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The eco-secrets beneath our feet

Published on

Cathy Dobson

Twelve-year-old Caleb Gonzalez excitedly runs over from a dig site in Veteran’s Park with a clump of dirt and a small white shell in his hand.

“Look what we found,” he says, showing Mary Abma, a local artist facilitating a youth workshop that marries science and history with art.

“So what’s that mean?” she asks Caleb.

The two look over for assistance from retired geotechnical engineer Kees Kooy.

He’s busy at the dig drawing earth from beneath the topsoil for the students to examine.

“It confirms there was a shallow lake here at one time,” Kooy replies.

And so the discoveries continued on a warm, summer morning last week.

Abma’s workshop was a preamble to an exhibition she and Edmonton artist Lyndal Osborne are holding at the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery Sept. 5 to Jan. 4, called Our Own Back Yard.

The concept arose when Abma, a full-time Sarnia artist, began exploring her own backyard about four years ago. That study of her plants, soil, rainwater and seeds led to a major installation that will take up half the third floor of the public art gallery and help celebrate Sarnia’s 100th year as a city.

“I realized I didn’t know anything about the property I walk on every day,” she said. “This work is about paying more attention to what’s around us and showing more gratitude for what is there.”

Abma has since studied properties in Brantford and Grand Rapids Michigan and turned the findings into a piece of art.

In Sarnia, she chose the block surrounded by Wellington, Christina, Davis and Victoria streets to study.  The block includes the Sarnia Public Library, has a large commercial component, an apartment building and is home to Veteran’s (formerly Victoria Park) where local residents gathered to celebrate Sarnia’s birth as a city in 1914.

“I felt the soil would be largely undisturbed here because it has been a park forever,” said Abma. “We can study it and learn about the geological history of the area.”

Her findings are incorporated in the upcoming exhibition. She also researched the block’s history and reflected that in the installation, as well as the plants, seeds, soil and water.

Eighty-two plants found in her own backyard and researched for their medicinal value, folklore and recipes are also incorporated into My Own Back Yard.

“I have created a big three-dimensional collage that reflects my passion for botany, history and art,” she said. “I think if we pay more attention, we respect the land more and we think more about the impact we have on it.”


My Own Back Yard is an exhibit by artists Mary Abma and Lyndal Osborne, at the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery on Christina Street, Sept. 5 – Jan. 4.

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