Roberta Sutherland: Earth Birthing

February 5 to April 12, 1987

At the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Earth Birthing is an exhibition of selected paperworks by Roberta Sutherland which evolve into a symbolic expression of the earth as a living being. By assimilating materials and processes both natural and manufactured, and integrating prehistoric archetypes and natural earth forms within her images, Sutherland facilitates the rediscovery of the planet as Mother.

Art has always involved the transformation of matter into symbolic form to communicate ideas and information. Arti­facts have historically provided evidence of the ongoing dialogue between artists and their environment, which through interpre­tation, relays the history of cultures. Roberta Sutherland's paperworks, produced in a time where the future of the world seems threat­ened if not from environmental pollution, then from nuclear technology, reconsiders our current alienated relationship with the earth - our home. In her search for forms to express her perception of nature and the earth, she has used intuitively found archetypal symbols.

This particular aspect of Sutherland's work is profound in the light of archaeological and historical research into the prehistoric era, as her archetypal symbolism relates to the ancient practice of earth worship. This once dominant, universal religion, which some authorities date from 25,000 B.C. until its suppression around 500 A. D., had as its focus, a reverence for all life and its creator - a female deity.[1] The sacred relationship between women and nature was reflected in a Goddess or Great Mother religion represented by such symbols of fertility and regeneration as the female body, horns, moon crescents and mountains - all apparent in Sutherland's paperworks.

The biology of a woman's body has obvious parallels with earth forms. This has contributed to women's strong identifica­tion with earth and nature, not only in prehistoric times, but also today. Women's bodies are reflected in the undulations of the earth, its hills and mountains, and in flowers, shells, caves, valleys, cleft rocks and river beds. Menstrual cycles synchronized to the moon's phases and the ocean's tides further demonstrate an integrated relation­ship with the earth. Finally, producing children brings to women an intense aware­ness of their own regenerative natures, their fertility and, through their children, the value of all life.

Sutherland recognizes these relationships, and uses her art to explore and express a connection with the earth and its regener­ative beauty. Upon the discovery of the Goddess religion, her work becomes spiritual in its imagery, recalling ancient societies, while presenting icons pertinent to our own age.

Sutherland began her paperworks while living in Sheffield, England in 1978. She was inspired by calligraphic inscriptions, the qualities of aging and decay and, surprisingly, the grid-like folds in a letter she had been carrying in her wallet. The letter presented marks and structure similar to her drawn and painted studies of lichens on stone walls and other features of nature as it is affected by human activity. Her discovery led to an exploration of paper as a medium to convey organic patterns and surfaces. An early work, First Folds involved the deliberate folding, creasing and embossing of the paper to recall the qualities of aged and weathered surfaces. In Breakdown, folding, texture, colour and layering simulate an isolated fragment of slate rock. Both of these earth-images serve to reacquaint the viewer with nature, recalling an intimate viewing of natural forms.

Sutherland's desire to create a bridge between ourselves and the environment was further demonstrated in subsequent works, by her combinations of natural and manufactured materials. On long walks she collects leaves, shells, scraps of weathered paper and rusted metal, branches and other fibres chosen for their line, colour, shape and texture. She brings these objects back to the studio to serve as notes or reminders of her experiences outdoors. They are also used by the artist as resources for her paperworks either as tools or collage materials.

The paperworks are constructed by collaging onto a sheet of purchased paper or canvas both kinds of found materials. They are synthesized with the application of paints, powders and varnishes. Here again, one finds the integration of the manufactured and the natural. She may mix acrylic paint with pigment dug from a riverbed, or fine beach sand with purchased paint for textures. Her tools include a press to crease and emboss the paper and a combination of conventional brushes, rollers and pens, and found shells, twigs and feathers for painting. Although Sutherland uses more traditional tools and materials such as the brushes for their convenience, and machine-made paper (as opposed to her own hand-made paper) for its time-saving availability and archival strength, their characteristics are not obvious in the finished painting. The result of using non-traditional tools is that their marks seem unfamiliar in the work. Where we may expect to recognize in the brushmarks the signature of the painter, the marks made by the shells for instance, intend to recall the work of nature.

There are two more processes which Sutherland employs in making her paperworks. First is the printmaking process, a mechanical system used to transfer illusions of age and texture onto the paper. Second, she uses the seasons and the elements of time and chance: paper is buried, exposed to fire, and subjected to rain, wind and sun. This is a very direct method used by the artist which not only produces natural effects within her imagery, but also re-integrates Sutherland and the artworks within nature's omnipotence. As Sutherland assimilates organic and manufactured materials and returns them to the earth, the earth is ultimately acknowl­edged as the Source and Mother. While this process may not be obvious to the unin­formed viewer, the finished paperworks retain this sense of Earth in both their imagery and the qualities of the materials and marks.

Motivated by her personal experience of the earth and growing awareness of the sacredness of nature, Roberta Sutherland's images move from a realistic interpretation of the earth towards its symbolic representation. In early works such as Breakdown 1982, Sutherland rediscovered the inherent beauty of slate. Later, using collaged surfaces, the artist expanded her explorations of landscape imagery through her Island Series. In Distance From Pender, 1984, her home island becomes a dark profile on the horizon, a sky reddening above, with rounded golden collage forms representing rocks rising from a dark sea in the foreground. Inspired by satellite photo­graphs, Sutherland realized the parallels between the island images and images of the planet as a whole. Her map series, Earth Watch followed. Here, entire continents were implied in the earth and metal coloured collaged areas, divided by oceans of smooth, dark or blue-green surfaces. Accordion folds and grid-like creases in the paper implied lines of longitude, time lines, or the folds of common road maps respectively seen in Small World and Turtle Belly. Thus Sutherland's paperworks progressed from an intimate, personal macroscopic vision of the earth to an expression of its totality.

The point when Sutherland's formal imagery becomes symbolic stems from a dream she had in 1984: an experience of the name Meru. This name was related to images of mountains which had earlier developed in her work with Fat Mountain. Mt. Meru, as Sutherland later discovered, is a mountain sacred in Indian mythology. It is believed to be the 'centre' of the world, its pyramid shape representing totality and by its peak - oneness.[2] This development in Sutherland's work is important for two reasons. First it represented an expression of the planet in symbolic form, and second it marked the introduction of mythical content and archetypal meaning.

The mountain symbolizes several related ideas. It is regarded as a sacred place, the cosmic centre, the summit of paradise and the point through which the world-axis passes binding together three levels: the living, the dead and the Gods. [3] It is also an Omphalos, defined as the navel of the world, or the peak of the cosmic navel: the point where creation had its beginning - the root. [4] Further, the mountain, symbolizing all birth, also represents the whole earth, which, in early traditions was identified as female. [5] Sutherland's acknowledgment of the mountain as sacred is seen in Folded Cobalt where it appears within an elaborate paper frame, encrusted with gold, its peak at the bisection of folds.

The mountain image was later transformed into a valley as Sutherland inverted its triangular shape. In Overview the valley walls are dark, and mysterious, serving as a container. Within is a golden light, richly ornamented with areas of collage. Sutherland intuitively used this valley structure as feminine, fertile and sheltering. In following images the valley progressed towards a more definite vessel form, defined by the arrangement of the collaged materials. The artist names this shape the cervix, recalling the physical aperture through which life first enters the world from a living body. Thus the cervical form, through this transformation of earth into earth-body, becomes symbolic of Earth Mother.

While the artist's imagery retains landscape references, they nevertheless also imply a greater meaning through the specificity of the symbolic shapes. For instance, the inverted triangle can be isolated and recognized as the symbol of the female principle, the matrix; the Great Mother. [6] The shape that Sutherland named the cervix, recalls the shape of a horseshoe or two joined horns. "Hindus, Arabs and Celts regarded the yonic shape of the horseshoe as a symbol of the Goddess's 'Great Gate'. (Yoni referring to female genitalia). Greeks assigned the yonic shape to the last letter of their sacred alphabet, Omega, literally, 'Great Om', the Word of Creation beginning the next cycle of becoming. The implication of the horseshoe symbol was that, having entered the Yonic Door at the end of life (Omega), man would be reborn as a new child (Alpha) through the same door. "[7] Homs too, are sacred symbols of transformation and regeneration, attributes of the Mother Goddess. [8]

The development of these distinct symbols within Sutherland's images coincided with the artist's introduction to the ideas and history of the Goddess. While Sutherland had intuitively realized the relationship between maternity and nature, and had incorporated references to the cycles of decay and regeneration within her imagery, her work had been up to this point primarily descriptive. With Cervical Form in 1985, her work is expressing the idea of the earth as a living body. This perception of the planet counters that which accepts the earth's violation. It is the vision of a living earth whose fate we share. The Goddess spirituality, embraced by the women's move­ment today, is defined by Fritjof Capra as based on an awareness of the oneness of all living forms and of their cyclical rhythms of birth and death, thus reflecting an attitude towards life that is profoundly ecological. [9] Identifying with both these ancient and contemporary ideas, Sutherland embarked on the Spanish Series to further explore an expression of this belief.

The Spanish Series, a series of 30 mono­prints executed at master printmaker Masafumi Yamamoto's studio in Barcelona, Spain involved the manipulation of several ancient symbols including the mountain, cervix, island crescent and an organic island form. Deeply etched plates, in the shape of these symbols, were used to print and emboss the paper, with the resulting images coloured either by inks at the time of printing, or later with paints and collage. The two new symbols appearing in this series, the crescent and the organic form can both be related to prehistoric symbolism. The crescent has traditionally represented the moon, which through its waxing and waning is a symbol of regeneration and thus the Great Mother. The second form was made by Sutherland to represent any primary organic life form such as the worm. If it is a worm, in its association with the earth and dissolution, it too becomes a symbol of change, and its crawling shape, knotted energy. [10]

The Spanish Series can be divided into three groups of images. The first group is distinguished by their similarity to the Earth Watch series. Various symbols coloured in rich golds and greys are arranged as islands in a watery blue background. Again folding and creasing gives the sense of grid lines. A direct narrative between the symbols is obscured with their apparent random placement on the page. They become instead isolated forms, distilled from the water, surfacing as active entities and iconic emblems.

The second group refers directly to landscape imagery. Here the mountain form is dominant. In Dream at Birth a collage in the form of a mountain stretches across the horizon. Above and below are blue areas suggesting the sky and water. Appearing in the waters are the symbols of the crescent island and cervix. Placed in a spacious landscape they are given emblematic and sacred qualities, with their metaphoric value implied in the application of gilt and printed textures of age.

The third group within the Spanish Series is characterized by the vertical arrangement of three symbols: the mountain along the bottom edge of the page, the cervix form at the top with its points opening towards the mountain peak, and a floating crescent island placed midway between the symbols. The prints are painted in earth tones of grey-greens, browns and golds, or rich blues, all in prominent vertical bars on either side of the symbols. The remaining white of the paper suggests a light emanating from the cervix, surrounding the island and striking the mountain. The prints without these strong verticals have pink washes or purple brush strokes haloing the cervix and marking a horizon line under the mountain's base. In others, colour washes out of the cervical points onto the white page, reminiscent of streams, passing around island and mountain in a 'v' formation, a reference to the release of amniotic fluid.

For Sutherland, the arrangement of the symbols conveys the essential ideas of Earth Birthing. The cervix at the top represents the feminine, the Mother, the Source. The second symbol, the crescent island is the offspring, the active living individual full of potential. The third, the mountain, represents home, totality and oneness. Their totemic arrangement, the iconic and emblematic character of their subject-to-background relationship and the artist's use of gold and other precious metals identify them as icons similar to many other religious works. Primarily they offer a medita­tive or instructive image, but they also provide evidence of the deeply held convic­tion and spiritual awakening inspiring their production. The resulting perception of these monoprints is of sacred symbols of earth forms and their transformation.

Sutherland's explorations into the relationship between women and the earth delves into one more area of shared experience. In 1982 Sutherland created a work for a women's art exhibition that was a reaction to a friend's poem about rape. This image, intended to correlate the rape of the earth and the rape of women was painted in reds and browns and constructed in the form of a valley, slashed, logged and burnt. The piece was never exhibited, but was retained in the artist's studio. Three years later when she needed materials to create a work to represent a figure, it was recycled. This painting originally impregnated with a statement about the violation and domina­tion of both women and the earth, after re­exposure to weather and water, fell easily into the new form of a female torso.

This was the first work by Sutherland which portrayed a woman's figure, described by her belly, breasts and thighs. The image for the artist was the final transformation of the earth-images into what she calls a 'primal' woman. Sutherland named her Eve (see illustration) and painted her in golds and bronzes. Her collaged form was placed on a background of browns, greens and blues to represent the earth from which her figure had been distilled. In presenting this figurative image of the earth Sutherland has personified the Goddess, Mother Earth. The name Eve serves to identify the primal, an image of the earth within ourselves.

The exhibition Earth Birthing, describes an evolution of form and content in Roberta Sutherland's paperworks. Through her processes, materials and symbolism she has arrived at expressions of the Earth as sacred Mother and Source of all life. Re-identifying the Earth as a living being, in the face of our age's escalating environmental deterioration and atomic power, may indeed be a signifi­cant step in ensuring Earth's survival - our future. An ecologically based spirituality, realized in Sutherland's images, not only advocates this awareness of the planet, but also counsels a re-evaluation of the attitudes and beliefs which have brought us to such a precarious state. By presenting the Earth as a spiritual icon, the artist persuades us to regard the Earth with both honour and love. Hope for the future is expressed in Earth Birthing, as it is ultimately a celebration of life and nature.

- Liane Davison, Guest Curator


[1] Merlin Stone; When God Was A Woman (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), p.13.

[2] J.E. Cirlot; A Dictionary Of Symbols (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962), p.219-221.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] J.C. Cooper; An Illustrated Encyclopaedia Of Traditional Symbols (London: Thames & Hudson, 1984), p.110.

[6] Ibid, p.180.

[7] Barbara G. Walker; The Women's Encyclopedia Of Myths And Secrets (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), p.414-5.

[8] Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia Of Traditional Symbols, p.84.

[9] Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point: Science, Society And The Rising Culture (New York: Bantam, 1982), p.415.

[10] Cirlot, A Dictionary Of Symbols, p.379.

Further References:

French, Marilyn. Beyond Power: On Women, Men And Morals. New York: Summit Books. 1985.

Lauter, Estella. Women As Mythmakers: Poetry And Visual Art By Twentieth Century Women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1984.

Lippard, Lucy R. Overlay: Contemporary Art And The Art Of Prehistory. New York: Pantheon Books. 1983.


I would like to thank Roberta Sutherland for her generous support on this project, Jill Swartz for her editorial assistance, and Patricia Bovey, Director, and Nicholas Tuele, Chief Curator of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria for the opportunity to curate this exhibition.

Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data

Davison, Liane, 1960-

Roberta Sutherland: Earth Birthing

Catalogue of an exhibition held at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Feb. 5 to Apr. 12, 1987.

ISBN 0-88885-099-9

I.Sutherland, Roberta - Exhibitions.

I. Sutherland, Roberta. II. Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Ill. Title.

ND249.S98A4 1987 759.11 C87-091085-X

This exhibition and publication was made possible through funding from the Canada Council.