25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with Allen Smutylo

 
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Allen Smutylo

Visual artist Allen Smutylo’s most recent book is The Memory of Water (WLU Press), a book of ten autobiographical stories from his travels to Canada's Arctic and beyond between 1970 and 2010. Filled with prints of his artwork, the book offers a visually appealing look at the natural world while at the same time addressing our relationship with water. Today Allen tells Open Book about revisiting the stories from his travels years later, how the presence of water influences his writing and how complicated it is to get people interested in conserving and respecting their water.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, The Memory of Water.

Allen Smutylo:

The Memory of Water consists of ten autobiographical stories, occurring between 1970 and 2010. They are from where I lived or where I travelled, and are about whom I met and what I encountered. In the book, the writing and my artwork combine aspects of memoir, ethnography, adventure, religion, travel and storytelling, but underlying and influencing all the stories is the presence of water.

Of the ten stories, six are based on sea kayaking and backpacking expeditions to the Canadian Arctic and Greenland during the late 1980s and 1990s. These episodes in part focus on the Arctic’s ‘land memory,’ namely its 4000-year history of human habitation. A changing climate, cultural mobility, access to sea mammals and new technologies, such as the kayak, determined if these early Palaeo-Eskimo cultures endured and perhaps even prospered, or were buffeted to the point of disappearing. The stories also detail personal encounters with most of the land and sea animals of the Arctic, including the iconic polar bear.

Of the other stories in The Memory of Water, one is about the start of my career as a young artist in a small fishing village on Georgian Bay and my relationship with a retired commercial fisherman that lived there. In another story I tangle with a powerful and influential sportsmen group in Owen Sound over the usage and misusage of the community’s main river. There is a story about swimming with whales in the South Pacific that gets derailed by a theft and unexpectedly reveals the island’s dark history going back 200 years. Finally I write about, and depict, the River Ganges and the city of Varanasi. There, highly polluted water is complicated by a billion people’s faith-based adoration of that same water.

OB:

How did it feel to revisit these writings and experiences from so many years ago?

AS:

As an artist there is a record (in terms of my paintings and etchings) of my work: in my mind, on slides or in digital form, or somewhere in my studio, depicting aspects of my experiences. Like an odour that triggers memories of a specific time and place, my artwork also helps in the recalling of these stories. As well, the hindsight that time provides helps in seeing in broader themes and gives me the ability to better understand some of the connective ideas.

OB:

In your travels through Canada's wilderness and beyond, have you found a place that is somehow even more captivating than others you have visited?

AS:

Picking or identifying a “favourite” place is something I don’t tend to do. Each place has its own feeling, magic, power, edge or whatever. Even if some places are not personally pleasant, creatively, there is almost always something to be found there that is fascinating, memorable or worth pointing out.

OB:

How does your work as an artist influence your writing, and vice versa? Are you more drawn to one of these arts than the other, or are they inseparable for you?

AS:

I am a visual artist first, in that it is how I have made a living. My artwork has always veered toward storytelling — a show and tell of my little adventures. Writing of course is an obvious way to help the “telling.” The two processes appeal to me — namely in the pleasure I find creating my own world on paper or canvas — a form of indulgent escapism no doubt. The marketing of the two art forms is very different though. To some extent that influences the process: one is mass marketed and accessible, the other is one-of-a-kind that could be termed as elitist. This, in fact, is what makes combining the two so attractive to me — writing with reproducing original art (as opposed to illustrating), made available in a form that is accessible to a wide audience.

OB:

Can you name some of the books that you took with you to read on your voyages? (Or if not: what book do you wish you'd had with you?)

AS:

Generally speaking, I don’t take books on my trips. If I am sea kayaking or backpacking there is always the issue of space, and weight, and keeping things dry. Apart from that, after a day spent drawing, painting, photographing, exploring, meeting people, paddling, hiking, camping or just staying alive I am usually too exhausted to read. I do research a locale before I go, and even more so, after I return.

OB:

What do you believe is the single most important thing we can do to conserve and respect our water, this most precious of resources?

AS:

How do you educate and motivate people to conserve and respect water? This is a big question and difficult to solve. Two things: water is mostly an “open” resource and since we are terrestrial, it remains largely unseen and difficult to maintain or even assess. Unlike land, that is owned, water has very loose jurisdictions, at best — with correspondingly weak methods of controlling and monitoring it. When people disrespect water (over-consuming, polluting, overfishing, killing scarce sea mammals, etc.), unlike on land, the misuse is harder to see and quantify, and as such, the evidence of that behaviour usually takes longer to “surface.” An open resource doesn’t encourage long-term planning and respectful management — rather it encourages exploitation — get what you can, for as long as you can, before someone else does. To our detriment, even our most harmful misdeeds on water are often near impossible to detect. We are left with only a surface view — the reflective mirror of the sky.

Compounding the above is a warming climate (reducing glacial melt that feed many of the world’s great rivers) and a population growth in the developing world, all of whom seem anxious to emulate the developed world’s lifestyle.

The answer to the question is both obvious and exceedingly difficult: education, along with universal regulations.

OB:

What is the next adventure you have planned?

AS:

Currently I am developing a body of work from a trip I did last year to some small villages in the Thar Desert in Western Rajasthan. This is a sparsely populated region of India with a rich, ancient and wonderfully mysterious culture. I’m also preparing to go to the Ivory Coast of Africa this spring.



For the past 30 years Allen Smutylo's artwork and writing have been based on extensive travelling to some of the most remote areas in the world, including the Canadian High Arctic, Greenland, Antarctica, Patagonia, the Amazon, the Himalaya and Rajasthan. The paintings and writings from these experiences have garnered a large following and numerous awards both nationally and internationally. For more information about Allen, please visit his website.

For more information about The Memory of Water please visit the Wilfrid Laurier University Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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