Can't Do Without

This artist flooded an art gallery to capture the wonder of the Northern Lights

It's not unusual to spot the Northern Lights in Edmonton, but this is the only way to experience them indoors — and you don't even have to wait till sundown.

Steve Driscoll couldn't have done it without these 6 things...

To recreate the wonder of viewing the Northern Lights, Steve Driscoll pumped more than 11,000 litres of water into Edmonton's Peter Robertson Gallery. View his new solo exhibition, And a Dark Wind Blows, to November 5. (Finn O'Hara/Courtesy of Peter Robertson Gallery)

It's not unusual to spot the Northern Lights in Edmonton, but this is the only way to experience them indoors — and you don't even have to wait till sundown.

Over the next few weeks, a visit to the city's Peter Robertson Gallery should feel like a visit to the nearest National Park. Look up, and you'll see the Aurora Borealis in peacock greens and blues. Look down, and you'll see them, too. That's because the entire gallery has been turned into a man-made lake — flooded with more than 11,000 litres of water.

If you want a closer peek at the celestial landscape paintings hung around the space, you'll have to hop along a path of stepping stones. (Some 3,000 pounds of rock were brought in for the experience.) Or try the floating boardwalk. With every step, you'll make the sparkling reflections fracture and ripple.

That tingly feeling you get at the back of your neck? That's the sort of feeling I've been trying to pull off in painting for a long time.-Steve Driscoll , painter

Steve Driscoll is the Toronto artist behind the exhibition, And a Dark Wind Blows. Since the early 2000s, he's built a reputation for his surreal wilderness scenes — landscapes inspired by his love of open country and painted with pigment-laced urethane.

Yes, like the wood stain — that stuff you buy at Canadian Tire. It gives his images an iridescent quality while also producing abstracted forms — flowing shapes that become rivers, trees or, in this case, a certain electrical phenomenon.

Whatever you do, don't trip. Gallery view of Steve Driscoll's And a Dark Wind Blows (Finn O'Hara/Courtesy of Peter Robertson Gallery)

"I experience awe and wonder out in nature, sitting on the dock or climbing up some mountaintop," Driscoll tells CBC Arts.

Though his studio is in the city, he likes to take off on hikes and canoe trips whenever he can, and his memories seep into each picture — along with all the floor varnish.

"That tingly feeling you get at the back of your neck? That's the sort of feeling I've been trying to pull off in painting for a long time," he says.

And this past spring, he had an idea that's giving people those pins and needles.

If you want a closer look at the paintings, you'll have to travel down the floating boardwalk... (Finn O'Hara/Courtesy of Peter Robertson Gallery)

The show in Edmonton is a larger iteration of an exhibition Driscoll staged at Toronto's Angell Gallery in April. For that show, Just a Sliver of the Room, he hung a collection of his forest landscapes in a smaller but similarly flooded space.

At the time, Driscoll found himself trying to find ways of making his already oversized paintings even larger. But a gallery wall can only hold so much.

A glimpse at Just a Sliver of the Room by Steve Driscoll. The exhibition appeared at Toronto's Angell Gallery this past spring. (www.stevedriscoll.com)

"The only way to make a bigger painting is to put a reflection underneath it," he laughs.

He could have gone with mirrors. Instead, he built a pond.

A water feature was an intriguing concept, though, given his usual subject matter. "I spend a lot of time in nature, and I find that the pauses you take on your hikes are to look at water," he says. "It's this draw we all sort of have."

But to pull off this particular challenge, you need a very unusual tool kit — one that might be closer to a plumber's than a painter's.

Here, Driscoll shares the six things he could never, ever do without...

1. Willing Conspirators

It's hard enough building an indoor pond. The installation in Edmonton took five days and a team of up to eight people, Driscoll explains. But how do you convince a gallery to let you try it in the first place?

"I think the easiest answer is alcohol," he laughs. But in all seriousness, he's grateful to everyone — gallery staff and his landlord, included — who trusted his vision after years of working together, potential insurance risk be damned.

Watch a timelapse of the whole process:
 


 

2. Urethane

Driscoll's been experimenting with the stuff since the late '90s, and it's become his signature medium.

Inside the studio. (www.stevedriscoll.com)

He starts by painting a scene, and then pours a mixture of pigment and urethane over the image, which he's placed flat on the floor.

"It's very liquidy," he says of the substance, "so it sort of self-levels and moves around."

"While I manipulate it, it creates these forms which really echo nature: rivers, deltas, a leaf pattern, a cloud movement." Responding to those forms, Driscoll might apply paint, further changing the image. "I find all these little moments, these little marks within the paintings, that speak to me about something that's already existing in nature," he says.

The masked artist at work on his 2016 painting, Recovered Shore. (www.stevedriscoll.com)

3. Mask

After reading about item No. 2, you can probably guess why a mask is essential.

"Yeah, it's pretty stinky," Driscolls laughs in reference to urethane. And beyond the stench, the stuff is also a respiratory toxin. His Toronto studio has been outfitted with a special ventilation system so he can work safely.

"I used to feel that a bottle of bourbon and a pack of smokes was a good enough filter," he says. "But as you get older and exposed to more materials, you find yourself thinking, 'I don't want to feel this way anymore.'"

4. One-of-a-kind brushes

Necessity is the mother of paint-brush invention. (Steve Driscoll)

"I'm working on 20-foot paintings on the ground, so I literally can't reach the middle of them. I'm tall, but not that tall."

To make do, Driscoll's all about DIY, and he regularly invents new tools to meet his needs — frankenbrushes cobbled together from brooms and painting supplies.

The "double-brush" pictured, which is literally two four-inch paintbrushes screwed together, was used to finish one of the 40-foot landscapes featured in his April exhibition.

5. "The Dead Flag Blues" by Godspeed You! Black Emperor

It's the first track on the Montreal post-rock band's debut album. "The album is very dark," says Driscoll, "and they're very dark to begin with." Still, to get him in the right frame of mind, "I listen to it on repeat."
 


 

"It puts me in this great, sort of shivery headspace — like being outside in a place that's somewhat desolate."

So, pretty much the same mood Driscoll strives to create with his paintings. That's one of the reasons so many of his paintings are named after Godspeed lyrics. In his current exhibition, he says, "Probably half [of the titles] are from that one song. It's because it was playing on repeat for so long."

6. Black food colouring

It takes more than water — and 80 feet of pond liner — to create an illustion like Driscoll's And a Dark Wind Blows. The artist's totally non-toxic secret is a few drops of black food colouring. With just a few ounces, he can transform a gallery-sized wading pool into a deep, dark lake — so mysterious you can't see the bottom.
 


 

Still, he might not have use for this "essential" item much longer. The response to Driscoll's immersive installations has been positive — the show at Angell Gallery this spring, for example, led to three museum shows around Ontario.

"In terms of future work? I probably won't do do too many ponds," he says.

"I don't want to be the pond guy. I'm a painter."

"What I'll do next is still a little bit of a mystery."

Painter, not "pond guy," Steve Driscoll. (www.stevedriscoll.com)

Steve Driscoll. And a Dark Wind Blows. To Nov. 5 at Peter Robertson Gallery, Edmonton. www.probertsongallery.com

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