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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 month.
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 practices.
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!

Maev Brennan