Artist Mary Abma Preserves Memories with her Ash Tree Project

This project will become an ongoing legacy for the community…* -Mary Abma

More than a tree-spirit chill down my spine! Sarnia-Lambton’s Ash Tree Memorial Performance commenced with haunting woodwind sounds from Kelly Kiyoshk’s flute. Handmade baskets crafted from black ash trees sat on a table beside him.

I shivered with the other performers.

Mary Abma, a local contemporary artist and organizer for the event, stood at the outdoor microphone, apologized for the unexpected drop in temperature, and warmly welcomed the crowd that gathered at the Seaway Kiwanis Pavilion in Sarnia’s Canatara Park.

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Artist Mary Abma said “we need to slow ourselves down and pay attention to the natural world around us”. Photo by Jeff McCoy.

Around her, the Carolinian forest raised its eyebrows. April’s weather had turned shivering cold. Even a winter coat, woolen hat, and gloves couldn’t protect the mourners from the unwelcomed winds off Lake Huron. A Canadian goose flew by, honked in protest.

My fingers and emotions numbed. I waited for the rain-tears to fall but the clouds held them tight inside a grey blanket.

A few days earlier at the Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery (JNAAG) in Sarnia, Abma spoke about her new exhibition Signposts & Traces: Ash Tree Memorial Trail.

Photo 1 Courtesy Mary Abma

Abma’s memorial artifacts were on display from April 28 to May 14, 2017 at the Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery in Sarnia and can be seen on her website. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“In January 2015, 300 dead trees were cut at Canatara Park”, she said as a slide show of snow-laced ash limbs, stumps, and zig-zagged patterned logs silenced the crowd in attendance.

“In Lambton County, 24 percent of our canopy was ash…37 percent of the total volume of wood in woodlots was ash….”

Almost all of those trees were destroyed by the emerald ash borer (EAB), an invasive beetle from Asia. The destruction continues to spread to new areas in Canada and the United States, often as the result of humans moving beetle-infested firewood.

Because Lambton County was one of the first Canadian areas (after Windsor, Essex County, and Chatham-Kent) to deal with the loss associated with EAB, Abma wanted to keep the memory of the ash trees alive.

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Abma created ash tree shrouds from phragmites, a wetland grass considered to be another invasive species in the Lambton County area. Photo by Jeff McCoy.

Her community-engaged, ecological artwork which memorializes the ash trees of Canatara took Abma four years to create.

The project is multi-faceted. First the Bright’s Grove resident went through Canatara Park and selected some of the dead trees and gave them an identity. Fourteen ash tree memorial stations were constructed and identified with such names as “Ash Nursery”, “the Elder”, “Ash Graveyard”, and “The Guardian”.

Then she took the concept of Victorian mourning practices and used some of the dead ash to create “individual stories, death notices, mourning art, and jewelry”. All of these pieces were displayed at a recent exhibition at the JNAAG.

To connect the indoor exhibition with the outdoor showcase, she mapped an Ash Tree Memorial Trail for mourners to stroll through. She also designed shrouds from phragmites, a wetland grass and another prevalent invasive species found in the area. Using a smartphone (with a QR code reader app), visitors can scan the QR code at each station to retrieve Abma’s memorial art made for the ash trees in that particular area. Those without scanners or those who are not on the trail can see the same webpages through her website.

The final element: the Saturday, April 29 (rain or shine) performance and community gathering pulled her vision and the mourners together.

Despite the cold weather (which couldn’t be controlled), I appreciated the effort Abma exerted to fashion a safe place for the public to grieve.

Canatara Park - Ash Tree Memorial Performance - April 29, 2017

Eulogizing the ash trees. Photos by Sharon Berg.

The one hour service included the music of accomplished Anishinaabe flute player Kelly Kiyoshk, the performance of accomplished singer/musician Missy Burgess, author/aboriginal historian David D Plain’s talk on the uses and artifacts of the ash trees, the beautiful voices of the Wavesong Vocal Ensemble, the readings by Allan McKeown, the dance performance with Robi Williams and my own poetic words.

Following the performances, I walked with several people (like a funeral procession) towards the park’s Tarzanland area where Abma’s Ash Tree Memorial Trail began. The Carolinian forest opened its arms. Despite all the fallen trees, I felt warmer as we followed Abma then paused at the various stations for shared stories and reflections. For the first time, since losing four large ash trees in my own backyard in May 2011, I felt closure.

Canatara Park - Ash Tree Memorial Trail - April 29, 2017

Walking the Trail. Photos by Okun Hill.

Normally, my blog concentrates on poets, fiction writers and/or other literary events but because of my own interest in the lost ash trees, I yearned to learn more about Mary Abma and her project.

One thing I’ve discovered since studying this local destruction of these trees is that you can’t mess with Mother Nature. Diversification in the forest and amongst humans is vital for survival.

A few days after the service, the sun finally nudged the grey clouds into a corner. I drafted my questions and welcomed Mary’s response. Below are the results:

When I first heard you were working on a project focusing on the local ash trees and how they were being destroyed by the emerald ash borer, I was thrilled. Here was another individual who was passionate about preserving the memories of these trees. At what moment did you decide that this would be a worthwhile project to work on? Did something happen to draw your attention to the trees or was it a more gradual process? Explain how you were feeling at the time.

The development of my projects is a gradual one. I began by paying attention to the trees in my environment. I had heard of the emerald ash borer but had not really been aware of the extent of its damage until I started to pay attention. Once I began to see the great numbers of dead trees in our roadside woodlots, my interest about these trees was sparked and I wanted to find out more.

Research led to passion and a desire to create an artistic response.

Did you have to do anything special to prepare yourself for this project? If yes, what did you do?

 I prepare for a project by doing research and by talking with specialists in fields related to the project. In this case, I spoke with Larry Cornelis, a local naturalist and tree expert. He taught me to identify ash trees and he told me about how they have been affected in this area. I also visited the Guelph Arboretum and spoke with scientists there. I visited their ash tree “seed bank”. I contacted an invasive species scientist in Sault Ste. Marie and received information from him.

An artist’s journey can be a challenging one. It took you four years to complete your Signpost & Traces project. Not everyone likes trees, and certainly ash trees have a reputation for being a ‘weed tree’, something that’s messy and not often written about or featured in a work of art. Did you ever feel like giving up? Why or why not? How did you stay motivated?

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Bright’s Grove artist Mary Abma worked on the Signposts & Traces: Ash Tree Memorial Project for four years. Photo by Jeff McCoy.

I never felt like giving up. I think that is in large part because as the four years progressed, so did the problem. About halfway through, the city culled all of the ash trees at Canatara Park. I documented this cull and its aftermath. That experience led to one of deep mourning for me. This kept the passion for my project alive.

What is the one message you wanted the audience to walk away with?

Every one of us has a responsibility to protect and to restore the natural world. One person can make a difference and those little things that we do, however small, are important if only on a ritual or symbolic level. We must not be discouraged because to be discouraged is to give up.

One of the things I liked about this project is that it is organic in the sense that you not only included a performance segment featuring work from multi-disciplines but you invited the public to walk along the trail to experience the loss first hand. Should visual artists be working more with people in other disciplines such as the literary arts or the performing arts such as dance, theatre, and music? Why or why not?

I would never tell an entire group of artists what they should or should not be doing. I can only speak of my own artistic practice. I have discovered that my work is enriched by letting others into my process. I enjoy working this way.

I also liked how you incorporated technology and the use of QR codes for your project. Where did that idea come from?

I once read about cemeteries that put QR codes on tombstones. People who purchase this service set up a webpage that has photos and video of the deceased on it. Visitors to the cemetery can access these from the grave site. I thought that this would be a good way to give access to people walking the trail to the artwork I made in memory of the lost ash trees whose remains they were viewing.

Photo 3 by Jeff McCoy

Each of the 14 stations on the Ash Tree Memorial Trail has a QR code that takes visitors to Abma’s memorial art made for the dead ash trees at each stop. Photo by Jeff McCoy.

You’ve created a few other projects focusing on the ash tree. Please share a line or two about those projects.

The biggest one was an installation in Hampton Park, in Ottawa. I joined together with two other artists, Marcia Lea and Peggy DeVries, to create an installation memorializing one of the old ash trees that had been taken down, there. We laid down the shadow of the old tree from wood chips that had been made from the ash trees in that park.

In your artist’s talk at the gallery, you said “art stimulates awareness”. Could you expand on this? In your opinion, what value is there in the visual arts in a society now obsessed with science and technology?

I think that more than ever, we need to slow ourselves down and pay attention to the natural world around us. I do not have a problem with science and technology, but I do have a problem with our allowing our collective desire to make our lives ever more convenient and full of possessions to overshadow our need to steward the earth and to live in harmony with it.

Lost Canopy medallions by Mary Abma Photo by Murray DeBoer

Lost Canopy Medallions by Mary Abma. Photo by Murray DeBoer.

What’s next for Mary Abma?

I am not yet finished with the ash tree. I am working on a large installation that will bring all of the themes I have been working with together.

That sounds exciting. Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?

If you have the time, check out the trail at Tarzanland. As of May 15, most of it is still intact and the signs with the QR codes are still there. Walk the trail, enjoy the beauty of nature, and remember the ash trees.

Thank you Mary for sharing your thoughts. The work you are doing to create awareness about the loss of our ash trees is important. I wish you continued success with your visual arts career.

Mary Abma, a resident of Bright’s Grove, Ontario, is a contemporary artist who works in a variety of media. A full-time artist, Mary has exhibited in several group and solo exhibitions at galleries over the past 25 years. Mary comes from a long line of artists and grew up with the benefit of mentoring from her grandmothers.

Additional information about Abma and her art can be found on her website.

An earlier blog about her project can be found here.

Follow this blog for additional Canadian author and poet profiles.

*Quote is from the artist’s on-line statement about her project Signposts & Traces: Ash Tree Memorial Trail © Mary Abma Used with permission from the artist.

1 thought on “Artist Mary Abma Preserves Memories with her Ash Tree Project

  1. Pingback: #HeartwoodPoet – For the Love of Trees | Kites Without Strings

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