as having “no heritage or culture of significance.” She set out to prove how wrong that assessment was. As a first move, Artists Against the Mega-Quarry organized a “paint-in” last fall. To celebrate the “beauty of the hills at risk,” artists set up their easels and painted the scenic landscape and farmhouses en plein air at the quarry site. The paintings created that day and in the days since have been exhibited at shows the group has hosted in Toronto and Honeywood. A second paint-in will be held this year on June 30.

Along with such artists, an unlikely group of urbanized youth has added its voice to the stop-the-quarry movement. Under the instruction of artist and Mulmur resident Linda Montgomery, 50 first-year students at OCAD University created posters for their drawing translation class. Challenging her students to think in terms of “design good,” Montgomery modelled the inspiration for the assignment after the vision of the Institute without Boundaries: “Every generation has a purpose. This generation faces social and environmental impacts on an unprecedented scale. As these problems become ever more complex, there is a need for more co-operation and collaboration, and a pressing need for more socially and environmentally driven graphics.”

The students, many of them first-generation Canadians, were largely unaware of the issue before the assignment, but after throwing themselves into research for the project, they created posters that channel a palpable sense of disbelief and anger about the proposed quarry.

Poster, Lauren Livingston, OCADU student. Photo by Sandiwongartist.Com.

Poster, Lauren Livingston, OCADU student. Photo by Sandiwongartist.Com.

As student Lauren Livingston described it, “We were taught to understand that as young designers we could make a difference in the world. Linda introduced activism as a form of inspiration for our art … and the outcome was a class of confident, informed young designers determined to take a stand for something we believe in.”

For these students, poised to become tomorrow’s designers, the sense of accomplishment was reinforced when the posters were featured first at a show at the university, then as a guest exhibition at the Artists Against the Mega Quarry show in Honeywood this spring, as well as at other Toronto venues, including the Earth Day Canada Gala held at the Drake Hotel earlier this month.

Photographers have also been documenting the landscape. One of them, Donna Wells, created a book of her work, donating 10 per cent of the sale proceeds to the anti-quarry cause. Filmmakers have likewise added their interpretations to the protest, posting their work on YouTube – with the best of them taking home a Tater Award, conceived and presented by Stop The Quarry. (See some of their videos at nomegaquarry.ca)

Foodstock, John Church Orangeville photographer John Church has been inspired by the scale and beauty of Melancthon farmland, though in this photo it was the drama of the sky and volume of cars at Foodstock that caught his attention.

Foodstock, John Church Orangeville photographer John Church has been inspired by the scale and beauty of Melancthon farmland, though in this photo it was the drama of the sky and volume of cars at Foodstock that caught his attention.

Even “culinary artists” have joined the fray. Chef Michael Stadtländer and the Canadian Chefs’ Congress hosted Foodstock last October. The hugely successful event attracted more than 20,000 people who came to Melancthon to sample the local-food inspired creations of chefs from Headwaters, Toronto and beyond. This year, the Chefs’ Congress will be joined by the Suzuki Foundation to host a repeat event, called Soupstock, planned for October 21.

Stadtländer was also the managing chef at the recent Earth Day Canada Gala. The theme was “Art meets the Environment” and singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer gave the keynote address. Harmer, an activist who works to protect the Niagara Escarpment, warns, “If they blow a hole in the backbone / The one that runs cross the muscles of the land / We might get a load of stone for the road / But I don’t know how much longer we can stand.” Harmer was also among the musicians who performed at Foodstock, along with Jim Cuddy (a Mulmur weekender), Ron Sexsmith, Our Lady Peace, and others.

Local folk singer Hobo Wally (Chip Yarwood) is another musician moved by the dedication of the quarry protesters. He has published two songs on YouTube, “King of the Hole” and “Walk with Me.” The latter alludes not only to the fate of the land, but also to “The dreams of our families, both present and past / Left by the wayside as the trucks go by fast.”

All this local art-as-activism has deep cultural roots. From such movements as site-specific art (created in situ), and Earth art (created using natural materials), to Slow Food (cuisine created from the local ecosystem), and bioacoustic music in the tradition of Bernie Krause, artists around the world have continued to draw inspiration from nature and stage interventions in support of environmental causes.

As Claudine K. Brown argues, such creative vision benefits both the arts and the world at large. “It is often the iconic, participatory experiences created by visual artists, media makers, performers, and musicians that help us see ourselves as one people. Artists provide an image to the world of who we have been, who we are, and who we are becoming … It is art … that touches us at our core and renews our sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves.”

Meanwhile, the revenue generated through the Artists Against the Mega Quarry sales supports the North Dufferin Agricultural and Community Taskforce (NDACT) and Citizens’ Alliance for a Sustainable Environment (CAUSE), helping to offset legal expenses and the costs of scientific consultants. That effort was given a significant boost when Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky donated a photo to the artists’ recent show.

Burtynsky’s acclaimed large-format images of quarries, mines and other “manufactured landscapes” have placed him at the international forefront of environmental art. In a statement on his website, Burtynsky explains, “Our dependence on nature to provide the material for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planets sets us in an uneasy contradiction.” His images, he says, “function as reflecting pools of our times.”

Sandi Wong likewise sees the integrity of the land as inspiring the arts, and she speaks passionately about the environmental concern the arts can foster within the community: “Compelling art heightens and develops our senses, increasing our appreciation and understanding of the world. As we become more aware of our world, we value its treasures and can imagine the results of threats to it.”

Ella Soper teaches environmental literature at the University of Toronto Mississauga and at York University.

Must Comment

4 Comments

  1. Thank you for capturing the spirit and passion of Artists Against the Mega Quarry. This group has demonstrated there is power in a palette and vital stories to be told on canvas. I’m a proud member of the collective, one of the growing number of people inspired by a landscape the Highland Companies unwisely wants to devastate. Perhaps, the hedge fund behind the proposed mega quarry — the Baupost Group of Boston — should be presented with a piece of art from this beautiful region. Its president and investors are clearly unaware of the true value of the land they have purchased.

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    Donna Tranquada from Mulmur Hills on June 21, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Reply

  2. The American artist Edward Hopper once said: “If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” The Artists Against the Mega Quarry have taken it upon themselves to say – both in words and in they art – what has to be said about the potential desecration of our precious land. As I travel around taking photos of this pastoral and vibrant landscape, I am heartened by the efforts of those fighting the hedge fund Goliath and the damage unto forever that it is trying to bring to bear. We shall fight on – not only because the cause is just – but also because we owe it to future generations who will not have a chance to fend for themselves if we lose the war.

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    Bob Presner from Toronto & Mulmur on June 28, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply

  3. It’s really great to see all efforts for artist and I think when we love something there are a lot of people who go against it.

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    cathy on November 1, 2012 at 11:55 pm | Reply

  4. I guess no-one has to worry about it any more… the deal has been cancelled.

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    Richard on November 21, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Reply

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