“As I’m working on them, they’re just pieces of wood until something clicks, and then I feel I’m working with the spirit of the animal.”
IF YOU'VE BEEN OUT AND ABOUT in Victoria lately, chances are you’ve encountered one of Tanya Bub’s driftwood creations. You may have seen or heard of her larger than life-size tribute to Takaya, the lone wolf of Discovery Island, who famously swam to shore in January of 2020 and was discovered in James Bay. After conservation officers moved him to the wild, he was killed by a hunter and Victorians grieved the loss of this beautiful creature.
Driftwood sculpture of Takaya by Tanya Bub
To make Takaya, Bub glued at least a thousand pieces of driftwood together with shells and kelp, all collected on his Discovery Island. To see this sculpture in person is to feel the spirit of this stunning being. Hub’s Takaya stands 5 feet high by 7 feet long and weighs over 150 pounds. He’s been making appearances in various locations on Vancouver Island after his debut in the lobby of the Empress Hotel.
Besides Takaya, Bub’s work can be seen all over Victoria. There’s a life-size biker riding a bike in one of Mountain Equipment Coop’s window displays. Some of her current works, including a collection of Wild Art driftwood sculptures and a life-size paper mâché rendering of Emily Carr are making an appearance in the downtown Bay Centre. The Wild Art collection includes several cougars, herons, an owl and an eagle who will soon find their forever home at Vancouver Island’s newest tourist destination, the Malahat Skywalk.
Owl sculpture, driftwood, by Tanya Bub
This isn’t bad exposure for an artist who got started in her medium less than two years ago.
A youthful woman with an easy smile and intelligent eyes, Bub is a true renaissance person. She graduated “a lifetime ago” from the Emily Carr School of Art and Design. This was her second degree after earning a Philosophy of Science degree from McGill University. Up until 2019, she was a computer programmer who owned her own website development company. Over the last few years, she and her father, Jeffrey Bub, a philosophy professor at the University of Maryland, collaborated on two children’s science books: one covering quantum physics and the other on Einstein’s theory of relativity, the latter of which will be released April of 2021.
“They are both first principle books where all the understanding derives from some simple thing which is then slowly unpacked to reveal some larger truth.” Bub says. “For me that’s a way more interesting way of understanding things: start with something simple that you 100 percent understand and then see where you can get from that.”
Tanya Bub with driftwood elephant sculpture
In a sense, Bub’s uninhibited imagination for driftwood was sparked using first principles. In 2019, she was walking on the beach with her daughter and saw a piece of wood that looked just like a breeching Orca. She showed it to her daughter who saw the same image. The piece was a complete sculpture in and of itself. From there Bub had an idea to collect enough driftwood to make a face. Those faces developed into dozens of unique and expressive mask-like sculptures. The masks eventually evolved into busts that broke free from the wall and now most of her pieces live in the 3D world where setting is a part of the aesthetic experience.
Bub has made hundreds of pieces in the last two years: squirrels, opera singers, elephants, lions, mythical beings, ducks, flowers and more. Each piece has a life all its own and Bub’s imagination and inventiveness seems boundless.
For many viewers, her work elicits a strong emotional reaction. “People do love them,” she says. “For me, it’s all in the eyes. As I’m working on them, they’re just pieces of wood until something clicks, and then I feel I’m working with the spirit of the animal.”
Searching for uniqueness
By early 2020, she had made enough pieces for a show at the Gage Gallery on Oak Bay Avenue. Then COVID-19 hit, and almost as soon as she got them there, she had to take them out. She took a risk and put these pieces on display on her front lawn which fronts busy Fairfield Road. It was a wise decision. Besides cheering the pandemic hearts of those passing by, her work quickly gained a lot of positive attention and she is enjoying a meteoric rise as an artist.
Surprisingly, only one of her pieces (one of the original faces) has been stolen from her lawn. But Bub says she’s not really worried about theft at all. Besides trusting her community, she says that working primarily with found objects allows her to experiment and be more carefree than she might be if she worked with expensive materials like canvas and paint.
“The way I see it,” she says, “is there was a tree. It was a beautiful tree and it got to be a few hundred years old and then it died and fell. Somehow it made its way into the ocean and then spent maybe 35 years floating around and then it came up on the beach. Maybe it spent 12 years on the beach and then I picked it up and put it in a sculpture and maybe it’ll spend 15 years as a cougar in a tree and then who knows?”
One of Bub’s favourite places to collect driftwood is on Ross Bay, a few blocks away from her home. Wearing typical West Coast layers, she briskly walks up and down the small hills that take her there. She knows the route well and is always excited to go to her favourite beach to do her favourite thing. On this sunny Spring day, she raises a concern that she’s going to the beach without a bag. “It’s going to be very tempting.” she says. “Oh man…I wish I’d brought one.”
The second Bub steps foot on the rocks, a profound attention and stillness comes over her. She’s immediately in the zone. To most of us, the beach is covered in random rocks and wood. Bub’s eyes see something different: the tip of an ear, the curve of a spine, the history of a tree from miles and miles away. Her regret about not bringing a bag is now fully realized.
“This is really awesome wood,” she says as she walks over the crunchy rocks. “It’s all pretty dry.” She picks up a piece and puts it in her pocket. “This is the problem,” she laughs. “Every piece is unique. If I leave it, I’m never going to see it again…Oh my God. I wish I had my bags!”
What Bub looks for is uniqueness. She is interested in colour, form and history. She says that it’s “nice when you can see the history of the wood in the form. You might see where the wood grew around a rock or something, or you’ll see how it’s weathered by stone or by water, and then you have all that history built into your piece. Then when the person looks at the sculpture, there’s all these extra layers in it.”
She picks up a small piece with tiny holes throughout.
“Look at the history of this piece,” she says. “The wood was eaten away by bugs and then spent a long time floating around and getting smoothed. You can kind of tell this thing has been through a lot, right?”
When her pieces are assembled, Bub believes that the viewer subconsciously sees all the motion of the ocean and the history of tree while also seeing the shape of the sculpture it’s become. Hub says the viewer implicitly recognizes resurrection which deepens the reaction to the work. “People see something that had a long history in life and a long follow-up history in death,” she says. “And now all that is resurrected into the form of another thing that looks alive.”
“Luke” driftwood sculpture by Tanya Bub
Bub suggests that many people feel locked out of art appreciation, especially when it comes to classical art. Without training, most viewers lack context and don’t see the work’s place in art history, which can leave them feeling cold. “This is where you get that my five-year-old could have done this kind of reaction,” she says. “To have a true aesthetic experience,” Bub continues, “you need to have the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic stimulated at the same time, and that often requires levels of understanding which you get if you have a background in art history. Then you can look at a Duchamp or Kandinsky and all these lights go off, but for people who don’t have that—the driftwood gets you that for free.”
With driftwood art, Bub believes the intellectual underpinnings that allow some people to appreciate some art is replaced by a subconscious knowing because “everybody kind of understands the history that’s innate in driftwood and we all have a strong connection to trees.”
Less than half an hour at the beach and Bub has filled her pockets and then some. “Ok, I should leave now,” she says as she picks up a dozen more. She smiles, “I can’t help myself. It’s like picking up jewels. I just really love driftwood.” She laughs at the understatement, “so very, very much.”
She’ll be back tomorrow—this time with her bags.
To see some of Bub’s work, follow her on Instagram: victoriadrifter or visit her website. Some of her sculptures are also on display at the Bay Centre in Victoria (units 120 and 300) until April 18, 2021.
Sandy Ibrahim is a freelance writer living in Victoria, BC.