In my 2019 interview with British solar artist Chloe Uden, co-founder of the Art and Energy Collective, we discussed the importance of the Bayeux Tapestry as one of the many sources of inspiration for her work.
The Bayeux Tapestry is a masterpiece of 11th century Romanesque art. Sixty-eight meters long (223 feet), it is an artistically and historically significant narrative embroidery that tells the story, in humble woolen thread on linen cloth, of the 1066 conquest of England by the Duke of Normandy. It has miraculously survived the ages and is currently preserved and displayed under dim lights in its own museum, the Bayeux Tapestry Museum in Bayeux, France.
Nearly one thousand years later, the Bayeux Tapestry has inspired a Canadian artist to create an epic narrative embroidery about a completely different kind of conquest. Nine years in the making, the Black Gold Tapestry is a 67-meters long (220-foot) work of art that chronicles how the discovery, exploration, use, and abuse of fossil fuels has profoundly impacted human civilizations throughout history – both positively and negatively. It begins with shifting tectonic plates of the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods, and ends with a subject close to my heart: the current transition to renewable sources of energy.
Sandra Sawatzky, a multidisciplinary artist based in Canada’s energy rich province of Alberta, describes herself as a writer, filmmaker, artist/designer, embroiderer, and dance fan. To this list, one must add “storyteller:” each of the eight panels in her hand-embroidered opus tells a part of the complex story about our complicated relationship to oil, gas, and coal. The stories she selected to include in her tapestry, based upon more than a year of meticulous research, carry us on a magic carpet ride across time and space.
Many of these stories are well known, such as the sudden disappearance of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, or the more recent catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. But Sawatzky purposely included several stories that are decidedly unfamiliar, like the mysterious death of Rudolph Diesel, and the bamboo pipelines built in the second century by Chinese salt merchants to transport gas to cooking stoves for evaporating brine. It’s these unexpected colorful anecdotes that are so captivating. They broaden our understanding of humanity’s 5,000-year relationship with fossil fuels, shifting the focal point away from the politicized polarizing debates so common (and unproductive) today.
Sawatzky credits her varied background as a writer, producer, and director in film and television – e.g., writing scripts, designing costumes, choreographing movement, incorporating music and humor – for her seamless transition to imagining, designing, and creating a “film on cloth.” For example, the tapestry’s original pen-and-ink drawings – traced onto eight 30-foot rolls of cartridge paper – resemble storyboards from her filmmaking days. And, in true filmmaker mode, Sawatzky stitched out of sequence, beginning with the third panel instead of the first.
While Sawatzky has been sewing and designing clothes since childhood, she did not seriously start embroidering until 2008, after seeing an exhibition of pioneer women’s stitchery at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta. She quickly mastered the basic techniques and began wondering what kind of illustrative projects would lend themselves well to embroidery. It was only after she remembered reading about The Bayeux Tapestry in an art history class that the spark was lit: Sawatzky sensed that something big was on the horizon, but she hadn’t yet found the right subject. Trusting her instincts, she knew that soon she would be “adding another arrow to the quiver” by embarking upon an epic solo embroidery project as the next step in her artistic journey.
And what a journey it has been! Nine years later, the result was truly groundbreaking. Sawatzky’s Black Gold Tapestry is as magnificent, ambitious and visually seductive as its 11th century predecessor. Completed in 2017 for the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation, the Black Gold Tapestry was honoured with a prestigious seven-month inaugural exhibition at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum. In October 2018, one of the tapestry’s eight panels traveled to Europe for a reception at the Canadian High Commission in London.
The tapestry’s second major exhibit is scheduled to open in March 2021 (COVID-19 permitting) at the Esplanade Arts and Heritage Centre in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Future exhibitions are currently being negotiated, including Saudi Arabia (in 2022), Sawatsky’s home province of Saskatchewan (in 2023), and beyond.
Speaking by phone from Calgary and via a series of follow-up email conversations, Sawatzky described the joys and challenges of committing one-sixth of her life (17,000 hours!) to the herculean task of hand-embroidering the social history of oil, using the same stitches as the Bayeux Tapestry. But perhaps her greatest accomplishment is that she has succeeded – beyond her wildest dreams – in elevating embroidery to a serious art medium. The following quote is posted on Sawatzky’s blog:
“Through its scale and the global significance of its subject, The Black Gold Tapestry dramatically shifts the popular perception of embroidery from the quietly domestic to the assertively public.”Robin Laurence, Preview Guide to Galleries + Museums, Sep/Oct 2017
Over the nine-year project, Sawatzky estimates that she spent approximately four years on the research and drawings, and approximately five years on the embroidery. But once the project progressed to the embroidery stage in 2012, she often had to revisit her research in order to either confirm or modify some of her original drawings before continuing with the embroidery. The last three years of stitching were the most challenging, requiring a grueling schedule of 80-95 hours per week to complete all eight panels in time for Canada’s sesquicentennial in 2017. To get there, she allowed herself only one “off” evening per week: Friday evenings.
For a better understanding of how Sawatzky managed her time during the final push to finish the Black Gold Tapestry, see her blog post here. She adopted a similar routine for her current embroidery project, The Age of Uncertainty, which takes up where the Black Gold Tapestry left off. I will write about The Age of Uncertainty in a future post.
But I would be remiss by giving readers the impression that creating the Black Gold Tapestry was all work and no play. In a 2017 article in the Calgary Herald, Sawatzky explained,
I wanted to tell a story that was multicultural and spanned the eons. I just moved through how people have used [oil], from Neanderthal man to present day; all the invention and all of the results of that invention, for good and bad. I just thought it was the most fascinating story. I got to be a kid again: dinosaurs, Egyptians, the Renaissance, the Victorian era with all its steampunk elements that people are digging these days. So it really was a lot of fun.
One final anecdote about the Black Gold Tapestry: the four wind turbines in the last panel were added in the last year of the project, 2017. Seven years earlier, Sawatzky had completed the original drawings for all eight panels in 2010, the same year as the environmentally disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It goes without saying that the story of the largest oil spill in history – which killed 11 oil workers and countless millions of birds, fish, sea turtles, cetaceans, crustaceans and invertebrates – would find its way into Sawatzky’s 2010 drawings for the final panel of the Black Gold Tapestry. But seven years later, in the afterglow of the recently signed Paris Climate Agreement, which called for increasing global commitment to the renewable energy transition, Sawatzky revisted her original drawings and found enough space to squeeze in four turbines. She also made room for a cameo appearance by Janus, the two-headed Roman god of transitions.
With these final, last-minute modifications to the eighth panel, the Black Gold Tapestry ends on a cautiously hopeful note. But the big question still remains: what lies ahead in the next chapter of this epic story about humanity’s long and ambivalent relationship to oil?
Sawatzky pays homage to the 11 oil workers who lost their lives during the Deepwater Horizon explosion. In the three images below, you can see the outlines of their bodies (along with several marine animals) in the lower margin of the final panel of the Black Gold Tapestry. These stacked images below should be read from top to bottom, left to right. It is worth noting that the Bayeux Tapestry’s final panel also included outlines of dead and dying soldiers (divested of their armor) as the wages of war during the bloody Battle of Hastings.
The Bayeux Tapestry has been listed as a UNESCO “Memory of the World”, a relatively new program that protects documents of great historical significance. In addition to scientific and historical documents, this collection includes several influential works of art such as Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony no 9, d minor, op. 125. It is clearly too early to begin speculating, but I’m willing to go out on a limb here and suggest that decades from now, perhaps generations, the Black Gold Tapestry will join such good company.
(All images reprinted with permission from the Black Gold Tapestry project.)
This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.
Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focused on the energy transition. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. She is currently experimenting with abstract photography as a new language to express her grief about climate breakdown. You can find Joan on Twitter and Visura.