Canadian Sculptor Shayne Dark On Visual Art & Nature

'Red Tide' | Courtesy of Shayne Dark
'Red Tide' | Courtesy of Shayne Dark
Photo of Leslie Jones
28 December 2016

Canadian sculptor Shayne Dark has left his mark on the art world with nature-influenced works ranging from simple three-dimensional objects to striking large-scale installations. Since beginning his career over 30 years ago, the Kingston, Ontario native has exhibited extensively across North America.

Born in 1952 in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Dark was never formally trained; however, his foresight to sculpt was cultivated through the friendship and tutelage of David Pickering, a Queens University sculpture professor in the ’80s and early ’90s. While Dark has experimented with various industrial and organic materials, ironwood emerges as a longstanding medium in his artwork. Initially, he collected ironwood branches for personal enjoyment, but years later, in New York, this changed. While doing set work in the Ed Sullivan Theater basement, he was stirring a wooden stick in brilliantly hued industrial paints. This inspired the coloring that has characterized his large ironwood installations: solid pigments, electric in vibrancy.

From Dark’s ‘Critical Mass’ | © Photographer Bernard Clark/Courtesy of Shayne Dark

Dark was one of three Canadian artists selected to participate in ARTiade – Olympics of Visual Arts, an international exhibition in Athens corresponding with the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. In 2008, he published a volume of over two decades of works called Into the Blue, the namesakes of his 30-foot creation formerly installed outside the Albright–Knox Gallery. His Erratic Field punctuates the west side of Ottawa’s Trim Road, and his sculptures Double Vision and Double Take are mounted before Toronto’s X Condominium properties. This summer – at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden (New York) – he undertakes his third Artist Residency designation.

The recipient of the Ontario Arts Council ‘A’ Grant (2009) and many more grants and awards, Dark has been profiled in multiple publications, including Canadian Art Magazine and The New York Times. His pieces are featured in the Canada Council Art Bank and numerous other collections.

Dark’s interview touches on his journey as a sculptor, creative process and a few personal reveals.

You’ve been creating art, professionally, for 30 years now. Does it become harder to ‘create’ over time?

No, there isn’t enough time or hours in the day to ‘create’ the work. Sculpture is often a split second of inspiration, and then it takes sometimes months to execute the idea. I will often work in series that evolve over time, and so new ideas flow from the work.

‘Windfall’ | © Photographer Bernard Clark

What were the first signs – either as a child or adolescent – that you were meant to be an artist?

It was one of the few things that I always felt I was good at. My father was in the Air Force and our family was stationed in Europe during my formative years. My parents took advantage of the opportunity to travel, and we visited museums and took in cultural events, so I was exposed to the world of fine art early on.

In your early artistic career, you experimented with mediums ranging from cement to plastic to glass. For nearly two decades now, you’ve used materials found in nature: branches, roots, tree trunks, trees. What inspired you to begin using these nature-specific items to inform your artistic practice?

The shift to using organic materials in my sculptures and installations happened when my wife, Donna, and I moved to Fourteen Island Lake just north of Sydenham, Ontario in the early ’90s. I believe my home and studio environment had a great influence on my art practice evolution.

During walks in the woods and along the shoreline of the lake, I would find interesting forms and shapes in nature. There was a multitude of sticks and driftwood washing up on the shoreline. I started to collect interesting pieces and placing them in the corner of my studio. After some time, this pile of sticks became a part of my art practice.

Shayne Dark, 'Into the Blue' | © Photographer Peter Legris

As someone who has lived in various parts of Canada, how does the Canadian landscape inform your work (if at all)?

Definitely, the Canadian landscape has informed my work. I get much of my inspiration from nature. Experiencing the natural world will often give me a germ of an idea, and then I run with it. I’m sure if I was living in the Rocky Mountains, I would be influenced by the rugged beauty of the mountains.

Many of your artworks are best experienced by the viewer exploring multiple perspectives – walking around, below, or through your installations. When you are working on a new piece, are you always conscious of how your viewers will experience your art?

Sculpture is naturally a three-dimensional art form, so I think the viewer should be able to experience it from all 365 degree angles. It should work from all angles… from the front to back, from above and below if it is suspended. When the viewer is able to enter into an installation, it offers an opportunity to experience the work in a more intimate way.

'Red Tide' | Courtesy of Shayne Dark

A lot of your creations, like Double Take, Blizzard and those of your Critical Mass series, are installations of considerable size. Have you encountered any unique challenges working in a larger scale?

Executing large-scale sculpture is definitely challenging. For example, if you consider the installation Blizzard, I got the idea for this piece while I was driving in a winter snowstorm. It was a great investment in time in terms of selecting and gathering the ironwood trees, stripping the limbs and bark, drying and sanding each element, filling the cracks, fibre-glassing and painting not to mention that each time I installed the piece, a false wall had to be built to hide the armature that each of the hundreds of elements were individually attached to. The logistics [of] transporting the work and the requirement for a large studio space is also a challenge; however, it’s most rewarding to create monumental work.

‘Blizzard’ | © Photographer Lesli Michaelis Onusko

I really enjoy the shapes and forms that your works adopt and wonder about your creative process. What is the story behind – for example – your Force of Nature or Red Tide installation?

Nature inspired – the pieces you mention. I saw beautiful shapes, shadows and textures in these natural materials. Then I took the raw form into the studio and manipulated the pieces by adding and subtracting then drenching the work in pure colour. The viewer will recognize the organic nature; however, the vibrant colour adds an artifice to work.

Are there any personal experiences that have shaped your artistic approach?

I am unable to read or write, so I have always navigated the planet through visual experiences. Sculpture has allowed me to convey my thoughts and ideas through a visual and tactile medium.

The art industry can be a fickle one. What’s the most important business tip you can share as an artist that has contributed not just to your longevity but your success?

My recommendation for an emerging artist would be to apprentice and work with a senior artist. It allows them to learn the business aspect of the art world from the inside. Also, you must be tenacious and develop Teflon skin…don’t take rejection of your work personally.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

That I only have a Grade 9 education.

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