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Wild and Free: Visual Arts and the Great Outdoors

By Nicole Kelly Westman Posted on May 24, 2018

Banff is shadowed by mountains, marked by terrain, divisible by the binaries of the service industry catering to tourism and the tourists themselves, and made memorable by the myth of the anecdotal. I eased into a state of reminiscing while conversing with Diane Borsato​ and Amish Morrell​ about their forthcoming residency program, Outdoor School, thinking back to my own 18-month experience in the Bow Valley. Their interests are positioned in making space for an accessible outdoors, a wilderness that is not marked by expertise but by individualized experiences, lateral knowledge exchanges, Indigenous perspectives, and shared narrative nuances.

Morrell states with a refreshing confidence, “One of the things I’m constantly reacting against is a cultural expectation that one needs to have certain clothing and equipment, and to be in specific places to have an experience of nature.” Throughout the exchange of conversation Borsato, Morrell, and I find ourselves returning to the notion that wilderness, and how we approach it or appreciate it, is not so easily defined.

I lean into the lore of a rumour from my time in Banff: if you are in the right acoustic position in the valley and awake at the dead of night you may hear the howling echo of a pack of coyotes chasing the train. But the reverberation of this wildness can be muffled by the murmuring—sometimes shouting—of the crowds of thrill seekers, locals, tourists, and weekenders leaving the clubs of Banff Avenue and seeking the solace of a night’s rest.

Borsato responds to my aside with a poeticism that undermines preconceived definitivies of the tamed and the wild. “Is there ‘natural’ wildness? So much of what artists explore in environmental artworks are these tensions, are the ways nature is culturally constructed and inextricable from human interference.” Her response instigates a reconsideration of the intersections at play and the actual lack of a threshold segregating the rural from the urban.

Rigid boundaries and forms of hierarchy are dismissed as Borsato​ and Morrell​ preface a vastness in the cultivation of experience. Nature can exist through the circumstance of a narrative, as the linchpin of a locally foraged meal, in the handwritten notes in the margins of a botany manual, in the overhead foliage shrouding skylines from pathways meandering away from cityside valleys, through the binocular lenses of a bird watcher, and of course in the care of expression shared by locals confiding stories of their places.

...wilderness, and how we approach it or appreciate it, is not so easily defined.


Borsato, closes our conversation with words on which I find myself hanging: “While I love to practice and share my own knowledge, and this is a venue to do that as a leader, I am hoping all the residency participants might share their research, and give all of us yet more ways to love the world.”  

It is through the catalyst of care that creators may find the confidence to challenge their own practices, break their own traditions, and experiment with their access to knowledge. The faculty intends to create a residency program that bolsters the inquisitions of curious artists looking for more from their environmental exposures. “Outdoor School proposes to reground consciousness in the body and its relation to the physical space it occupies,” says Morrell, of the inaugural program. “We can do this just by walking, talking, thinking, and being together in a place.”

Expectations will undoubtedly be exceeded as the leaders’ interests interlace with those of the residents, as foundations for friendships are formed, as vantage points are located, and as insecurities falter and artists find the comfort to perceive their view anew. 


Outdoor School is generously supported through the Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Outstanding Artist Program. The program provides opportunities to bring outstanding international and national artists to Banff Centre as faculty members and mentors.