An Illinois native growing up amidst corn fields and prairie landscape, Mitch Mitchell knew nothing about Fort McMurray or the tar sands before his visit last October. Camping with two friends for 55 days, the U of A fine art graduate student inadvertently gained unprecedented access to active construction sites.
Not knowing his actions were both prohibited and rare, Mitchell, sketchbook in hand, followed the sporadic “booms” heard through the distance, which turned out to be sound deterrents situated near tailing ponds, placed to ward off wildlife. Surveying the massive oil-and-gas site, the self-identified nature lover was simultaneously overcome with repulsion and attraction to the devastations he witnessed and sketched. In every direction surveyed, depletion at every level was occurring with Tonka trucks the size of two-story buildings rolling through a completely degraded landscape, creating three-story dirt piles, enormous tailing ponds of orange and yellow, all with the acridity of burnt metal and oils wafting through the air.
“It was intoxicating,” says Mitchell, fully aware of the double entendre, of the landscape that inspired Tar Planes Wayfarer, his most recent installation. As a print artist who formerly worked with the midwest landscape in quilted patterns, his first visit to the Fort McMurray area completely changed his artistic output. “I was working with the micro/macro of landscapes and geography before, but it was still ‘too pretty,’” he says as we tour through the installation process inside the former Red Strap Market.
Rolls of blank newsprint are laid out and some have been ripped up in mounds and strewn across the floor. Their pale blankness lends itself to a form of messaging, explains Mitchell, who is evidently just as impacted after another recent trip up north.
“I was flabbergasted by the changes that had occurred in a year’s time. Roads have changed direction, pits were bigger, ponds were larger, there were orange scarecrows floating in the tailings ponds, three-story walls of earth were being constructed around the ponds to block a visitor’s view, and it seemed as though the city had grown three fold,” Mitchell recalls. Without the luxury of straying any closer the second time around, Mitchell was suddenly aware of the forced separation between the tar sands and the people living nearby, and that it was this dynamic within the process of the tar sands that he wanted to explore.
Tar Plane Wayfarer is Mitchell’s direct response to his experience of walking through the tar sands development and the stories he heard in the camps. As a three-week-long, ongoing installation, the process becomes the work on display in the Red Strap’s street-front windows. Activating the space with pedestrians and drivers gazing in both intrigued and confused, Mitchell is attempting to re-create a heightened experience of moving through, over and along the tar sands. Creating tailings ponds and dirt hills by labour-intensive treatments of paper with asphaltum, water and carborundum, Mitchell aims to induce both the spatial and olfactorial sensations that both repulsed and transfixed him.
The ever-changing state of Tar Plane Wayfarer suggests the influx of the tar sands, except that while the latter grows and devastates, the former can only allude to the scope of the project that is irrevocably altering both the land and how we exist with it. Hiding certain surprises within his paper hills, Mitchell draws upon conversations from retired tar sands workers who shared stories about the irresponsible devastations that occurred in the early years before any environmental codes were suggested, including the burial of large-scale broken machinery that was simply more cost effective to hide than to repair or move off-site.
Today’s tar sand reclamation sites reveal the ecological alterations in its sickly yellow fields. Moving to connect the human body back to the landscape, no matter how altered, Mitchell invites audience members to physically engage with the work, setting aside all gallery decorum to touch and shape the work presented.
“Every Albertan I’ve met has an opinion on the tar sands, and though they don’t think they’re being political, by expressing their opinion they are making a political statement,” says Mitchell, who keeps a consistent sense of awe and imposition. “I have my own personal views on the tar sands and I’m giving people a venue to react by trying to tell them what I saw.”
*First published in Vue Weekly, January 15 - 22, 2009