The Magwood Sanctuary of the Humber River is the focus of my Sanctuary Series, contemporary botanicals as seen through the lens of the work of another local painter in the community I call home, a rather obscure 19th century botanical illustrator named Agnes Dunbar Moodie Fitz Gibbon Chamberlin. Agnes Chamberlin’s interest in the wild flowers of the Magwood forest was the starting point for my Sanctuary Series, attracting me to the indigenous plant life here as I traced her work back to the creation of ten illustrated plates within a groundbreaking book, Canadian Wild Flowers, published in 1868.
Drawn to the work and life of Agnes Chamberlin, the first ten paintings of my Sanctuary Series, celebrate her remarkable endeavours and pay homage to her extraordinary life achievements. My pieces reflect a reverence, humility and admiration for the spirit of survival and remarkable entrepreneurial acumen shown by a brave young widow and single mother who took on the botanical book project out of financial desperation, as well as our shared delight in the fecund natural environment of the Magwood watershed. In other works of the Sanctuary Series I create my own compositions and arrangements based on the numerous species of indigenous flowers and plants that still grow within the Magwood Sanctuary despite the destructive forces of environmental change. Though my work is connected to Agnes’s plates, my own personal experience with the Sanctuary renders a different sensibility to the pieces, one of a wild, less delicate and controlled dark forest habitat.
Unlike Agnes’s delicate individual prints, her watercolour renderings and identification of each flower according to the conventions of her time, my techniques and interpretations incorporate a sense of the living environment and the wild urban forest that surrounds them. The black splashes and drips of paint that ground the arrangements of plants and flowers, flowing and protruding with heavy squirts of painted leaves and the buttery use of colour applied much like the decorative icing on a cake reflect the fullness, and wetness of the ravine. The heavy, drooping leaves after the fresh spring and humid summer rains, the dampness of the morning dew that rarely dries in the sun starved habitat of the sanctuary, and the swampy habitat of the river banks is physically felt and recognized by the viewer. My wild flowers give the viewer the impression that they are not yet collected specimens but may still be firmly planted to the earthy environment and growing. Community comes into the picture, both literally and metaphorically as the various indigenous species of plants and flowers harmoniously occupying the same soil typify, albeit symbolically, the Canadian experience of diversity in both our human and natural landscape.
During her own work about the Magwood Sanctuary, Agnes Chamberlin lived nearby on Old Dundas Road, in what is now known as the Lambton Historical Inn and serves as a tiny museum commemorating her life and work. The special place that Agnes Chamberlin inhabits in the local history of my community and the magical beauty of the Magwood Sanctuary serve as link of familiarity and attachment to the place where I live, to my creative voice, my work and community connection: to my home.