Whitney Lewis-Smith wants you to see magic in nature — so she's bringing it to you

From her Ottawa home to the Quebec countryside, Lewis-Smith is using nature to create alternate worlds and encourage people to protect the planet.

'I am trying to recreate that childlike sense of wonder that I felt being an only child living in nature'

(CBC Arts)

Walking in the country near Val-des-Bois, Québec, Whitney Lewis-Smith will stop to forage for mushrooms, collect moss and return to her Ottawa studio to start creating. She uses these natural elements — plus taxidermied creatures like butterflies — to populate the universes you can see in her sculptures and photographs.

"I'm a photo-based artist, but the majority of what I do is actually collecting, sourcing and building sets," she says. "It's much more sculptural than just a photograph. I make images on glass plate negatives that I make myself. I create other worlds using plants and animals and insects and try to involve the viewer in this alternate universe that I create."

Watch the video:

Through taxidermy and a lot of scavenging, artist Whitney Lewis-Smith is building new natural worlds. Filmmaker: Nicholas Castel 11:06

In this video made by filmmaker Nicholas Castel, you'll spend time with Lewis-Smith in the studio and in the forest as she puts together all the tiny pieces that make up one of her works. They're tied to her childhood and the feeling she used to have in nature, but they also have an ecological sensibility — Lewis-Smith hopes that by feeling more tied to the natural world, we become more inclined to protect it.

"If you want people to be encouraged and feel that it's important to preserve the planet, they have to feel like they have a hand in it."

This video is part of a recent episode of Absolutely Canadian, where you get to meet four artists working with nature in and around Ottawa. And Lewis-Smith is hugely inspired by the fact that she has access to nature — even if some of it is under threat.

(CBC Arts)

Speaking about the 17th-century Dutch paintings that have inspired her own work, she notes, "A painter would have had to travel with an explorer or paint from imagination from stories told by scientists who travelled to other places in the world or brought specimens back on boats for them. So it was such a luxury to own a painting like this or even to be able to paint one. And now, it's all possible to create that in real life."

"I think it speaks so much to our time and how we really don't understand the value of the world and the things that we have. It also talks about how fleeting time it is, because most of what I'm using in my work won't exist in another 50 years because of our poor use of the environment around us. So I pay attention to collecting sustainably, but I am also very interested in photographing things that are on the verge of extinction or are almost there."

See the work of Whitney Lewis-Smith as part of "Terramatter" at Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery, October 10-December 3. And stay tuned to the CBC Arts feed over the next couple of weeks for more segments from Absolutely Canadian.

(CBC Arts)
(Whitney Lewis-Smith)
(CBC Arts)

Stream CBC Arts: Exhibitionists or catch it on CBC Television Friday nights at 11:30pm (12am NT) and Sundays at 3:30pm (4pm NT). Watch more videos here.

About the Author

Lise Hosein is a producer at CBC Arts. Before that, she was an arts reporter at JazzFM 91, an interview producer at George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. When she's not at her CBC Arts desk she's sometimes an instructor at OCADU and is always quite terrified of bees.