Land on Paper

by Nicholas Tuele BA, MA, Historian and Curator of Canadian Art

Roberta Pyx Sutherland enjoys a long and accomplished history as an artist working on the shores of the Pacific Ocean in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. I first engaged in the artist’s work as Chief Curator at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria when the Gallery presented her 1987 exhibition entitled Earth Birthing, and I have watched with deep interest as she has continued the development of her artistic practice that deals with the landscape.

We may find a framework for Sutherland’s work in looking at the historical trajectory dating back to the American artist Mark Tobey ( 1890 – 1976). He was fascinated by the philosophy and religions of the East and was a founder of the Pacific Northwest School. The “school” has ramifications to this day because of the reverberations seen through the work of Canadian artists Jack Wise ( 1928 – 1996), Roy Kiyooka ( 1926 – 1994) and Takao Tanabe (b 1926). These artists taught and mentored Sutherland and it is within this context that one can position and understand her work.

Most humans recognize that we are in the middle of a global crisis: world population growing at an unsustainable rate; pollution (of air, water and earth) increasing uncontrollably; species going extinct in spectacular numbers; forests and ecosystems being systematically destroyed. Sutherland has been deeply aware and concerned with these issues and we can see the results in her work. The artist’s oeuvre has been, and continues to be, a sustained meditation that has evolved over her career through a number of “series.” These series are informed by her knowledge and practice of Buddhism with its environmental tenets and the view that all beings/creatures have Buddha nature and all things are interconnected.

Time and again over the years, Sutherland has engaged her interest in the landscape with work on paper, and the pieces in this exhibition and catalogue reflect her peregrinations around the Province of British Columbia. Roadside Attractions, Back Road series, and the Banff Mountain series share a distinctive visual vocabulary of abstraction, pattern and symbol to allude to the landscape, specifically the mountain in the landscape. These works, including ink, pastel, charcoal and graphite on paper, are plein-air compositions in which the images are reduced and concentrated to complex interrelations of shape, pattern and rhythm.

Recently, Sutherland achieved a breakthrough in her engagement with landscape and we see the results in her new series entitled Ibridos. Gone is the rectangle of the traditional drawing paper, replaced by a seemingly random torn lower edge. The landscape reference is highly condensed and is communicated through a series of “dots” designed to create a sense of vanishing to the horizon. The lower edge references mountain tops, and on the horizon there are further abstractions of mountain tops. These are satisfying works that achieve the artist’s purpose as she reminds us that Nature is the primal source from which all life derives being and sustenance.

In this regard it is instructive to revisit the observations of curator Liane Davison who, in 1987, wrote: “Sutherland’s works on paper evolve into a symbolic expression of the earth as a living being. Re-identifying the Earth as a living being, in the face of our age’s escalating environmental deterioration…may indeed be a significant step in ensuring Earth’s survival—our future.”