Canadian Visual Artists: Heather Vollans

Heather Vollans is a mosaic artist specializing in salvaged materials and concrete sculpture. She works and teaches mosaic courses in her studio near Hamilton, Ontario.

Mosaic in red and gray

Red Power was was inspired by a photograph of Chinese labourers painting the exterior of a power plant, hanging on long ropes.
Photo © Heather Vollans.

You’re originally from Australia and you’ve traveled a lot around Europe and the Middle East. How have your experiences in different parts of the world influenced you? Did your travels play a role in you becoming a mosaic artist?

My years of travelling definitely influenced me – especially in terms of use of colour. Being Australian I was already influenced by desert colours and earth tones, but then living in the desert those colours became an even stronger influence. The textures and contours of the sand, the vegetation and shadows also had an effect. And all these years later l see some of those same textures, shadows and contours in the snow!

The textiles of Europe were another big influence. I am drawn to textures wherever I am – and it’s all around us… rusting metals, patterns of dirt and grime on a truck, plastic wrapping materials, old paint peeling, bark, ripples on water… I journeyed through many arts/crafts before finally discovering mosaic about 10 years ago, but all of those influences are part of the place I have come to.

The mosaic on this side of the wall is composed of stones, driftwood, black glass, travertine, marble, slate tile, slag, terracotta - all salvaged or taken from nature.

Mission Statement mosaic is composed of stones, driftwood, black glass, travertine, marble, slate tile, slag, and terracotta – all salvaged or taken from nature.
Photo © Heather Vollans

My favorite piece of yours is this amazing four-paneled mosaic wall you’ve built on the property beside your studio, which you describe as your mission statement. It embodies your enthusiasm for making mosaics using natural and salvaged materials, and it represents many of the themes and values central to your art including man’s journey through the ages and his relationship with nature. What was the most important you learned while making it? Does the wall provoke any reaction from passers-by who see it from the road?

The materials were important to me. They symbolised the waste in our world. I wanted to use materials which were just lying around, having been discarded, to make this statement. Much of the ‘process’ for me was the gathering of the materials, cleaning them, sorting and storing them before coming up with the design.

The other side of the Mission Statement wall - this is the side seen from the road

The other side of Mission Statement wall, facing the road

I’ve learned such a lot doing this large project: the biggest is – dream big, think about it, research it, keep the passion, work at it … you can make it happen. The thinking/dreaming/planning process for this wall took far longer than it actually took to build and mosaic! The building and mosaic work took 2 summers. Other things I learned were: you don’t have to do it alone. Surround yourself with enthusiastic supporters – get friends involved, run a class around it, throw a bar-b-que in with it and people will come to help. Another thing: research materials and construction methods well before you take on something this big – and build beyond specifications, especially in Canada where nature takes its toll on everything. Build to last.

Slate mosaic

This piece was created using slate roof tiles discarded after renovation of a victorian house.

We get a lot of reaction from people passing by on the highway – strangers come up the drive and ask to see it. Often when I meet people and tell them where I live they say “you mean the place with the big wall?” It’s gratifying that people notice and even more gratifying that people understand why I did it.

I love your philosophy of creating art from materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. You use salvaged construction materials and discarded objects in your mosaics, as well as natural stone.  Do you have any good scavenging stories?

I have salvaged stuff all my life and yes, I have many great stories. It’s the materials I find that fire my work. I always begin with materials, rather than the idea or design. My work is all about the process – the thrill of the find, the endless hours of thinking about how to combine my treasures with other materials, and the final production.  All of this process is as important as the final result.

Working in construction, I have come across some wonderful dumpster materials – aluminum, ceramics, wood, rusty nails, copper and other metals. Once you take away from your mind the expected use of these materials you can see them purely as textures to be played with.

Mosaic sculpture using salvaged construction materials

The crushed Tim’s cup in the tool belt? My favorite part of the sculpture!
Women in Skilled Trades, back and front views. Photo © by Heather Vollans.

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Introducing the Canadian Visual Artists interview series

Canadian Visual ArtistsThis blog started out as a document of my own artistic journey, but one of the most interesting and enjoyably unpredictable aspects of a journey is the wealth of experiences and stories shared by the people you meet along the way.

Something fantastic that I’ve come to realize over the last year is just how many talented, inventive, passionate people are out there – making art. Making art inspired by places I’ve never visited and people I’ve never met, making art using techniques they themselves invented or media I didn’t know existed, making art guided by worldviews and philosophies that enrich my own.

So I am expanding the scope of this blog to share the work and the stories of other Canadians who make art. The first in the series will be posted tomorrow. I hope that you will, as I do, find them curious, ingenious, inspiringly kooky or madly inspiring, but all utterly fascinating.

Bluegrass night at Barfly, Montreal

Barfly, Montreal logoWhen I lived in Montreal six years ago, bluegrass night had already been a decade-old Sunday night tradition at Barfly. Last weekend I had the chance to visit this favorite haunt of mine after a wretchedly long absence, and was happy to see that this landmark of the Montreal music scene is still going strong and about to celebrate its 15th anniversary on November 11th.

Though a legendary dive, Barfly can be hard to find with its tiny front on St. Laurent boulevard in the heart of Montreal’s trendy Plateau district. Decorated with Montreal Canadiens hockey memorabilia, dents in the walls, and a bust of Elvis, the bar with its cheap beer, excellent live music and free pool draws a crowd of university students, music lovers and whiskey-sodden barflies in varying proportions.

The musicians that show up to play old time country and bluegrass music on Sunday nights are equally varied in age, style, and musical experience. With a typical turnout of about ten, the group usually includes a couple of guitars and banjos, a mandolin and a lap steel guitar, a stand-up bass and a fiddle. The players rotate in fronting the band for three songs, in a lineup randomly generated by chalking their names on a blackboard as each arrives. This spontaneous arrangement results in a new show every week, the style, feel and quality of which often varies immensely depending on who shows up and at what time of night.

A group of musicians on stage at Barfly

A typical bluegrass night lineup with fiddle, mandolins, upright bass, guitar and Dobro

If you think you don’t like country music because you associate it with the mainstream acts in oversized cowboy hats and glittering outfits singing about keying their ex’s car to the overly engineered sound of electric guitars, you are in good company. That’s how most patrons of bluegrass night feel the first time they are reluctantly dragged to Barfly by their enthusiastic friends who have been there before. The raw, acoustic, alive, complex bluegrass sound you will hear there is as far from what you think of as country as you can get. The intricacy of Flatt & Scruggs breakdowns will knock your socks off, the multi-part vocal harmonies of Stanley Brothers‘ gospel songs will give you goose bumps, and the dexterity of the banjo pickers will blow your mind. Inevitably, the extensive oeuvre of Johnny Cash will also be featured.

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