Marlene Creates First Newfoundland Visual Artist to Win Governor General’s Award


Marlene Creates is an environmental artist and poet who works in a six-acre patch of boreal forest in Portugal Cove, Newfoundland, where she creates magnificent photography pieces showcasing the beauty of nature. She has also included other people’s stories and memories in her work to reflect on the relationship between language, land, and their impact on each other. She has also been commissioned to create signs and markers that incorporate people’s stories about specific places.

Most impressively, she is the first Newfoundland artist to receive a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in recognition of her artistic achievements. I spoke with her to learn more about herself as well as her work.

How did you get your start in photography?

I don’t use much of my imagination, I pay attention to what’s around me. I don’t feel the world needs me to add anything to it from my imagination. Photography is the perfect medium to pay attention to the world around you.

Though photography is my main medium, I also make videos and assemblages and sometimes I write poems. I host poetry walks in the boreal forest surrounding my home.

Poetry walks, what are those?

I write poems about what I observe, and I invite people to go on a walk through the woods, which is a patch of fairly dense forest with a stretch of a river running through it. On the walks, we pause in certain spots and I read a poem out loud to the group. They’re site-specific poems and they refer to something where we’re standing. I’ve been holding a few events every summer for the past eleven years. They’re on different themes each year, such as local geology, boreal forest ecology, our five senses, and for the past four years, the themes have been the four elements — earth, air, fire, and water. This year’s theme is “Rambles and Mammals,” which will focus on the animal creatures we share the island with, like moose, fox, snowshoe hare, and coyote. These walks always cover some aspect of ecology.

Many of the guests are faculty at MUN. The university has been a terrific resource for me to find contributors for these walks. They have included Carissa Brown, Christine Carter, Luise Hermanutz, Bill Montevecchi, Faye Murrin, and Peter Scott. Anyone interested about these walks can contact me directly through my email [email protected]

How did you decide to focus most of your work on the Newfoundland boreal forest?

I lived downtown on Bond Street for 15 years, and the only land I owned was the footprint underneath the house. Because I’m an environmental artist, I usually had to travel somewhere else to find my subject matter, although I have done work looking at the relation between the city of St. John’s and its topography. In 2002 I moved to Portugal Cove and, ever since then, I haven’t needed to travel for my subject matter, I can just pay attention to the natural world around me. It’s been wonderful.

What advice would you give to aspiring photographers?

I would say you need to pay attention to something you are curious about and care about. Be true to yourself. Try not to imagine someone looking over your shoulder and judging what you’re doing.

After more than 40 years working with photography and visual arts, have you had to adapt your technique in any way?

I’ve used many different kinds of cameras. Of course, when I started, it was all on film — I didn’t get a digital camera until 2008. I’ve also used underwater cameras. Currently I’m working with trail cameras, which are left in the woods and are triggered by the movement of animals, such as a passing moose or snowshoe hare. Often, the camera only captures just the nose of a moose entering the frame, or the hindquarters just leaving. I’m interested in these non-traditional wildlife photographs, which I’m not taking myself but leaving to chance.

What were the works that you found most enjoyable, and which were the most difficult?

I just love taking photographs so it’s hard to choose the most enjoyable. Most of my work is an inquiry. I often set up a situation to see what will happen. For example, I’ll give myself a challenge and say, “If I do this, what will the results be?” I don’t try to imagine the thing I want to create, I’m working with uncertainty, I’m comfortable with leaving things to chance. I’m working in collaboration with the natural world, so everything that happens is much richer than anything I could have imagined.
The most difficult is hard to say. There are physical challenges to doing my work. I’ve had mishaps, some broken bones, and accidents during white water canoeing. It’s not the artwork itself, but the circumstances doing my work that I sometimes find difficult.

What was the most memorable thing you’ve seen you wish you got a photo of?

I have a wish list for my trail cameras. They’ve taken pictures of moose, silver foxes, snowshoe hares and, just this winter, a ruffed grouse. At the top of my wish list is a lynx, which is unlikely because they don’t usually come very close to human habitation. And I’d really like to get a picture of a coyote as well.

If you could go anywhere in the world, what location would you most want to visit and photograph?

I’m perfectly happy spending my time with this particular patch of boreal forest, because it’s constantly changing with the seasons, the day to day changes with the vegetation, the light, the water levels in the Blast Hole Pond River. I’ll never live long enough to take it all in.

Do you have any exhibitions or lectures scheduled for the near future?

People in Newfoundland will be able to see my work this coming fall. There’s a large retrospective exhibition that’s been touring Canada and it will be at The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery, opening on October 12 and continuing until January 19, 2020. In the meantime, the exhibition will be in Ottawa at Carleton University Art Gallery from May 21 to August 25.

How did you react about getting the award?

It was very unexpected, I was very surprised. I think it’s a great endorsement for environmental art, which is very heartening. There are eight people this year receiving this award for visual and media arts and I’m the only one not from Central Canada and the first from Newfoundland. This is just the start for artists in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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