So much of what you’ll find at the Denman Island Christmas Craft Fair comes from the earth: clay becomes pottery; silver and stone become jewelry; willow branches become baskets.
On first glance, Matta Schaal’s multi-media art doesn’t follow this theme whatsoever. Her materials are paper, canvas, photography, acrylic paint, glue, gesso, and plaster. Her photocollage paintings have an edginess that doesn’t match some people’s idea of “craft fair” aesthetics. But thematically, Schaal’s art fits right in – it comes from the deep dark depths of the earth, telling stories of the ways humans and nature interact, reflecting the wild mix of love and anger, hope and despair, reverence and fear so many of us feel about our natural world and our place in it.
“If I were to give a title to the work I’m doing these days it would be ‘Of Earthfolds and Excavations,’” says Schaal, a Denman Islander who is exhibiting for her 5th year at the Fair. “Picture the earth folding over on itself. What would turn up?” Layers of buried material: industrial ruins and the toxic wastes of civilization, but also bones and middens, and seeds waking up as they’re brought to light.
“You could say everything in my work is a metaphor for the interplay of industry and nature. I carry a lot of sadness and sorrow about the world. My work is a way of processing my grief. They are not pretty pictures,” she says. For instance, one of her photo-collage paintings mourns the extinction of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow with a heart-rending image of the small bird trapped in a glass jar. While Schaal feels called to visually reflect on such dark themes as extinction, environmental destruction, colonization, and oppression, her work is not all unrelenting gloom.
“My work these days is becoming more hopeful. I’m fascinated with beginnings, with seeds, with the way fresh things grow out of decay, with the idea of creatures waking up and coming to life,” she says. Her collages feature images of flowers blossoming, people embracing, and hands touching. Even when the subject is dark, her work is visually beautiful, with deep colours, flowing lines, and rich, evocative imagery.
Schaal’s process begins with a camera. She takes herself out on “photo dates,” for instance to document sandstone formations on a beach, the charred pile left when a friend’s house burnt down, the textures and shapes of derelict cars, the combination of industry and marine life at an oyster farm. She then selects shots, makes multiple prints, and spends hours, scissors in hand, cutting out shapes.
Every spare surface in her studio is covered with piles of these cut-out shapes, organized by theme: mossy tree trunks, rusty nuts and bolts, bones and skulls, flowers, hands, electrical cords, wires and outlets, entrails and organs from a slaughtered deer, and more.
Much of this imagery reflects the elements, further connecting Schaal’s work to nature. “This pile is all bones and skulls. That’s the earth element – the ancestors, the old ones, history, things that came before. There’s my feathers, wings and leaves pile; they speak to me of air, of wind, thought, intellect, liberation and freedom.” There are waves, fish and seashells for water; flames and electricity for fire.
Her finished pieces combine these images with painting to create semi-abstract, complex, highimpact art. Her work has immediate visual and emotional appeal, and also invites the viewer in closer to muse on the potential meanings the images convey.
“I love the idea of communicating in a visual way through metaphor and symbol,” says Schaal. She can tell a story for every single image in a collage – these are her friend’s hands, holding a bloody deer heart, these are old bricks from another friend’s kiln, this is the tire swing from the Denman Guesthouse, and more, so that each finished piece includes a “secret” record of her community and home. But Schaal expects viewers to create their own meanings.
“I can’t control what you’re going to see. You have to make your own story, and that’s good, that’s awesome. There’s so much room for subjectivity.”
Schaal happily admits to being driven by an obsessive drive to create. “I have a whole world of dreamscapes and creatures inside my head,” she says. This world insists on expression, which means Schaal sometimes works long hours in her studio, a cozy cabin in the forest on the Denman Island land co-op where Schaal lives.
This drive to create has been with Schaal her whole life. She received formal training at the Victoria School of Art, gaining a Fine Arts diploma in 1991. Over the years she has worked as an illustrator and tattoo artist, and participated in a number of group and solo shows. She currently works part time as youth programs provider while continuing to create art.
Originally published in The Island Word, December 2016 photos by Fireweed