18 CAPITAL NEWS, Wednesday March 18, 1992
Rat represents destructive spirit
I'M A LUMBERJACK and I'm not OK.
At least that's the message representatives of B C. a forest industry seemed
to get from Vernon artist Julie Oakes' painting "Once There Were Valleys,"
in the "Timelines, Deadlines, Lifelines show which ran at the Kelowna Art
Gallery from Jan. l4 to Feb.23. If you missed what all the fuss was about,
you can see the show at the Vernon Art Gallery starting at the end of this
The show is a collection of works in various two and three-dimensional media
by seven Canadian artists expressing their concerns about sociopolitical and
environmental issues, a kind of visual arts protests.
Oakes' triptych depicts a rat driving a bulldozer or skidder engaged in
clear-cutting, destroying the remnants of a beautiful landscape. She
describes it as "a visual metaphor" criticizing man's destruction of nature
in general, bad logging practices in particular; but not an attack on the
forestry industry per Se. or on its workers.
Oakes, widely known as a social and political issue-oriented artist, says
that actually, "It, (Once There Were Valleys), seemed to me it was a fairly
benign statement compared with some other things I've done."
As it became known across Canada (the controversy gaining greater and more
widespread publicity than the Kelowna Art Gallery has ever seen), the forest
industry didn't feel the same and took out large newspaper ads. in addition
to phoning and writing Oakes and the gallery to complain that the use of a
rat to depict the skidder's driver was meant as a denigration of forestry
workers. Some contacted the gallery, seeking removal of the painting from
the show and an apology from the gallery.
The gallery's board answered the complaints but did not feel an apology or
removal of the work was called for.
For her own part, Oakes denies such allegations, explaining that in her
mind, all the things being done to the forests, the loss of streams and
wildlife habitat along with trees, "just crystallized in terms of a rat in a
bulldozer." Rather than a specific industry or group of workers, the rat
represents the kind of spirit or mind that causes such destructive
She notes that she'd be unlikely to cast aspersions on a group of workers,
anyway, being in general a supporter of the working man (and woman).
However, there's a much broader issue at stake here than whether or not
Oakes' painting attacks foresters or the forestry industry; or whether or
not her views or concerns as expressed in her art foster goodwill or add
constructively to any dialogue about a sustainable
social-environmental-economic strategy as noted in the forest industry's ad
Freedom of expression is vital to any society, to any individual, and
certainly any artist; in fact, to truly be an artist one must express
oneself honestly and freely. Otherwise one is a craftsman or copier. Art
answers only to itself.
And with that provocative statement I'll have to leave this subject for now.
To be continued!