Earthly Delights winning artist Chantel Ness in conversation with Show & Telephone’s Madeline Walker & Audra Lambert
Thanks Chantel for chatting with us! What about the theme of the open call “Earthly Delights” caught your attention in relation to your artistic practice?
While contemplating the theme of “Earthly Delights”, I was drawn to the notions of clearing and culling to make room for growth and new creation. My artistic practice materialized as a direct result of pandemic isolation. I had been caught in a cycle of overexertion and perpetual burn-out: chasing career achievements for fulfillment. Only once I removed the superficial distractions of my work life was I able to peer inward to discover a well-spring of latent creativity and find my place as an artist. This has been a season to release those patterns and behaviors that once felt so important, but now appear redundant, trivial or even inflammatory.
One of my larger works – “Spring Training: The World Without Us” – was inspired by reading Alan Wesiman’s article “Earth Without People” and his follow-up non-fiction book. His thought-experiment on depopulation prompted me to contemplate the possibility we may never return to the outside world as it was pre-pandemic. This piece imagines an Earth devoid of any future human interference or destruction. Left only with remnants of our infrastructure, the flora and fauna are given space to thrive and evolve into newer, more resilient forms. What could be possible if we surrendered control and let life happen organically?
In “Conservation of Greatness”, I celebrate “Earthly Delights” through the simple freedom of play outdoors. The purest pleasure can be found in fresh cut grass, a warm breeze and connection to the body in coordinated motion. The fusion of indoor/outdoor spaces suggests a disintegration of confinement. The wistful longing for a return to open-air interactions is a base human compulsion: a prescription for fear and isolation.
Can you give us insight into how your upbringing and experience living in rural areas in Canada influenced your work, for example with Controlled Burn?
I hail from a remote town in Northern Saskatchewan called Meadow Lake. It is known for being a vast and empty space populated only by those tough enough to stand the unforgiving winters by playing hockey. In my upbringing, there was such an emphasis on athletics at the detriment of artistic or cultural pursuits. For a time I grappled with self-pity at my interests being swept aside before ultimately embracing my unique positioning. I had been a spectator for long enough to know the world of sports intimately, but maintain the outsider’s vantage point necessary to expand the discourse of athletics through contemporary art. As a way of entering into dialogue with those around me, I use sport as an accessible medium to approach deeper themes of importance to me. I revel at the chance to take subject matter traditionally perceived as “low-brow” and elevate it to a topic worthy of artistic contemplation.
My piece “Controlled Burn” was motivated by the boreal backdrop of my “wildhood”. Taking the life cycle of the tree as a metaphor for ideation: from germination to maturation, with stages of revision and deconstruction before emerging as a finished article. In wildland management, a controlled burn is essential to maintaining the health of a forest or grassland ecosystem. Whether with the intention to re-wild an area that was once urbanized or as a preventative measure, a prescribed burn can mitigate future hazards. While seemingly a violent and destructive act, the burn reveals the soil’s mineral layer and stimulates seed germination. To me, this serves as a poignant symbol as we set about emerging from our pandemic state. Perhaps without the proverbial heat, we might not have undergone this integral process of examination. The Timbersport depicted in this piece is called a “Spring Chop” – apt for my ruminations on the theme.
You have mentioned forest fires and your relationship to individuals working in that industry, can you elaborate on how this impacts your work?
In my community, which is predominantly First Nations, there is a tragic lack of economic growth and development. A trend emerged where persons in dire circumstances were inclined to light forest fires simply to be hired on a team paid to extinguish the fires. In the most extreme cases, these infernos would become uncontrolled causing unintended destruction of homes and infrastructure. My father, a Conservation Officer, became an Arson Fire Investigator tasked with discovering the sources of ignition. His involvement with these blazes educated me not only on fire prevention and management but of systemic inequality for Indigenous Peoples. Recently in Kamloops British Columbia, the bodies of 215 First Nations children were found buried on the site of a Catholic Residential School. Weighing heavy on my heart, the stone border painted on “Controlled Burn” contains 215 markers representing each of those victims. Canada has been broken for a very long time and only now are steps being taken toward reconciliation.
I find some topics are too painful to approach directly. I prefer instead to deploy unusual and humorous contexts to make work that toes the line between lighthearted and sincere. Disguised in a visually optimistic language, my work draws on the various tensions in my sphere of consciousness. Finding a way to constructively parse thoughts of racial inequality, gender disparity, extremism, climate crisis and mental health has been vital to my practice.
What do you have ongoing and/or upcoming that you can share with us?
Prior to taking up painting, I made a career in Interior Design. I think you can see traces of my former métier bleeding into my compositions. A friend of mine has taken over an iconic Sports Bar in Montreal, I have been joyfully commissioned to provide artwork and imprint my design sensibilities. Sneak preview: hand-painted wallpaper depicting former Montreal Expos baseball players in PlayGirl poses. I have been delighted how my practice has built a bridge to other humans: both artists and sports fans in equal measure. To have my voice as a female artist represented in a traditionally male-dominated space is supremely satisfying.
Once COVID restrictions ease, I dream of staging my first solo exhibition “Sports: Illustrated”. Being confined to my loft for the last 16 months has yielded a robust body of work and a yearning to share my work with others in a physical space. Until then, I continue with my self-taught practice, untangling ideas on canvas including some larger-scale pieces currently in progress.
The artist can be found at her website – Chantel Ness, www.minorleagues.xyz and on Instagram: @minor_leagues. -Ed.s