How two years living in a campervan inspired this couple's real-life utopia

Christian Morrison and Julie Gibb turned their campervan into interactive art — and you can experience it yourself through their new installation.

"Every day is a celebration of art and life" for the award-winning artists

Christian Morrison and Julie Gibb's "Shangri-La." (Spark Box Studio)

In May 2014, after over two decades of making a life together collaborating on design and print projects, Christian Morrison and Julie Gibb sold their home and letterpress printing business and moved into their 1990 Volkswagen Westfalia Campervan. In the intervening year and a half, they've travelled all across North American, working on writing, video and photography as their primary media under the banner of Folksblogen (folks blogging from their Volkswagen).

The pair says the paradigm shift from graphic design and letterpress printing to this van-based practice of word and image has been "a revelation — and every day is a celebration of art and life." And now they're returning to the very first stop of their collective 80,000km journey — Ontario's Prince Edward County — to share what they've discovered.

As the recipients of both the annual National Residency Award and Dawson Bursary at Spark Box Studio in Picton, Ontario, Morrison and Gibb are presenting a multimedia installation entitled Shangri-La in the same area they first transitioned to campervan life. This installation is inspired by their experiences on the road and at hundreds of campgrounds throughout North America. Using their own campervan as a platform for their work in photography, video, printmaking and sculpture, they're aiming to "elaborate on a utopian state of being that many roadsteaders dream up and manifest."

Christian Morrison and Julie Gibb in "Shangri-La." (Spark Box Studio)

"Prince Edward County is a place where people of all ages transition to and from the city," says Gibb and Morrison. "It is a destination because of its landscape, food, wine and culture. Throughout the installation, we look forward to interacting with the community — addressing the culture of tourism, sense of place and a search for home."

Incidentally, the installation will be taking place at the studio and home of another artist couple: Spark Box Studio's Chrissy Poitras and Kyle Topping. After graduating the Queen's University BFA program, Topping and Poitras decided to open a space that would create community and assist artists with getting access to affordable studio space and equipment, as well as providing artists with learning opportunities.

"A major component of Spark Box Studio is to give back to the arts community in as many ways as we can," Poitras says. "This is done through online resources, workshops, internships and residency awards. Our budget is pretty small, but we give back as often and as much as we can. Our National Residency Award is just one of seven awards that we offer each year through the residency program."

Christian Morrison and Julie Gibb's "Shangri-La." (Spark Box Studio)

The National Residency Award is open to artists living and working in Canada. It provides a one month residency including accommodation, work space and access to the printmaking studio, as well as a $1,000 bursary. After winning the 2016 prize, Gibb and Morrison used the opportunity to create Shangri-La.

"​Our juror Jennie Suddick was really interested in Julie and Christian's proposal because of its site-specific installation element and its connection with the concept of home," Poitras says. "We agreed that a project exploring the idea of 'home' created at a temporary living space would be an interesting project. Additionally, we live in a very tourist-heavy area — Prince Edward County — and Julie and Christian's plan to create a trailer park utopia was very intriguing. We all felt it spoke to where we live and the kinds of people we have staying with us — meaning people who see home in a flexible way and are interested in creating a sense of community no matter where they are." 

Poitras says that Shangri-La marks the first time Spark Box has had their National Award winners complete a project of this scale at the residency, as well as the first time they've had the winners install and exhibit the work they created during their stay at the shop.

Christian Morrison and Julie Gibb's "Shangri-La." (Spark Box Studio)

"It has been wonderful watching them work together and develop elements of video, print, light and kitsch," Poitras says. "They even spent time learning screen printing, a process they hadn't worked in. It has been such a pleasure having them, and we are very excited to be the first place Shangri-La will be exhibited."

The deadline for next year's Residency Award is February 1, 2017, and Poitras is already looking forward to seeing what might come next.

"With our award, we are really openminded," she says. "We always select a different jury member each year and their ideas and interests play a part in who is selected. This is our third year running the National Award and over those three years we have had a filmmaker, a printmaker and now a video/installation duo. We are just excited to see what ideas come our way next time."

Shangri-La. Featuring Christian Morrison and Julie Gibb. September 30 at Spark Box Studios. Picton, Ontario. www.sparkboxstudio.com

About the Author

Peter Knegt

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since way back in 2016, with highlights including co-hosting weekly live talk show State of the Arts, writing the regular LGBTQ-culture column Queeries and playing integral roles in the launch of series The Filmmakers and Canada's a Drag. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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