Artists paint objects, people or places of beauty in an effort to conserve life’s precious and ephemeral moments. The reality is that all of it comes to an ending at some point. Conserving their longevity is of the utmost importance, especially in the case of our natural New Brunswick landscapes, which define our sense of place in the province. Artist Michael McEwing embarked on a journey in 2013 to conserve nature by visiting all of the thirty-six Nature Trust of New Brunswick Preserves and complete a landscape painting of each location. Four years later, the exhibition of this work opened at the New Brunswick Museum.
The crusade to conserve nature seems to have come naturally to McEwing. In his youth, he was highly involved in orienteering: a sport that utilizes athletic running in natural settings, while using a compass to locate oneself with maps. This activity requires quick movement, strategy and thinking about spaces three-dimensionally. McEwing recalls one moment in particular of being halted during a run was when he came across a deer in the woods. As if in a movie script, this moment was a call to him to be the voice of nature.
When you observe the rocks in McEwing’s paintings, such as ‘Early Evening at Pea Point’ or ‘Ashborn Head,’ the viewer is being let in on a secret language. The painted shadows along the rocks create letter-like forms and one can almost catch complete sentences; it’s almost like a secret message from our natural environment that only those who take the time to observe and listen will know about. In ‘The Bishop,’ the composition is almost made entirely of rocks and reads as a written paragraph or musical score. There is a sense of sound, a cry or a statement being made by these natural rock forms and the choice of brushstroke McEwing makes. The same audible element is revisited within the rocks of ‘Far Side of Navy Island;’ however, there’s a different energy or intention behind the wavy lines, suggesting another tone of message. This language of stone is a story told through generations and McEwing has appointed himself as record keeper.
His paintings are a blend of aesthetic inspiration and scientific record keeping. There almost seems to be some influence of a medieval bestiary of plants—an herbiary. McEwing’s interests in botanics and the intimate details of plants were ignited by his interactions with Dr. James Goltz, a well-known naturalist and expert in the plant species of New Brunswick.
The way McEwing meticulously paints the lady slipper in ‘Lady Slippers at Sea Dog Cave’ and the details of plants in ‘Pickerel Weed at Estabrooks Pond’ or ‘Fall Floodplain’ brings to mind medieval tapestries: each plant specifically painted with a particular symbolic meaning.
In the majority of his works, there is a running colour scheme of blue, green and grey/neutrals, which he adheres to with devotion. It’s reminiscent of Canadian Group of Seven landscape artist Lawren Harris, who also had a similar relationship between the colours white, yellow and blue. Together, Harris regarded the colours as expressing cosmic or divine qualities. It is almost as if the play between green, blue and grey is a depiction of a natural order or a yin/yang principle: coming into balance. In Harris’s work, one colour (particularly green or blue) is often painted to its full intensity, whereas in many of McEwing’s paintings, the blue and green are painted with equal vigour and intensity, striking a balance amidst the chaos. In each painting, it appears as though one colour is winning this cosmic battle while the grey stands by to balance this yin/yang principle, but the viewer is never given an absolute resolve and the story continues.
It’s evident in the artwork that McEwing habitually imagines the landscape as observed from above and at eye-level simultaneously, making evident the influences of his interest in orientation. When McEwing visited each space, he had to consider them three-dimensionally to determine which composition best captured the character of the space.
“The trick with this one is that each preserve had several or more possibilities. Really, each one could offer a body of work on its own… I had to choose one composition for each,” says McEwing of the challenges he faced with the project, struggling with too much of a good thing.
“Plus, I was meeting people along the way—land stewards, naturalists, scientists—who would inform me and leave me with new ecological thoughts to merge with the aesthetics that I typically look for.”
It is McEwing’s hope that in painting these landscapes he will inspire individuals to appreciate these Nature Preserves and the work of the Nature Trust.
McEwing’s exhibit Conversation on Canvas opened this Thursday, October 4th at the New Brunswick Museum, with a second opening planned for October 13th as part of the Saint John Gallery Hop.