Drawing Attention: Barbara Howard’s Ecologies, in Canadian Art Magazine (Summer 2006)
As is the case for many others, I have been deeply informed and influenced by the work of artists who came before me. There have also been kind and brilliant mentors and role-models, from childhood on. Sometimes, these have even been the same person — the Canadian artist Barbara Howard, now sadly deceased, was both.
Barbara and her husband, the poet Richard Outram, were close friends of my parents, and a big part of the childhood I shared with my brother and sister. Environmentalists and knowledgeable naturalists, they taught me a respect for the natural world that echoes through into my animal studies interests. Both were dedicated and disciplined artists, and their example (among others) showed me what kind of stamina, technique, method and rigour were required to make a serious contribution to cultural life. They were also both extremely amusing, and often quite ribald.
Several years after her untimely death in 2002, I wrote about Barbara’s life and work for Canadian Art Magazine — a journal in which my own work has often appeared:
“Doubtless the first time I saw sustained attention paid to anything as infinitesimal as an insect, it was in Barbara’s meticulously drawn articulations of living things. Durer’s astounding watercolour of a Stagbeetle and its shadow may have been made 500 years ago, but it was Barbara’s wood engraving of dragonflies I would have seen first. In this, she trained me to look closely at nature, she prepared me for the blinding genius of Durer, and she showed me what hard work and discipline was involved in being an artist.
Unique to Barbara was the transmission of the integrity of these lessons: the conviction that there is a direct link between the arenas of art, nature and daily practice. She was an environmental artist avant la lettre, and the ecologies which she herself practised extended clearly into domains of intellectual, social and spiritual health the interconnectedness of which is only now beginning to be acknowledged — perhaps most notably in the writings of Felix Guattari.
Differentiating historically between serious investigations of what it means to be part of Gaia in Canada or elsewhere and those works of art intended to create a comfort zone of nature porn will require looking closely at work that has not yet been the subject of critical attention. In the immediate, it means not only looking at generations of artists trained and working prior to (and through) the design and conceptual boom of the 60s and the emergence of support structures of the 70s, but also looking at the contexts and techniques of those artists. Barbara Howard’s work is an important place to begin such a project.
What we are doing when we look at animals, how we look at them, and what we do with those observations has in the last decade been a subject of sustained critical inquiry in visual culture and in history of science, from the work of Nigel Rothfels on zoos, to Steve Baker on contemporary art, and Lorraine Daston on attention to nature in the Enlightenment. The relationship between technique and looking, between eye and hand, between what one chooses to look at closely and long and what one is consequently ignoring are all as important as what is in the centre of the final image. Barbara’s work in wood-engraving throughout the 1970s, which was mainly focused on living creatures, is a case in point: drawing attention to something is the first step towards exploring the big picture which surrounds it.”
“These engravings by Barbara Howard were in the main also effected for hand produced books: those of the Gauntlet Press which she and Richard Outram began in the 1960s. Indeed, most of the engravings reproduced here are from one book — entitled Creatures — a work full of awe yet entirely devoid of sentimentality.
Creatures was published in 1972, only a few years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and a few years before Three Mile Island melted down. The rapid and alarming acceleration of visible effects of the degradation of nature into the 80s brought many of us up sharp against the ‘big picture.’ Barbara wrote this in 1987:
“We must constantly attempt to become more fully human… I am concerned, as we all must be, about what we, through greed and ignorance, are doing to the natural world; to the world and all its life forms including, of course, ourselves. I am not an activist and I am not a preacher… I am an artist and believe in doing what I do best as an artist. To be an artist requires of one the deepest concern allied to detachment, otherwise one cannot accomplish one’s work. In my work I am attempting to explore and reveal the essential inter-dependence of all life; to communicate what I have seen, what I love, to engage the viewer in a response of love and celebration and hence deep concern for all that we must treasure or risk losing forever. I must share what I love, to give some insight into what I discover and see as the treasures of existence, which are everywhere to be found, to be seen for the looking.”
[Image Credits: Barbara Howard painting Arlette's Garden (1984); Barbara Howard painting in the kitchen of the Massey House (1952); Monarch, Fish, Dragonflies, Frogs, Lobster, Owl and Snake, from Creatures (1972) all courtesy the Literary and Artistic Estates of Barbara Howard and Richard Outram]