Dreaming of the simple artistic life

Artist imagines sustainable existence through working with a variety of raw and basic media

A wee cob House and how to get there uses many voices and media to help realize the artist’s dream of living in a self-suficient homestead.
A wee cob House and how to get there uses many voices and media to help realize the artist’s dream of living in a self-suficient homestead.

Allison Brown may be a dreamer, but she has plan—or rather—a list, for how to reach her dream. In her show A wee cob House and how to get there on exhibit at the Artel, Brown tells the story of a thought process that began with a dream—to live self-sufficiently on a homestead built from cob, a sustainable building material made from clay, sand, straw and water. That dream has taken her on a journey of both wisdom-gathering from others and questioning herself. Her tale’s told through lists, idea-maps and water-colour paintings with a simplicity that ensures effective communication. The exhibit’s largely text-based, and in one corner of the Artel’s gallery space hangs the summation of Brown’s exploration of her dream, handwritten in marker on brown craft paper.

After describing the cob house of her imagination, Brown writes about realizing such a project is too large and contains too many variables to tackle on her own.

“I think it involves more people that I had thought,” she writes, deciding to stick to the term “community-sufficiency” instead of “self-sufficiency.”

Though Brown’s the artist here, the show’s a conversational cacophony of voices speaking to the questions her show asks. Almost every piece has a note thanking someone for inspiring her work. “Insights, a handmade book” concretely demonstrates the way others have contributed to the show. It’s illustrated with faded, subjectless photographs resembling cutouts from an old issue of National Geographic. Inside are hand-painted quotes from conversations Brown had with people who have “direct experience” living the kind of life she would like to. “I like to be able to participate in the broader community of life,” she quotes writer Aric McBay as saying.

On one wall, water-coloured posters are pinned to string with clothespins. One is a red “Hello my name is” sticker with “skill” written in the white space below.

The bottom of the page reads “These days this is most of what I’m seeing in a person (skills).” The concept of skills arises often in the show, the gathering of which is a logical stepping stone en route to becoming self-sufficient. On another wall, a colourful, amoebic Venn diagram draws connections between different skill sets. “Skills For Relating to Tools and Technology” overlaps with “Skills For Relating To Other Humans” to create “The Arts.” Alongside is a list of more specific abilities, with a pack of coloured stickers viewers are encouraged to paste beside areas where they have experience. Nearby, a basket of yellow yarn beside an arm chair encourages viewers to knit. Again, there’s a feeling that Brown’s isn’t the only voice being heard. The show’s a group effort—a group that as yet can only be vaguely classified as a “community.”

Occasionally the show steps outside the bounds of a typical art exhibit, going beyond mere interaction and crossing into the territory of “real life,” exemplified by offering a contact box for anyone interested in joining a skill-sharing group.

While A wee cob House and how to get there is endearingly earnest, it’s missing an aesthetic that really engages the viewer.

Demonstrating lots of raw thought, the show doesn’t take the concepts further into reflection or interpretation, leaving it feeling unfinished. Like the process it describes, A wee cob House and how to get there is a work in progress. A wee cob House and how to get there is at the Artel until April 6. The reception will be held tomorrow at 4:30 p.m to 7 p.m.

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