In their words: Conversations with Writing Topography artists—#09: Sara Roth

Beaverbrook Art GalleryNovember 19, 20150 Comments

Over the next several weeks, we will be posting interviews with artists currently featured in the Gallery’s Writing Topography exhibition. These interviews were conducted by Rebecca Goodine, a university student participating in an internship at the Gallery. These interviews present artists talking about themselves and their work in their own words. Interviews were conducted with the artists by email, and have been lightly edited for grammar and flow (occasionally, questions and responses have been removed). At the end of interviews, we’ve included some links to provide a bit more information about a topic or theme from the interview; these links have been chosen by us, and were not provided by the artists.

Sara Roth

Photo: Gallery staff


The concept of disturbed sites interests me. These are areas disturbed by industry or other human activity. The plants that grow and the ways in which they were established illuminates stories of human settlement, and industrialization.

Please tell us a bit about yourself and your artistic practice.

I have a multidisciplinary practice that investigates the stories we tell about the places we live. Using drawings, print, and sculptural installation, I share stories of continuity and interconnectivity in order to reshape the way we think about a place, its present and future. Common subject matter includes post-industrial sites, and the encroachment of the natural world into built environments.

How would you describe your work in the exhibition?

Disturbed Sites is a wallpaper installation that featured a striped pattern made up of stylized motifs drawn from the plant life in and around Sydney, Cape Breton*. It is part of a larger project that includes drawings, paintings and interventions into the environment.

Can you tell us about the process of creating the work in the exhibition?

The wallpaper is hand screen printed onto commercial lining paper (wallpaper that is intended to cover cracks and imperfections on the wall). The repeat pattern was designed using both hand and computer aided techniques. The motifs of the pattern are based on a series of observational drawings and paintings of plant life found along the rail line near my home in Sydney, NS.

What was the inspiration for this work?

The concept of disturbed sites* interests me. These are areas disturbed by industry or other human activity. The plants that grow and the ways in which they were established illuminates stories of human settlement, and industrialization. While dominant narratives in Cape Breton consistently glorify an industrial past, examining the ecology of post-industrial and other disturbed sites exposes stories of continuity and interconnectivity. These stories are told less often, but are no less significant as they are intertwined with natural, social, and colonial histories.

What was the development process like from your initial idea to the finished work?

I knew I wanted to look a plants that grow in post-industrial sites, but I am not an ecologist and I wasn’t familiar with plant identification. I consulted an expert in ecological restoration and an environmental educator who introduced me to the term disturbed sites. From there I began making botanical illustration of plants from a rail line near my home and working with the ecologist on ways to engage people in the area with these sites. My intention was that community members would share stories of friends and family that have lived or worked in the area that has now been reclaimed by nature, and that those stories would be incorporated into my ongoing research. Instead, the community workshop became an opportunity for community members to engage with the ecology of the area, performing invasive species control that will physically change the landscape over time. The wallpaper pattern developed out of these activities, but the project itself is not finished. I continue to document plants (often considered weeds) in my region and community workshops will begin again in the spring.

What is it you hope for the viewer to discover or consider through this work?

With the wallpaper I am concerned with the idea of covering up. Since the mass production of wallpaper began in the 19th century, it has been used as a quick, inexpensive fix to cover cracks in plaster, imperfections and peeling paint. Similarly, the transition to post-industrialization in Cape Breton has been marked with economic bailouts and environmental quick-fixes. Ultimately the project is about how these histories and others are revealed in the natural as well as built environment.

What do you find most compelling or enjoyable about this particular work?

The community events are by far the most enjoyable and satisfying part of the project. They are basically work parties where participants learn a bit about the local ecology and introduced vs. native species from local experts and reduce the population of invasive species or re-introduce native plants in a particular area. The effects of which may be seen year after year.

How does your work connect with broader themes?

Community engagement in art* is pretty popular right now. I think it’s because it can be really fun. It also brings work outside of institutions, which are not welcoming spaces for many people. Using smaller stories to touch on larger narratives is also reflected in art made today.

What are your larger thoughts on the themes of the Writing Topography exhibit, and how it relates to your piece?

Place, landscape and the natural environment (which are, of course tied in with culture) are rich sources of narrative. And like any resource can be mined, manipulated in so many different ways and for different purposes.

What first compelled you to explore the lasting effects of economy and industrialization on community and ecology? Particularly, why did you choose to focus on Cape Breton for this project?

I moved to Cape Breton during this period of transition to post-industrialization, but the stories about the heyday of the coal and steel dominated discussions about the place. I am interested in revealing other histories and alternative outcomes.

What does ‘creativity’ mean to you?

Somehow synthesizing and communicating research and exploration.

What kinds of things do you find helpful as sources of inspiration?

The places I live and visit and the stories people tell about the place, past and present.

What advice do you have to give to new and aspiring artists?

Keep working. Earn money another way, don’t monetize your work too soon (if ever?). Make studio visits to other artist and other disciplines. Invite others to your studio.

Learn more about...

Sydney, NS (The Canadian Encyclopedia)
Ecological Disturbance (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
Community engagement in art (Ontario Arts council)

Artist bio

Sara Roth is a multidisciplinary artist whose work bridges illustration, installation, and sculpture in the exploration of constructed and imagined stories we tell about the places we live. She holds a BFA (Interdisciplinary) from NSCAD University and a Diploma in Fine Craft from the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design (Fredericton). Most recently, she has worked as one half of the collective Moving Arms II, exhibiting at art- at-night festivals Art in the Open (Charlottetown), and Lumière (Sydney). Roth was born in British Columbia and lives and works in Sydney, Nova Scotia.

About the Exhibition

Writing Topography runs September 26, 2015 through January 10, 2016. The exhibition is organized by the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and made possible with the generous support of the McCain Family, the Harrison McCain Foundation, and the McCain Foundation. Admission is FREE for Beaverbrook Art Gallery members and for children age six and under. More information on memberships and benefits can be found on our website at Featured artists include: Robert Bean, Gerald Beaulieu, Jennifer Bélanger, Rémi Belliveau, Jordan Bennett, Kay Burns, Amanda Dawn Christie, Richard Davis, Leah Garnett, Pam Hall, Mark Igloliorte, Navarana Igloliorte, Ursula Johnson, Philippa Jones, Stephen Kelly, Eleanor King, Fenn Martin, Michael McCormack, Kim Morgan, Nigel Roe, Sara Roth, Anna Torma, Gerald Vaandering, and Kim Vose Jones.

Leave a Comment