P.E.I. artist Rilla Marshall uses weaving to bring climate change sharply into focus

P.E.I.-based artist Rilla Marshall uses textiles as “a translation tool” to convey data about rising sea levels and disappearing coastlines in Atlantic Canada that she collected by using aerial images, maps and government studies.

It's hard not to reach out and touch PEI-based artist Rilla Marshall's hand-crafted textiles with their unusual colour palettes — there are muddy browns, salty blues, eutrophic greens and the occasional wild splashes of violet thread. But a closer look reveals that there's more to Marshall's work than first meets the eye.

We just built a brand new convention centre in downtown Charlottetown, and if you look at this map, that whole area would be underwater.- Rilla Marshall

The artist uses textiles as "a translation tool," she says, conveying data about rising sea levels and disappearing coastlines in Atlantic Canada that she collected by poring over aerial images, maps and government studies. Marshall, who works as a supervisor at PEI National Park, hopes to use textiles to draw attention to our impact on the landscape in her ongoing body of work, The Liminal Project (on view at Mary E. Black Gallery until March 20, 2016).

Your textile work almost operates as a trick of sorts — it's aesthetically attractive and draws people in, but then you're making people connect with this cold data. Is there a hopeful message in this work as well?

There is a hopeful message to it. Part of it is the relationship to textiles. Textiles are something that we use to keep ourselves warm, so there is a real intimacy there. I guess my hopefulness lies in the ability of the medium itself to maybe make this information a little more personal to people, and a little more tangible and also more engaging.

It is really hard to make people connect and engage with this information when it is kind of depicted as cold hard facts and something that's more abstract and doesn't really have to do with our own lives. But I hope people are able to potentially look at my pieces and recognize coastlines and cities that are familiar to them and start thinking about where we live, and how we live, in relation to the ocean — maybe in a way that's a little more intimate.

Through researching The Liminal Project, what real, concrete impacts do you see the rising sea levels having on ordinary people's lives?

There's one piece in particular that's part of the exhibition that depicts Charlottetown. A map of Charlottetown lists the areas of our waterfront that are eventually going to be underwater if sea levels continue to rise as they're predicted to do — it's kind of worst case scenario, 90 years from now — and that would of course dramatically affect the downtown core of Charlottetown. Like a lot of cities, Charlottetown puts a lot of money into waterfront development. We just built a brand new convention centre in downtown Charlottetown — millions of dollars! — and if you look at this map, that whole area would be underwater. So definitely, looking forward to the future and looking at potential sea level rise and erosion and our changing shoreline — it affects how we plan our cities, it affects the infrastructure that we decide to build.

I love those 3D islands you make for your Archipelago series. What is it about islands that really inspires you?

I think islands really pull on people's imagination a lot. They're kind of this mystical, mythical thing in that they're isolated geographically, they're surrounded by water, and I find that people respond really strongly to those little islands ... The cultural history and mythology of these isolated little geographies has always been really fascinating to me.

Textile arts are something that you've been interested in since you were a teenager — What was that learning process like for you? Who taught you?

A friend of mine's mother was a weaver when I was a teenager. I convinced her to give me private lessons, so I just learned the very basics of understanding how a loom works. When I did end up going to art school when I was a little older, I took painting because I thought that was what I was going to do until my second year. I took one course in the textile department at NSCAD and then all of a sudden, all the stuff I'd always been interested in — that was a little more compelling to me than painting — was validated.

That's interesting that you thought you should do painting first.

I think generally in the mainstream culture people think "artist" means one very narrow thing.

Rilla Marshall: The Liminal Project. To Mar 20 at the Mary E. Black Gallery, 1061 Marginal Rd #140, Halifax, NS. 902-492-2522.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?