Turning the negative of invasive species into the positive of art.
IF YOU’VE WALKED along the forested paths of Beacon Hill, near the end of Cook Street, or through Gorge Park’s groves, near the reversing falls at Tillicum Bridge, you may have seen Tori McLaverty’s sculptures. Spheres in the trees, hanging by woven rope. Some twisted into flowers, some a series of interlocking circles, like the rings of Saturn. Some are small, only inches wide. Others span six feet or more, suspended from branches in clusters, as mobiles, or singular, an organic nest of curves against the forest’s straight trunks. Occasionally, there is a heart or a peace sign woven into the sphere. The hanging sculptures can be found as far from Downtown as Elk Lake, the Interurban rail trail, and the Galloping Goose.
Sculpture by Tori McLaverty
The spheres and weavings are made of organic materials, but not native species. “I was talking to a Victoria Parks worker about ivy and invasives,” McLaverty tells me during our meeting at Gorge Park Community Gardens. He had volunteered to remove ivy and blackberry from Beacon Hill. When he learned how destructive invasives can be to local ecosystems, he decided to keep pulling, but start using the remnants as his primary materials. “I started with peace signs. Then spiderwebs. Then Valentine’s day hearts. That was all in Beacon Hill Park,” he pauses for breath, “A hater kept tearing them down and throwing them off the cliff.” After removing the invasives, he twists the ivy vines, dethorns and loops the canes, and thus restores the forest.
Art in the region’s parks is usually a more formally arranged production. Saanich hosted the Gorge on Art festival prior to COVID-19; in early 2021, Kaitlin McManus created seven mindful interventions along the waterway called “Sense of Belonging: A Creative Mindfulness Walk in Nature.” The Sooke to Sidney Rock Hunt encourages residents to paint a rock and hide it for others to find. The City of Victoria, however, discourages unsanctioned art, instead providing steps for community or business-led mural projects.
McLaverty tells me that he is a retired drag queen and sex worker from Winnipeg. His mother is a Dënédeh First Nation from Northern Manitoba; his father is Irish. In 2012, McLaverty moved to Victoria to join his mother, a retired art teacher, and his sister. He wanted a fresh start: a close friend had died in Winnipeg; a ten-year relationship had finished. Six days after he arrived on the island, his mother died.
“I did art before, but it was my face and my clothing,” he tells me, laughing. He won “Entertainer of the Year” in 2000 at the Lucky Stars Drag club, where he played “Vanna Not So White.” He pauses to point out a Great Blue Heron flying over us, then continues. “Whenever I’m with my art work, people don’t hesitate to talk to me,” and so when he feels bad, he goes to a park to weave.
His work has attracted attention. “I knew someone would notice,” he says, “but I didn’t think past that. The response has been unreal,” with write-ups in local papers, offers of money for whatever he happens to be working on, and commissions for people’s own properties. When he’s not working at his art, he also collects bottles. He lived briefly with the homeless community that took up residence in Regina Park, and now lives in an apartment on the Gorge. “My work is about doing good, and being good.”
McLaverty’s work seems to occupy a realm closer to many landscape artists in Canada, such as Peter Von Tiesenhausen or Marlene Creates, who use natural materials to build installations and interventions in their local environments. To halt pipeline development, Von Tiesenhausen took out copyright on his 800 acres of land in Alberta in 1996, claiming it as a work of art. His work is characterized by the pursuit of ecological sustainability, as well as examination of large forces—birth, death, nature, growth, and decay. He has launched charred boats filled with earth into the Bow River; he has woven sculptures from willow and left them to slowly sink into the prairie; each year he constructs another panel of a white picket fence he has been building and painting for over 25 years. The previous years stretch behind the most recent, slowly weathering and decaying.
Marlene Creates, a Newfoundland artist, explores the imprint humans make on landscape. One photo series documents outdoor sleeping places—and the flattened grasses her body creates—during a multi-day walk around the island. She assembles stones as sculptures, photographs her hand on rocks and tree trunks, and is slowly altering her own acreage through installations of poems in situ. Art as installation in landscape can be a way of marking presence, creating place, and collaborating with the natural world rather than thinking oneself separate from it.
After we sit for a while, McLaverty takes me to the forest overlooking the Gorge Waterway, where we can see the tide rushing in. “I climb up this one to hang out with the owls,” he says, pointing to a mature alder tree. “And here,” he says, pointing to a log, “I like to sit and make the sculptures. It’s quiet.” The ground is littered with old ivy whips and dead branches. Two of his sculptures—spheres inside spheres, twined together—dangle from the branch of a Douglas-fir. The forest looks archetypal; freed from invasive ivy the trunks soar.
Artists create what they see, even if it can’t yet be seen by others. “I noticed in the trees things that weren’t there yet. I saw shapes in the trees. I chose the trees because they’re the ones that speak to me.” He stops to whistle at a hummingbird that zooms by us in the forest, and then we continue walking through his work of art, arriving back to the parking lot, where he gives me the six-foot blackberry sphere with an intricate ivy flower interior that he’s been carrying. It’s now hanging from a tree in my yard.
Maleea Acker, PhD, completed her doctorate in Human Geography (Geopoetics) in September. She teaches at the University of Victoria; part of her dissertation will appear as the poetry book Hesitating Once to Feel Glory with Nightwood Editions in Spring 2022.