A Storyteller’s Journal…
At best, and if I’m fortunate, I make photographs because of what stands in front of my camera. Doing so I hope to honour what is greater and probably more interesting than I am.
I never realize this perfectly, though in return I am gifted something as close to perfect as I can imagine… a sense of inclusion.
One of the landscapes I photograph is the rolling prairie of Southwestern Manitoba. Land here is neatly divided into square miles, intersecting road allowances, and grassland grids that lie beneath Turtle Mountain. My Hossack family heritage began here with Scottish immigrants in the 1800’s.
I came of age in this landscape.
I was born in Winnipeg, then within a year moved to the traditional Mennonite community of Steinbach . The landscape there is the bald, billiard-table-flat of the Red River Valley.
At the age of 12 my family moved to my father’s hometown of Killarney; a settlement set on terrain formed by rivers of the last melting ice age. A glacial moraine mis-named Turtle ‘Mountain’ barely rises on the southwestern horizon. This landmark sits right on the 49th parallel. Here is the place where my visual dialogue with the world began.
As a youth, tobogganing on “Dead Man’s Hill”—another moraine nearer my family’s home—I’d find my gaze fixed on the rolling landscape spread beneath me. Exploring on foot, I followed small coulees where water braids creeks that eventually form the river known as the Pembina. It snakes its way back east then south down the escarpment to the Red River Valley.
Not long after, like the Pembina, I too ventured east—in my case to attend University in Toronto. I returned often but with cameras and put my home landscape in front of the lens. Honouring both land and people. Inclusion here forms my dialogue with those grasslands, Turtle Mountain, the source of the Pembina, and more.
I return still, although most of my family is removed from me now, though still there—buried in family plots—and as much a part of the landscape as ever. A glib observation, but honest in the way nature creates unexpected irony. I allow myself these moments of peculiarity and privilege.
Surviving siblings and I explore our own personal, human landscapes—across time and place. When I return now, I often bring friends, my wife and daughter, other photographers and artists. Together, we immerse in the place and people where this story began.
Cranes too cycle through seasons guided by landscape, meandering tidal rivers of time, south in fall and back north in spring. We embrace their natural rhythm and feel ourselves assuming the cadence of journeys to and from our homes.
Community, by definition, brings inclusion and a sense of home. The word “home” is rich in meanings, but it is a place where no fact is set apart; everything is connected.
Art has, I believe, fundamentally always been about that place and condition: home … inclusion.
The prairie surrounding the moraines of the southwest has changed over the years. On this landscape, wind turbines spin a new harvest, powering so-called “clean” electrical power grids. That wind’s former sweetgrass fragrance recast as agricultural smog vented from factory hog barns. Cheap protein for absentee corporate landlords. They don’t understand the fundamental aroma of wildflower and hay.
Though not many landscapes are at once as beautiful and as damaged, —most are damaged because we’ve invaded them— all are similarly discordant.
I see the way it was and the way it is, by virtue of my personal lens.
This prairie place is the focal point that began my lifelong passion for visual storytelling. Because of its proximity to my family’s home and in the greater perspective, because it is fundamentally characteristic of great plains everywhere and to the individual relationship we all have with landscape, external or internal.
A typical vacant lot anywhere today is as likely to contain not only scattered vegetation both native and invasive, but broken asphalt, styrofoam, or abandoned appliances. The air may smell of wildflowers or rain, but as likely oil or sewage.
You may hear a Mourning Dove’s call but often against some sterility, the flapping of a plastic bag caught on barbed wire.
It may seem I’m lamenting the state of the geography surrounding my personal artistic dialogue. But bear this in mind:
- Art is a discovery of harmony, a vision of disparity reconciled of form discovered beneath the confusion.
- Art doesn’t deny disparity, rather places it in a context affirming the structure of the picture, or sculpture or poem or… which is metaphor for creation. Evil is not immutable.
- Art seeks order and invents ways to put a ‘sense of order’ in our work, or alternately, art may invent from the confusion of life a simplification; a picture with more order than the literal subject.
- Artists intuit this understanding of life.
- Art is not a science and isn’t content mechanically to record what is objectively verifiable.
- Art in fact does not ‘prove’ anything.
What art does do is record one of those brief seconds we all experience (and then forget) when we are allowed to understand that Creation is whole.
Over the years I have come to understand we live in several landscapes simultaneously one of these the Landscape of Hope, though we usually focus on what is characteristic of the immediate (and perhaps troubled) present, it is foolish to think other geographies are unimportant or separate.
This Landscape of Hope is singular and generic. Elements within its scope are often simple, common, yet deeply profound.
Were you and I to drive to the source of the Pembina River together, and the day turned out to be a good one, we might not say much.
We might get out of the car at a crossroad, stretch, walk a little way and then walk back.
Maybe a meadowlark would sing.
Maybe we would stand for a while…
—all views to the horizon
—all roads interesting
We might find here balance of form and openness, even of community and freedom.
Or, just two roads, four fields, a bird, and the sky.
*with notes from and thanks to Robert Adams