A BC biologist and artist wants his work to draw attention to what is here…and what is missing.
SOMETIMES ABSENCE can give us a clearer vision of the truth than what is present. Scientists extrapolate from what is missing as much as from what is there; artists create impressions of life that supersede reality by choosing to omit certain details. Sculptor Guthrie Gloag is both an artist and a scientist, and in 10 full-scale wildlife pieces he’s offering at his second solo show at Madrona Gallery, he uses descriptive and narrative aspects of absence to create his imagery and telegraph his message.
If we encounter an animal in the wild, we don’t need to see every individual hair or claw to fully experience its energy and character; when we see an array of driftwood shapes on a beach, we know that it’s wood without seeing the entire tree it came from.
To create his sculptures, Gloag carefully selects beach-sanded fragments of cedar and fir, which are inventoried and assembled in a months-long, improvisational process. Using decking screws and drills to affix the unaltered wood fragments to each other, his works gradually come to life as solutions to his self-created, organic visions, resembling three-dimensional “puzzles.” There is no set plan or armature, only layers upon layers of evocative shapes that begin to describe an animal’s presence. His sculptures are a dance of abundant detail and lack of information, forcing the viewer’s brain to create the impression of surfaces, details, and aliveness.
"Coastal Wolf" by Guthrie Gloag
“I have learned as I’ve built my process that sometimes the absence of a piece of wood is beneficial; to create negative spaces is just as important,” says Gloag. “The hollow is there, and the shadow creates an animal’s eye for the viewer.” The realistic size of his work is also an integral part of the experience. “I try to stay true to scale; I find that it creates a presence…for the viewer. There may be some exaggerations, like extending legs to enhance a sense of movement, but I try to stick to scale.” The relative size of each animal, as compared to a human viewer, is a visceral experience for Gloag, who depicts only subjects he has observed directly, sometimes during his field work as a biologist.
The allegiance to realistic scale means that when he depicts a subject like a grizzly bear (and yes, he’s been near enough to one in the wild to say it made him “feel small”), there are certain logistical issues, like door widths, transportation vessels, and sheer weight—Gloag is up for all of it. “It’s a challenge I love…the process of conceiving something in my mind and then setting forth to make it in three dimensions, I find immense joy in it.” He learned the hard way with his first Grizzly piece, which couldn’t be removed from his Vancouver apartment without being disassembled. Now on Bowen Island, Gloag and his young family live in a home that includes a 600-square-foot studio he uses for sculpting; he’s enjoying that it has double French doors.
The largest sculpture Gloag created isn’t in a gallery, or part of someone’s private collection; it’s in the woods, “somewhere in BC,” far off the beaten track, where the artist intends for people to come across it incidentally. The 14-foot-tall mastodon is, for Gloag, a message about extinction and preservation, and a labour of love. He completed it “under cover of winter” a year and a half ago, the seasonal rains ensuring he would be largely undetected as he backpacked 100-pound loads of thousands of driftwood pieces to the site, assembling a massive, one-ton sculpture that has gotten coverage on CBC and become a destination site for the adventurous. I ask whether the sculpture has been disturbed by those who manage to find it. “It has been a test of humanity, and so far, humanity has passed,” Gloag reports. “People have been very protective of it. They love the sentiment of it; it’s a message of conservation. People are interacting with it, and leaving it as it is.”
"Black Bear" by Guthrie Gloag
As a child growing up in North Vancouver’s Deep Cove, Gloag says the ethic of conservation got woven deep. “I was always in nature, in the wilderness, identifying birds with my mom, going out in the boat with my dad. The intrinsic importance of nature was instilled in me from a young age.” While he didn’t identify himself as an artist, “Art has always been a necessity; to build, to create.” The young Gloag made fantasy figures out of clay and built forts in the woods. As a UVic student earning his degree in biology and environmental studies, he was “looking for a creative outlet. I tried stone sculpture, but was not very good at it. I tried painting as well.” During a vacation with his wife on Galiano Island in 2011, he assembled a life-sized driftwood sculpture of a deer on the beach, and “it kind of clicked. Sometimes people say, ‘I’m not good at art,’ but you just need to find your medium.”
Gloag started out sculpting with only a passion to please himself, and a self-assigned mission to comment on both the majesty and fragility of wild creatures. He left his sculptures right where he made them, letting others anonymously encounter them on the beaches or hiking trails. He started to notice, though, that his efforts were getting “collected,” and when Madrona Gallery owner Michael Warren ended up at Gloag’s home for a casual dinner party, conversation immediately turned to finding him a wider audience and developing his career as a professional sculptor.
“He wasn’t even at a point where he was considering there would be a market for his work,” Warren says of the fortuitous meeting. “As soon as I saw it, I was blown away, as far as the impact of it and how it’s constructed. For me, it immediately connected all the dots of this place—the material that he’s using is of this land; the subject matter he’s creating are all animals he has experience with in his biology and conservation work; and the aesthetic, his own personal style, connects with the roughness and the feel of this place so well.”
Gloag’s work has indeed found a wider audience, and his pieces are now part of collections all over the globe. Response has been so positive that many are waiting their turn to have “right of first refusal” on his sculptures as he completes them. The ten pieces in the Madrona Gallery show will no doubt be snapped up, but it’s worth taking some time to be in the presence of these “animals,” created by an artist who is reverently conjuring the majesty of a particular animal’s presence—while starkly commenting on the increasing absence of wild things in our region.
“Instinct,” works by sculptor Guthrie Gloag, June 2-16, opening reception 1pm–4pm Saturday, June 2, Madrona Gallery, 606 View St. More info at madronagallery.com or 250-380-4660.
Mollie Kaye is a visual artist who grew up with a biochemist mom and a biophysicist dad. She appreciates the creative and scientific sensibilities that Gloag brings to his work.
CBC Arts' 2017 video about Guthrie Gloag: