1080 Keewatin St,
Thunder Bay, ON, P7B 6T7

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On The Trail

About On The Trail by Denise Smith

Growing up on the edge of Lake Superior, in Thunder Bay, Ontario, amongst giant tracts of wilderness; hiking, canoeing, and camping have always been an essential part of my life and practice. Recently, I have come to question my perspectives on nature, outdoor recreation, and my relationship with National or Provincial Parks. Interactions with the land in these spaces are never unmediated; conceptualizing and compartmentalizing nature for touristic consumption. The much sought after authentic back-to-nature experience is always moderated by manicured gravel covered campsites, portage-route signs, informational plaques, hiking trail maps, and corralled by the boundaries of the park. Also, controversial components of the history of these landscapes are carefully curated to cushion dark truths or shameful histories.

Each of my ceramic sculptures is an intricate wilderness scene. The pieces are arranged to create a park-like installation presenting a guided experience of personal and collective narratives about the Canadian park system. I work with commercially produced ceramic molds to reference and parody the kitsch souvenir and utilize the familiarity of kitsch as an “in” for the viewer. Each sculpture is a landscape diorama in the round; the viewer must walk around the whole piece to understand the full story. The sculptures use literary devices such as dramatic irony, parody, and pathetic fallacy to set the scene and convey each narrative. The installation creates the effect of a three-dimensional storybook. Ultimately my work is not about facts so much as it is about subjective human experiences of traveling through the parks.

The body of work I created for, On the Trail, focuses on two parks, Banff National Park (Alberta) and Algonquin Provincial Park (Ontario). I appreciate these spaces and consider them invaluable, irreplaceable, and uniquely Canadian. Yet, also note that the park system is often an active participant in a process of mediation, construction, containment and concealment, resulting in unintentional effects on the landscape, the wildlife, and us. This ambivalence is the crux of my work. I am simultaneously attracted to and wary of objects designed for the tourist industry such as informational pamphlets that instruct people on how to experience a hiking trail, ceramic plates covered in bucolic illustrations of the Canadian landscape, and knick-knack miniatures of moose or grizzly bears. While I enjoy many of these objects, appreciating them on both aesthetic and nostalgic levels, I believe they fail to embody the truth about the spaces they promote.

My attachment to and enchantment with the parks is evident in the landscapes I create. I want to draw viewers into these spaces by expressing the beauty I see, as well as the wonder and childlike curiosity I feel while visiting them. My intent is to captivate viewers through seemingly familiar ceramic forms, drawing them in with clever narratives and then artfully informing them. I charm the viewer with beautifully treated landscapes full of engaging characters acting out humorous stories, all of which at first appear straightforward but upon further reflection reveal the unintended consequences of transforming nature into a mediated or manufactured landscape.

Denise Smith is a Canadian ceramic sculptor born in Thunder Bay, ON. She is a recent graduate of the University of Regina’s Master of Fine Arts program, in Saskatchewan, Canada , and received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. Her sculptures explore the dichotomy between natural and urban environments. Referencing traditional figurines and the ceramic souvenir, she engages with viewers through delight and humor. Denise has exhibited her work across Canada as well as internationally.