Robert Amos

Times Colonist newspaper

November 1, 2013


Roberta Pyx Sutherland is well known for her long-running series of crusty abstractions. Her Earth Birthing exhibition at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in 1987 was all about her cosmic view. For a long time she has followed the idea that the macrocosm — the satellite view of the Earth, for instance — is identical to the microcosm — the lichens that grow on ancient rocks. She expresses this idea in many media, in projects from tiny to rather large. That's about all I knew of her, until my recent visit to her James Bay studio. I had a lot to learn. Sutherland was born and raised in Vancouver, a student of the Vancouver School of Art in the early 1960s. Her earliest landscape abstractions owed something to Gordon Smith and she spoke fondly of the inspiration of Jack Shadbolt. She mentioned that she watched Toni Onley creating his huge abstract mural for the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, and I began to understand the origin of her passion for tearing and folding and collaging her paintings.

The young artist went off to Africa on a CUSO project with the intention to save the world, but in three years there she found her big dreams were puny compared to the challenges of that world. In the face of famine, practice with her paintbrush every morning kept her sane. On another chapter of her travels, she had a revelation. While riding on a train in India, she noticed the heavily veined hand of a fellow traveller, and then looked out the window at the Ganges River. It suddenly became clear — these were the same patterns.

Returning to Canada, she enrolled in the art program at the University of Victoria, commuting from Pender Island. As a mature student among a flock of young men, she found herself adrift, but the presence of Jack Wise as a visiting artist set her firmly on her path. Wise had spent time with the Tibetans and brought back the calligraphic impulse by which the energies of the cosmos and the human soul meet at the tip of the brush. He also understood that the ancient religious texts and modern science agree on the composition of the universe — we are atoms in vibration.

Sutherland practiced Zen meditation and painting in Hawaii, California and Japan, and trained as a print maker in England. There she horrified her fellow students and teachers by running all manner of things through the press, such as grape stalks and folded paper. This technique, called collograph, results in single unique prints. A residency at the Banff School of the Arts, while Tak Tanabe was head of the program, led her further into the exploration of brush and ink.

So she painted on paper, folded it, pasted it, printed it and basted it with ink and colour and metallic powders. She tore up the results, and recombined them, laid them on canvas and wrapped them around the edges. All the while she viewed the world from high above — sometimes with a hint of a curved horizon to anchor us to the Earth — and also the microscopic sense of the grit beneath her fingernails. This has resulted in a host of varied paintings all of which sing the same song.

And now … the dots. In a magic moment, her brush hesitated and a dot of ink seeped into the absorbent paper in a perfect haloed point of punctuation. And she did it again. And again. Each unique dot holds the trace of breath and muscle and will and chance. The dots form patterns in which the larger forces of the universe are manifest. The ink-play reveals a pervasive understanding of philosophy and physics.

After all, our world is made up of atoms, infinite in number and constantly recombining. The forces that bring them together and pull them apart result in the illusionary tapestry of existence which we call reality. Some of Sutherland's dots ring with a crystalline clarity; others seem to map the world in perspective systems; inevitably some (which she calls Game Plans) represent the strategies we concoct to get us through the day. Each dot is freely brushed, positioned with love and radiates with a stellar intensity. Makes one wonder …

Game Plans: Paintings by Roberta Pyx Sutherland, at Martin Batchelor Gallery, 712 Cormorant St., 250-385-7919.