4 min

Turf wars?

Yes, but not the kind you'd expect

CORRALLING NATURE. Find out what happens when downtown dykes - TemperMettle's Rowena O'Connor and Gillian Farnsworth - take their show on the road and confront small-town Ontario with art too big to avoid. Credit: Nancy Lyons

Want to feel the love? Try getting out of the big city and taking your art to small-town Ontario.

TemperMettle, the artist collective powered by cool dykes Rowena O’Connor and Gillian Farnsworth, recently opened Engineered, a magical synthetic forest in Stouffville’s Latcham Gallery, to considerable attention.

And support. While arts councils passed on the project, the farming and commuter community 40-minutes north of Toronto pitched in with donations of both money and goods to help the duo remount their critically acclaimed show first staged at Toronto’s A Space Gallery in 2002.

“We didn’t get the support of our own city arts council,” says Farnsworth, 34, “but this small town goes all out and not just for their own, but for two girls from the city. There’s something about small communities. We’ve never had so much stuff donated.”

Places like Century Mill Lumber, Reesor Sod Farms and Farmer Jack’s Garden Centre came through with plywood, plastic, 1,000 cubic feet of bark mulch and a few hundred pounds of sod and stone. Then a team of six – even the gallery curator pitched in to shovel – worked for five days hauling mulch and rock to transform the gallery’s white box into an interior forest.

“I kept feeling all these town folks looking over our shoulders, wondering what the heck we were doing taking wheelbarrows of mulch into the gallery,” says O’Connor, 35. “I’d just try to put a shovel in their hands.”

Last Sunday, my girlfriend and I put the top down on our jeep, collected up two of our gay boyfriends and took a road trip north on Highway 404 to take in the show. And, hey, there’s no need to fear the wild yonder – we only brought along our “beards” because they’re fun and look cute in our back seat.

After brunch at the town pub (you can catch locals jamming on the patio on Sunday afternoons through the summer), we strolled down Main St for the show. The opening reception was Friday-night-hip at a Toronto art gallery, except that it was Sunday afternoon in a town of 24,000 – in a gallery located near a Mennonite thrift shop and a babbling brook. In other words, it was refreshing.

Curious and supportive locals with toddlers in tow mingled with visiting urban queers. The vibe was Columbia sportswear meets New Tribe Tattoos, which became another variation on the show’s border-challenging themes.

This installation mixes a natural ecosystem of grass turf, bark mulch and stone with constructed sculpture – curvaceous eight-foot metal trees and oddly cuddly forest creatures made from fabric, bolts, wire pins and bees wax. Bringing nature inside, changing its context, alters our perception of it, say the artists.

Indeed, the massive metal trees – vaguely feminine forms that suggest wind and movement – seem organic while, inside the gallery, organic undulating hills appear artificial. For the woodland’s soundscape, Slinky Kellogg’s Michelle Breslin and Steve Keeping captured real birdsong, wind, water and animal noises, then fed them through a computer and synthesizer to create a funky electronic beat occasionally punctuated by recognizable chirps and howls.

At the opening, dancers Sarah Doucet and Jenn Goodwin, looking like wood nymphs out of Blade Runner, cavorted about in acrylic masks, breastplates and painted bodies.

The show, says Farnsworth, represents a struggle between nature and technology, propitious for such towns as Stouffville facing Toronto’s ever-expanding urban sprawl. “We’re getting rid of so much nature [with development], we have to reconstruct it in parks and green spaces. And then, we have to make all these rules around nature [to preserve it].”

Ah, but there are no museum rules in TemperMettle’s 21st-century rendering of “nature.” Kids trot through this cool forest, hugging the trees and petting the armadillo-like creatures, then giving ecotours to hesitant adults. I was particularly fond of a silver-sequined critter that one young lad assured me was a baby dinosaur that had crawled out of the sewer. Made sense to me.

For followers of TemperMettle (they have built sets and installations for The Barenaked Ladies, David Bowie, Marilyn Manson, Ozzy Osbourne and the Dyke March), this is the last chance to catch their work – at least for a while. Metal tailor O’Connor is heading to British Columbia’s Institute Of Technology to advance her craft. “I want to build pieces that will be more interactive and kinetic, that will run off of gears and computers. And I also want to learn how to build bigger. For me, it’s always about size.”

Farnsworth is using the time-out to focus on her art, which she describes as two-dimensional, landscape-based drawings that play with a variety of textures and materials. “There’s a definite shift right now,” she says. “We’re focussing on the individual components.”

But both say this won’t be the last time we hear from Temper-Mettle. Down the road, they want to take Engineered to other small communities across Canada, perhaps teaming up with local high school art classes to help build the installations – to expand their notions of both art and community.

“It’s important for us to have the audience involved, whether they want to or not,” says O’Connor. “It’s part of our art. With big installations, you can’t walk away from the art, you have to confront it or walk around it.”

“The community has always been really important to our work,” says Farnsworth. “First it was the queer community and now we’d like to see where we can take it.”

“It’s like this weird exchange program,” says O’Connor. “The city girls come up with their art and bring their friends, but it’s on their turf.”

Till Sun, Jul 11.
Latcham Gallery.
10am-5pm. Tue-Sat.
Noon-4pm. Sun.
6240 Main St. Stouffville.
(905) 640-8954.