Questions about the installation Milkweed Patch

Where did you get the idea?

I always loved science, but we were told that one had to choose between the arts and the sciences. I chose art because I knew my imagination would always be a distraction, perhaps to the point of insanity, if I couldn't somehow harness it.
Milkweed Patch began with watching caterpillars. When I was a kid, Toronto entomologist Fred Urquhart had sent out a call for volunteers to tag monarchs, to find out where they migrate to in the fall. A lot of the people who ended up being important to that research were children, but I wasn't one of them. There are no monarchs in Alberta, so I practised putting sticky labels on a few unfortunate common sulphur butterflies. I was ecstatic to see them when I moved to Ontario, but by then I was a busy adult person, with no time to be proccupied with butterflies.

But in 1989, during an emotional break-down, a friend let me spend a lot of time at her home in the country. That year the monarchs were abundant, and their chrysali festooned the eaves like little jade lanterns. I had the time to watch the monarchs closely. I began to identify with their lives. So Milkweed Patch began with drawings and photos made on Manitoulin Island in 1989 and 1990. It was shown as a work in progress at Cedar Ridge Gallery in Scarborough, Ontario and the Cornwall (Ontario) Regional Art Gallery. It made its debut in its final form at A Space Gallery in 1999, where the pictures were taken that are featured on this web-site.
My educational work is also based on the process that created Milkweed Patch. Through my educational projects I try to let children know, not that they have to rescue Nature from us, but that Nature is there for them, if only in a crack in the sidewalk. She can help them through hard times, teach and entertain them. They don't have to have gobs of money to feel fully alive, to create.

If you like butterflies so much, how can you use silk? To make the silk you used in your artwork, millions of pupae were boiled alive inside their cocoons!

I wanted to use silk for its beauty, and the fact that it is a real insect product. Some artists, such as Canada's Aganetha Dyck, collaborate with animals like beavers or bees to make artwork. Milkweed Patch did not involve a collaboration, but a large-scale sacrifice of insect life. This was appropriate for an artwork that, among other things, tries to confront our fear of death.
Milkweed Patch grew from grief caused by a large-scale human loss during the AIDS epidemic: one that swept through my friendships from about 1987 to 1993 and that is still growing in Africa and worldwide. Often my personal mourning combined with fear for the fate of the migrant monarch butterflies. Insects died, people died during the making of this work. In a real way, the insect tragedy represents other losses, including personal ones experienced by viewers and environmental disasters such as the large winter kills due to deforestation of the monarchs' Mexican refuge.
Most of all, my purpose was to create the opportunity to make an important point. Animals generally don't become extinct because we use them, but because we destroy the habitats in which they live. I respect vegetarians, especially in view of the tremendous cruelty, waste and habitat destruction that accompany our industrial farming and fishing methods. But the use of animals for food and clothing needn't involve any of this. Aboriginal traditions teach us that respectful and sustainable use of the land, not abstention, is basic to an ecologically sustainable economy. They teach that we can take with respect, gratitude, love and intelligence.
Herein lies the key to united action among environmentalists, First Nations and resource workers such as loggers, trappers, farmers and fishermen. Many of us have a "Sunday" attitude toward the earth. We want a few pristine areas set aside for our enjoyment, but we figure our farms and cities are hopeless. This is not the case. The continued existence of large areas of true wilderness is necessary for the health of all the living systems we depend on: air, weather, water, soil, the regeneration of our foodplants and animals. But wilderness has always included a human presence.
And if we want to improve our health now and permit today's children to have a real life and a living, we must use the land with respect always. All over the world, traditional methods have been in use that filled the needs of dense populations century after century. Over the last thirty years, new technologies and working methods have been developed for industry, farming, energy and civic design that would create good jobs that solve problems and perform vital services.
The way that resources are taken now results in layoffs of millions of workers as a fishery or forest is destroyed, but knowledge from the past and the present exists to replace needlessly destructive ways of managing economies. The use of silk in Milkweed Patch makes the subtle but vital point that respect for life needn't force one to live like a Jain monk. In any but the most short-sighted scenarios, ecological sense also makes economic sense.

There seems to have been a native influence on your art.

There definitely has been. But nobody had to tell me that it is disrespectful to try to imitate someone else's culture, or that insights must be earned and not borrowed. I knew I would lose my friendships among native people if I exploited our relationships in any way. So I'm concerned about the issue of cultural appropriation.
I benefited greatly from knowing more than one culture, and the chief benefit is to know that I wasn't crazy to feel uncomfortable with aspects of my own. My culture isn't reality: it's my culture. It's the legacy that I was given, and that I can influence as I pass it on. That awareness helps me to accept myself and to explore reality with greater freedom, though often with some discomfort. I use what I learn to try to develop and heal my own culture so that it will stop being so destructive.
Most native teachings are freely shared, and two were of special benefit to me. One was the belief, not metaphorical at all, that plants and animals are our healers and teachers. This confirmed the way I had always felt toward other creatures, and was a needed source of strength. Another very helpful teaching was that it's our duty to use the gifts the creator sent us into the world with. In a lifelong struggle with creative block caused by my own culture's contempt for artists, that was the mantra that enabled me to sit down and start moving my hands each time I worked on a piece.

Originally, the drawings and paintings I created under these insights bore too much resemblance to various types of aboriginal art. (See Humanoid Skull, at right) I abandoned that approach to try to make an original statement. As I explored my own identity, I remembered the ten-year-old who wanted to be a scientist. Returning to my original observations of the monarch butterfly, I began to base my drawings on biological illustration. It was gratifying to realize that biology's first and best technique, the observation of wild nature, is also the basis of aboriginal teachings worldwide!

I finally was beginning to like what I was doing, but the small scale of my drawings made them seem more precious than transformative, like fairy tale and nature illustrations. In order to help the viewer sense the power and terror of metamorphosis, and to firm up the association with human life cycle, I scaled the project up to human size. Without my conscious effort, other cultural references seep in, from Carl Jung to Odilon Redon to Lewis Carroll. The process was long and and the results are kind of strange. But after watching many people walk through the installation, I don't doubt that Milkweed Patch is the complex yet accessible, all-ages experience I wanted it to be.
I'm impatient with those who would dismiss this honest struggle by labelling my concerns as "politically correct". Respecting other peoples' boundaries forced me to dig deeply into myself and my culture, always a rich creative process. I feel that through this pursuit I managed to hit an aquifer: the relationship to nature that sustains us all and that we are all entitled to. It's so important for my industrialized culture to find ways to make that connection in all fields: science, ethics, social organization. Aboriginal cultures tell us that a rich life is possible, in harmony with the earth. But we can't save ourselves by playing Indian. Other cultures can teach and guide us, but my people must dig our own way out of the immense darkness we've created.
This was a long answer to a short question, but its an important question.