Nature of the River – Nick Novak Fellowship Exhibition

Mapping a Geography of Curious Surfaces by Maralynn Cherry

Curiosity implies a certain unsettling, a notion of things outside the realm of the know, of things not yet quite understood or articulated, the pleasures of the forbidden or the hidden or the unthought, the optimism of finding something out, something one had not known or been able to conceive of before. [i]

If one considers printmaking from a topographic or typographic perspective its reproductive function unravels a rich history of mapped surfaces – surfaces that imprint an artist’s visual experience of a given terrain or cultural narrative.  It is here that I would like to insert Rogoff’s notion of “the curious eye” as an underlying visual impulse or instinct for collecting and restructuring narratives of place.  Etched plates, lithographic stones or mesh screens become active surfaces reflecting an artist’s curious travels through an ever more complex cultural landscape.  Here the act of printing sets up a theatre of events where sites, landmarks and signs insert the viewer/reader into a participatory role.  There is room for such an art to unleash unconscious desires, memories and stories locked inside our all to familiar spaces.  …

website - Lower Don River Factories
          Lower Don River Factories                                   
          Etching, aquatint                                                                  
  22 x 30 inches                                                                       

Liz Menard has a unique way of re-reading sites where nature meets urban sprawl. Prints conjure an architecture of lived experience, maps to guide the curious through unfamiliar perspectives.

                                           website Lower Don River Overpass
                                           Lower Don River Overpass
                                           Etching, aquatint
                                           22 x 30 inches

Nature of the River

Liz Menard wanders, remembers and questions the complex ecologies of the Don River, a river that weaves its way through Toronto towards Lake Ontario. Its history unfolds as this artist gathers old maps of the channelization of the Don in the 1890s.  Commerce plays a role in the digging and shaping of a river for the shipping of raw materials. Menard perceives the river as a living entity, one she empathizes with as she thinks of “the River remembering before pavement.”[ii]       

Former Eastern Avenue Bridge

Former Eastern Avenue Bridge   
Etching, aquatint
24 x 30 inches

Plant and animal species, habitats and the river itself feed Menard’s “curious eye” with a rich layering of morphologies.  She wanders the waterfront regions witnessing an ever-expanding archive of raw material and sites. On a sheet of Japanese paper she prints a powerful calligraphic formation of the don using a large horizontal etching plate.  This same river image reappears in a reduced etched print of a historical map of the Don River flowing through the city. One is made aware of the inherent contradictions that abound in such terrains, affecting our perceptions of urban/wilderness zones.

                                           1888 Don River Pre-channelization Map
 1888 Pre-channelization Map of the Lower Don River
 Etching, aquatint, hand colouring
 17.5 x 56 inches


Menard gathers intricate material about the territory where the present river meets Lake Ontario.  At the Lower Don River, natural ecological predicaments loom.  Certain plant species, such as Pale Swallow-wort (Cynanchum rossicum) and Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum), threaten habitats, as do massive numbers of cormorants.  There is much to ponder at boundaries where natural and man-made environments converge.

Etching plates become poetically charged biochemical surfaces for Menard.  Rich textures are layered in the foreground and back-ground through the application of several acid resistant grounds and aquatints.  Here, process mimics natural growth patterns of plant forms, river wildlife or aging concrete and steel surfaces of viaducts and bridges.  In essence, Menard’s aesthetic is deeply affected by these sites and she grapples with her medium to find ways to record both the folly and the wonder of a river and a city in constant transition.                                        

Chine-collé etchings of Loosestrife and Smartweed are enriched by the addition of coloured threads stitched into the papers using French embroidery knots.

                                        web - Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) (72 dpi) These species project a beauty that carry with them a menacing threat that potentially chokes out other species.   Menard sets out an array of diverse landmarks while scoring the surfaces of her copper plates.  One is aware of a merging theatre of events.  Signs of change, weathering and the strata of past and current events feed the rigour of Menard’s practice.
            Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria)
               Etching, chine colle, handstitiching, pastel
                                  24 x 30 inches

She is constantly setting new goals for printing techniques and the installation of finished pieces.

web - Common Mullein 1-4 VEweb - Stahorn Sumacweb - Pale Smartweed (Polygonum lapathifolium)











For her Open Studio exhibition, Menard created an etching of existing and hidden rivers that she printed on linen cloth and upholstered onto two Louis XV-style chairs.

Lost River chairs (Installation shot)

Lost River Chairs +
Handmade Maple, Birch, Ash and Oak Leaves (framed)

Viewers are encouraged to sit on living room chairs, a tableau resting place for contemplating a poem that will weave through the atmosphere of the gallery, sotto voce. stanza shapes a living river: “IF the Don River has a memory… IF the Don River has eyes… IF the Don River has ears… IF the Don River has a voice… IF the Don River could speak…”[iii

Time itself plays a fundamental role in Menard’s work.  The methodical approach to techniques applied to her surfaces alludes to increments of time measured between what appears.  Final prints encapsulate what Henri Bergson calls duration, where all intervals are part of a continuum.  Each stage of growth or weathering visualized extends spatially – a cinematic movement exists in Menard’s visual narrative.  The body of the river becomes an unknown entity potentially penetrating our bodies.  We witness the hidden forces of nature cumulatively without necessarily being conscious of just how much it can change our lives. The Don is a topography of stratified memories, living matter and a site for development. Menard makes us not only sit in wonder, rather, she reminds us to remember what it was and what it could become.


Open Studio Scholarships The Nick Novak Fellowship is awarded to an outstanding Open Studio Artist Member with a commitment to a long-term project.

Writer’s Biography Maralynn Cherry lives in Orono, Ontario and is a graduate of OCAD.  She is a practicing multi-medial installation artist.  Cherry was curator at the Visual Arts Centre of Clarington until spring 2012 and has curated independently.  She has written numerous catalogue essays, including for the Tree Museum, and a recent exhibition catalogue for Prints Today: 2012, the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts exhibition of print artists from Ontario and Quebec. Cherry is an adjunct faculty in Cultural Studies at Trent University in Peterborough.


[i] Irit Rogoff, Terra Infirma: Geography’s Visual Culture (London: Routledge, 2000), 33.
[ii] Liz Menard, Artist’s statement, 2012.
[iii] Ibid. (paraphrased)