FORAGE Issue One: "Foraging for Story."
Updated: Feb 18, 2021
Artwork & Text by Bobbi Sue Smith
Forage: to wander or go in search of provisions; to search about; to seek.
Forage is a series that features artists who use natural materials and found, or foraged, objects in their artwork. It addresses the ideas of what is left behind, what is lost and then found again, what has been here all along and perhaps overlooked, how the foraged can be seen differently than the bought, what the narrative is of the artist/witness interacting with the ‘coming-upon’ of their materials and how the art—in its relinquishing of the materials that are produced by consumer capitalism—speaks to our contemporary world as acts of resistance.
We are thrilled to begin Forage with some of the work and writings of Canadian Paris-based artist, Bobbi Sue Smith.
Karen Moe, editor.
I want to begin with a story about a cow.
Long ago, in Shropshire, UK, a great drought swept the land, killing the marginalized immediately, and threatening the survival of everyone else. Crops failed and livestock died of starvation. A manipulative witch promised to end the drought in return for payments of bread and cheese—the people’s last remaining line of defence against certain starvation. The witch grew fat on false hopes and the drought raged on. A green faery appeared to a shepherd in the nearby hills early one morning, leading a beautiful white cow. She instructed that each home of the village could fill one bucket of milk of any size per day, so long as the milker could carry the bucket home unassisted. If the cow were respected in this manner, she would provide enough milk to nourish every villager through the drought. The enchanted cow did as she had promised: releasing the villagers from the selfish spell of the witch. Babies grew fat again, and even the elderly kept their rosy cheeks through the winter. The witch resented losing her means to profit and, whilst the villagers slept, she set out to regain their servitude. She took a rusty bucket, full of holes, and set it under the cow. She milked the cow into the bucket that could never be filled. She milked and milked until the poor cow was no longer white, but a dun brown. The witch milked until the cow’s hide hung loose and withered from her emaciated frame. She milked until the milk was gone for good. The faery maiden, enraged, reclaimed her cow and turned the witch into a stone, which is still there to this day. And the drought? The drought raged on.
You may wonder what a magic cow has to do with foraging. Like receiving gifts from the Otherworld—the mythic world of transformation and enchantment that language cannot capture—foraging is rooted deeply in the poetics of discovery. To discover that there are gifts all around you is transformative. When we walk with trust, when we take only what we need from our environment, when we become so rooted in Place that we begin to notice the overlooked, we build a mindset of trusting that there is more than enough. When we notice the plenitude around us and make use of what is in abundant supply, we dissociate from the concept of Scarcity and embrace the concept of Plenty.
Plenty is deep medicine for Capitalism. You see, like the witch in the story, Capitalism operates on the premise of false, or contrived, scarcity, like destroying crops and livestock to drive up the price while people starve. In some ways, things haven’t changed so much from the times of the old stories.
Making art is not exempt from this manipulation. Marketing illusionists would have us believe that we need their products in order to create.
Whether for food, fibre, medicine, or colour, we can forage from the neglected and the invasive to carve out tiny systems of self-sufficiency. Seemingly insignificant in isolation, these small acts add up, becoming increasingly larger systems, shifting the status quo progressively toward a better world for everyone.
A deep transformation occurs when we begin to look at the individual ways in which we are beholden to corporate supply chains. The devil I know keeps telling me that our current, inherently destructive way is inevitable, immutable, and the only way forward. But when we step back and realize that this is not the case, we notice other ways to provide for ourselves, our families, and our communities. What we do inspires others, eventually reaching a critical mass that benefits our collective humanity.
The deep void created by systems of greed cannot be filled with more greed. Instead, the best course of action is to fill it with imagination and creativity. These are our best tools to heal the damage caused by the selfish logics of “me and mine,” and to design new context-aware narratives reflective of the fabric of the communities we are woven into, both the human fabric and the larger tapestry of our natural environs.
Not so very long ago, a great sickness swept over the land. So many were dying and becoming sick daily, that the king of the land declared that all his beloved citizens would have to stay home in order to give the king's doctors a chance to unravel the mystery of the illness.
The millions who stayed home included all kinds of people. One of them was an artist who loved to paint. It didn't take long for her supply of paints to start dwindling, and she had to think of new ways of painting.
It began with a bouquet of daffodils from the Before Times. The flowers had finally begun to wilt, sag, and then became a sad-looking mess in the vase. The artist took the flower heads and put them in a small copper pot with some water and simmered them to see what might happen. After some murmuring and incanting, she dropped a wee skein of wool into the flower-infused water, and out came a pretty yellow bundle, full of sunshine, hope, and happiness.
After infusing every skein in her possession with kitchen waste, the artist began to imagine what would happen if she simmered the dye bath even longer ... could she create some new colours to paint with?
Many colour experiments later, both failed and successful, the confinement was lifted and the artist returned to her old way of painting. But something was missing from those store-bought paints. When she had created her own colours from plants and kitchen waste, the colours sang stories to her, stories of their lives as plants. The colours from the store were dead in comparison —pretty colours, but without stories, and definitely without songs ...
She picked up that little copper pot again from the first days of confinement and made a new batch of colour.
The pot continues bubbling to this day.
I forage frequently for things to make tools, for materials, for subject matter, and for sources of colour and print.
When foraging for art, I’ve become aware of the generosity of supply independent of sales funnels and mountains of discarded packaging.
(Ironically, that excess packaging makes for some really great art supplies).
I’m an artist, flâneur, and lifelong magpie obsessed with finding treasures. But it took a very long time to realize that these aspects of myself were not disparate and could instead integrate and support one another.
The process of discovering this about myself has taken on the healing properties of ritual: the long walk; the discovery of a potential treasure; the contemplation of its past and future notes; carrying the new treasure home; cleaning it and making it a little nest among its forebears; and finally deciding how this discovery fits into my practice. Similar to the Confucian concept of wu wei, there is a quiet attitude of trust, of not forcing, but allowing oneself to be guided by synchronicity.
In my practice, I have a deep reverence for memory and for story, and the aforementioned ritual deepens that experience. Whether a windblown twig for a future paintbrush handle, or a rusty bolt for mark-making on cloth, the reverence is enriched by—as it enriches—every scrap of material, and builds trust that there will always be enough.
These treasure hunts for human detritus engage all my senses and implore me to connect to my environment, as well as to imagine past, present, and future nostalgias – the Stories of Things.
Was this object important to someone? What role did this play in the unfolding of fate? How does this found object intertwine the destiny of myself and someone else?
These potential nostalgias sharpen my awareness and intuition, cultivate a sense of mindfulness, and heighten my gratitude. They richly engage my imagination, profoundly affecting the narrative theme of my work. For me, it is a process of rewilding, especially of the Self.
This practice deliberately refuses to support the narrative of Haves over Have Nots. This practice is the magical cow. When I forage for material, colour, print, tools, and subject matter, I shift my perspective to realize that I always have more than enough to tell my story. The world is full of abundance and there is Plenty to share.
Bobbi Sue Smith The Sweet Speech of Trees. Silk ribbons hand-dyed with loquat.
Digital photograph 8” x 10” 2020.
Foraging for colour:
These ribbons, made of recycled silk, are dyed with pruning waste. The tree, Eriobotrya japonica, or loquat, lives outside my window in my courtyard. I made a new acquaintance in the process when I asked the gardener if I could have some of the leaves from his pruning. I learned more about my loquat neighbour and, in return, I was able to show the gardener some dyes, inks, and eco-prints I have been making from local plants.
Working with loquat was new to me and the colour was a wonderful surprise.
Bobbi Sue Smith Leaf Shadows. Eco-print with Laurus nobilis on linen and wool.
Digital photograph 8” x 10” 2019.
Foraging for print:
As long as you can identify a plant with certainty and know that it is not toxic, you can experiment freely.
Some leaves/plant parts are reliable sources of colour. Sometimes something more subtle is given up in the process, as in the case with these ethereal little leaf shadows on linen from collected windfall in a Parisian park. They are leaves from the bay laurel, Laurus nobilis, a very common plant in French cuisine and culture.
When creating work from the land in which I’m residing, it forms a story on cloth or paper
that narrates the enriching connection being fostered between artist and place.
Bobbi Sue Smith Spoor. Wool, Silk Organza, Silk Thread, Found Objects 8” x 10” 2018.
Foraging for materials:
This artwork was created for an exhibition at the international symposium of the Textile Society of America in 2018.
At the time I was living in an artist residence adjacent to the industrial Port of Vancouver, so my foraging had a very particular quality. Just along the rough periphery of the Port, detritus and decay form an unofficial boundary, with untamed brambles swallowing industrial waste and opportunistic seagulls fighting over spilled grain and fish offal from a processing plant.
The art(work) walks the liminal space, like a magpie collecting un-shiny things, bundling them up into rain-distressed fabric, and telling some of the Port’s many stories.
Bobbi Sue Smith Kitchen Stories. Silk/wool, tuna lids, onion skins, turmeric. Digital photograph 8” x 10” 2019.
Foraging for tools:
Here two tuna tin lids have been foraged from the recycling bin and employed as a form of resist during the dye process. When the two lids are bound tightly to the silk/wool bundle, they block the fabric from taking up dye in that area. The colours you see inside the bundle are onion skins and turmeric root foraged from kitchen scraps and folded up into the fabric before the binding/dye-bath process.
The resulting cloth tells a story about the myriad possibilities to be found even just in kitchen frugality.
Bobbi Sue Smith Rusted Gems. Eucalyptus leaves, vintage tin, silk organza Digital photograph 8” x 10” 2020.
Foraging for subject matter:
At a sidewalk flea market in my neighbourhood in Paris, this tin was procured for a couple of euros from a harried-looking mum of a few young, restless children whose games among the stalls gave the feeling that we shoppers had intruded on their imagined landscape.
Besides being a lovely place to store collected windfall leaves and to hold that memory of a summer day, the rusted patina of the tin plays gorgeously against the tea leaf and onion-skin-dyed fabrics in photographs.
Bobbi Sue Smith Rusted Relics. Found Objects. Digital photograph 8” x 10” 2020.
Foraging for story:
This collection of rusted tools hints at the diversity of stories it represents. Yes, they are used as tools, with the rust as a source of colour in the case of eco-printing, or as colour modifier in the dye bath, but part of the attraction are the stories they carry, both literally and implicitly.
The railroad spike was collected on a summer walk to a secret beach in Vancouver. The giant peg to the right was plucked from the banks of the Seine. The skeleton key is from St. Ouen, at the Marché Dauphine, where the vendors at this enormous, world-famous flea market are a treasure trove of stories if you just ask the right question. The iron plate and old wrench were generous gifts from the River Tay in Scotland, a magical adventure that sings in my heart to this day. The old-fashioned nail (bottom left) travelled to Vancouver as a souvenir I’d requested from a friend visiting Paris.
“What would you like from Paris, Bobbi Sue?”
“If you find something old and rusty that would be marvellous.” And now that little nail has travelled back to Paris with me again to where it began.
Although I identify primarily as a painter and textile artist, the photographs are important to me because they narrate my unfolding experience in the studio. Except Spoor (2018), the works above survive only in their pictured form. They are “nature mort,” the french term for “still life.” I find the term deeply satisfying as it takes on a sort of double entendre, reflecting the ephemerality of the subject matter (“mort” meaning “death”).
After posing for the photos, these works, like living creatures, take on different forms. Often they are cut up—or otherwise disseminated—into new art forms, some more temporary than others. The process of documenting these life-cycles ties the different stages of my work together in a long, winding grail-search for the right question.
These stories activate my imagination. This is important to me because it is in the imagination that problems are solved, journeys find their purpose, and stories find their heroine. Or perhaps the heroine finds her story.
Bobbi Sue Smith
About the Artist:
Bobbi Sue Smith is a multi-disciplinary artist who lives and works in Paris. Smith has worked in both solo and collective capacities in communities ranging from the isolated to the metropolitan. Her work in painting, textile, and photography collects and questions the impressions of the quotidian experience, paying particular attention to the roles of memory and story. Her diverse body of work is unified by the aim of promoting discourse and critical thinking about materiality, process, narrative, and the socio-political contributions of the handmade.
Smith has curated The Uncommon Show at the Artist Resource Centre in Vancouver; and Shrink: A Show of Pocket-Sized Art, at Make Studio in Nanaimo. She has also exhibited at various shows and galleries in British Columbia. This includes exhibitions both solo (Uscocci Manufactory) and group (Federation of Canadian Artists Gallery, Vancouver; Interurban Gallery, Vancouver; The Art Centre, Powell River; Turnbull Gallery, White Rock; and at Capture Photography Festival, Vancouver).
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