Joan Sullivan, Canadian photographer, organic farmer, and core writer for Artists and Climate Change, is in mourning.
In January of 2020, while walking along the shores of the iceless St. Lawrence River – which should normally be covered with thick ice that protects Quebec’s coastal communities from harsh winter storms – Sullivan had what she describes as an emotional “melt-down.” She was overwhelmed with grief about two dramatic environmental changes that were happening simultaneously on opposite sides of the planet: the lack of winter ice in Canada and the apocalyptic bushfires in Australia, where her daughter lives. At the core of her emotional distress was her realization that the world was never going to go back to the way it was and that “we all needed to find a new way to live with the non-human world.”
Sullivan ultimately accepted that taking highly realistic, factually-based photographs of the energy transition as she had been doing for many years as her way of addressing climate disruption, no longer worked for her. She admitted to me in our recent conversation that she felt as if she had been “shouting into the wind for the last 10 years” and needed a different approach to her photography that expressed her grief and sense of loss about the changing environment.
Sullivan came to photography as a career through a circuitous route. With degrees in nutrition and international public health, she spent the first half of her life studying and working to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, mostly in Africa. At the age of 50, she moved back to Canada, purchased an abandoned farm, and became an organic farmer and professional photographer. She regards her body of photographs on renewable energy as photo-journalistic and documentary. In order to ensure that the images she produced were crystal clear, she spent countless hours perfecting them. Her hard work led her to become the only female photographer/videographer in Canada shooting the construction and expansion of renewable energy in the context of the climate crisis.
Restless with her long-standing, renewable energy work, Sullivan signed up for a master photography class in October 2018, sponsored by Culture Bas Saint Laurent in collaboration with the Centre d’art de Kamouraska. The theme for the weekend class was the St. Lawrence River. The students were instructed to use the river as a metaphor for rebirth and new beginnings. Sullivan’s photographs captured the river without winter ice in her usual photo-journalistic manner. In June 2019, a number of these photographs were chosen for a group exhibition as part of the 10th edition of the Rencontre photographique du Kamouraska that was to take place in the summer of 2020. The exhibition was planned much before the COVID-19 pandemic led to closures of art and cultural venues across Canada, and was postponed until the summer of 2021.
Then, in the fall of 2019, Sullivan enrolled in a two-year course entitled “The Study of Artistic Practice” at the Université du Québec à Rimouski (UQAR). Her UQAR professor, artist Danielle Boutet, encouraged Sullivan to consider that she was at a critical crossroads with her work and to use this opportunity to experiment and grow as an artist. Working from a gut level and in the late afternoon light, Sullivan abandoned her tripod and began experimenting with long exposures and deliberate jerky camera movements. The images that resulted from that process were out of focus but luminous, ethereal, and poetic. With the St. Lawrence as her principal subject and muse, Sullivan had captured the colors of the winter sky reflecting on the open water at a time when there should have been thick ice. Enormously pleased with the result of the images, she sensed that she had found a new direction for her work and a new language with which to express her grief.
Twelve of Sullivan’s photographs from her new series, which she titled Grief, are currently part of a summer group exhibition at the Centre d’art de Kamouraska. For the purposes of the exhibition, her work is called Fleuve Fragile / Thin Ice. (Sullivan explained that in French, there are two words for “river.” “Rivière” is a smaller river that empties into another river; “fleuve” is a river that enters into a bay or ocean, like the Mississippi or, in this case, the St. Lawrence.)
In spite of the pandemic, the Centre’s co-directors, Véronique Drouin and Ève Simard, were determined to host a portion of the original exhibition that had been planned for the summer of 2020 in their former courthouse building from July to September, 2020. In order to create a walking path that would allow visitors to pass through the exhibition safely, the co-directors built temporary open walls upon which the photographs are secured. These temporary curved walls mimic the waves of the river and add another dimension to the exhibition. Sullivan’s new Grief photographs replaced her older documentary images of the river and occupy the Centre’s second floor overlooking the St. Lawrence River itself. She describes the afternoon light bouncing off the river and spilling through the windows into the space as “magical.”
During our conversation, Sullivan admitted to me that her current evolution towards a more abstract artistic practice means that she will likely stop creating documentary images that focus on scientific or technical aspects of climate disruption, claiming that the world doesn’t need any more facts to substantiate what is happening to the environment right now. Paraphrasing Timothy Morton, English professor at Rice University and author of Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, Sullivan says that we are, in fact, “drowning in soul-crushing factoids.” As an artist, a farmer, and a mother, she is focused on a return to life’s basic elements – to the air, water, and land that sustain us. She is hoping that her new work will provide her, and perhaps others, with a sense of real healing from the fragile and vulnerable state in which we find ourselves.
(Top image: From the series Grief, 2020)
This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.
Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer. Her work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the US and she has received many grants and commissions. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have focused on water and climate change. She co-created a national, interactive public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores –trees that have been exposed to salt water and died as a result of rising tides.