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The art of building flourishing cities: Q&A with artist Alice Shirley

U.K.-based artist Alice Shirley visited Evergreen Brick Works in June. She speaks to us about how art, nature and city-building collide!
Top image caption: A portion of the proceeds of Hermès'

Published on June 20, 2017

Alice Shirley may be from the U.K., but that hasn't stopped her from creating a wonderful piece of Canadian-inspired art. Since 2012, she has been collaborating with Hermès Paris to create nature-inspired designs featured in pieces like jewellery and silk scarves.

Her most recent scarf design "Into the Canadian Wild" pays tribute to the amazing nature this country has to offer. A portion of the proceeds of the scarf even go towards helping Evergreen build flourishing cities.

We spoke with the artist after she paid a visit to Evergreen Brick Works on June 13. See what she has to say about Canada, our wildlife and creating the scarf:

EVERGREEN: This scarf was inspired by the natural landscape of Canada. Can you talk about what stands out to you as someone who doesn't live here, or what makes this so special? What inspired you to take the direction you did?

ALICE: Canada is a landscape on a huge continental scale that you just don't experience in the U.K., everything has an epic grandeur and massive scale. The flora and fauna is similar to that of the wildest parts of Europe, but you have these amazing creatures just an hour out of the city, some are in your back yards.

Wild nature is such an ingrained part of Canadian culture, that it is easy to be complacent about it, and it is the unifying feature of the country. You have one of the greatest wildernesses on Earth on your doorstep, it is essential that this wild landscape is protected and valued by Canadians. Canada's wilderness has so much variety, so many different kinds of landscape that look so altered in the different seasons, so I wanted to capture all these various landscapes, and the seasons into one design, with species helping to identify those key habitats. 

EVERGREEN: Do you have a favourite aspect of the scarf?

ALICE: I really enjoyed painting the spiralling shoal of salmon in the bottom corner of the design, because it was technically so difficult to do, capturing a good flow of fish, the shafts of light through the water, the bubbles and the river stones below on the riverbed.

EVERGREEN: If you could pick one more thing to add to the scarf after your visit to Toronto, what would it be?

ALICE: Squirrels! I saw so many while I was in Toronto, all three colours too, grey, black and red. Perhaps also a robin and a red-winged blackbird — I saw so many of these at Evergreen Brick Works when I visited.

EVERGREEN: What’s your process when working on a project like this? 

ALICE: Every new project begins with an idea, a concept, which can come from just about anywhere! Then lots of research -- for me this is part of the fun of working on a design.

The brief I was given was to create a design that showed wild Canada, and for it not to be a winter scene. I was sent a library of books on Canada by the Hermès team in Toronto, and watched a lot of nature documentaries. I made lists of species I wanted to include in the design, and began to work out how to make an all-inclusive landscape that all of them could dwell in, within the restricted frame of 90cm x 90cm. This has been the most challenging composition that I have ever worked on, but I always enjoy a challenge!

EVERGREEN: What’s a memorable experience you’ve had that’s influenced your work?

ALICE: Visiting the Paradise Cave in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Vietnam a couple of years ago was amazing, it has inspired an art project that I am still working on, I hope to have put a show of it together next year. This karst limestone cave is enormous and filled with every kind of fairytale rock formation, it is like crossing into Orpheus's Underworld. Nature is always ready with surprises, whether in a tiny patch of grass or in a hidden cave deep in a lush rainforest.

EVERGREEN: You went on a tour at Evergreen Brick Works, what stood out to you?

ALICE: The overwhelming sense of serenity in the park is remarkable. It is enclosed by the ridge that shaped the gorge of the clay quarry, and this gives the place a secret pocket of calm to walk and relax in. It is also teeming with wildlife. As we were walking the air was filled with drifts of fluffy seeds, butterflies, dragonflies, bees and other insects, and the sound of birds calling across the ponds covered in lily-pads. It was utterly idyllic.

Alice Shirley working on the artwork for the Into the Canadian Wild scarf.

EVERGREEN: What is the role that artists can play that can help create flourishing cities that connect people, natural and built worlds? 

ALICE: Art has always been a means of communicating ideas and emotions, it is part of what it is to be human, is to create. The natural world is essential to human survival, as well as our happiness. Our future depends on educating young people about the importance of nature, how it is something that needs to be protected and understood, how we are a tiny part of a much greater whole.

We are a part of nature, not holding dominion over it, reaping only what it can give us. It is the creative brain that solves problems, and the future changing climate will present all kinds challenges. One of the key trends of the last 100 years is the shift of a predominantly rural population to an urban one, this is a global trend, not just a Canadian one.
Alice Shirley works on her piece

Greening urban spaces is not just attractive for city inhabitants, but can enables people to grow their own food locally, educate people about the natural world, encourage outdoor exercise, improve air quality and help combat climate change. If those green spaces are also planted to encourage wildlife, by planting native species, it will help with the overall biodiversity of the planet, which can only be a good thing.

Artists are the creative brains that can help with these changes - landscaping parks, creating artwork that engages people with the natural world, drawing peoples attention to new developments in science and technology that can benefit the natural world.... It is what I try to do with my work.

EVERGREEN: Have you been inspired for any new pieces with what you’ve seen on your visit to Canada?

ALICE: Most definitely, but you will have to wait and see what they are...

Hermès' "Into the Canadian Wild" scarf is on sale in stores and online starting June 15. Visit Alice Shirley's website for more information on the artist and to explore more of her work.