claybank, screenshot from video, Elyse Portal, 2012.

Elyse Portal

Materia medica


What are the psychological, spiritual and environmental implications of perceiving the natural world as isolated and mute? Predominant political and social structures classify human and non-human forms into hierarchies. Categorized into resources that are administered, allocated, and exploited, the Other – a category that represents what is placed in opposition to the individual human – is therefore subservient.

Our separation from the Other, and the associated consequences, motivate an interest in enacting potential solutions within my artistic praxis [1]. This way of art making is invested in redefining progress as a kind of relational specificity [2] that recognizes diverse worldviews, spiritualities, emotions, and ecologies. Diversity is key to averting both environmental and social crisis. In addition, embodiment facilitates exchange, and builds social meaning. When I sit on the edge of Lake Ontario, I am reminded of its greatness. I gaze a little closer, and notice some of the terrestrial repercussions of industrial wastes combined with sewers. There are seemingly infinite bits of plastic lapped onto shore. I wonder about the few Atlantic salmon that have made their way to the Humber and Don rivers in recent years. What is progress to those salmon that navigate our chemical soup? I am reminded of the Mohawk place name Ontar:io [3], ‘the beautiful waters – sacred’.

Relational Specificity

Site-specific art, which questions Modernist ideals of art as ‘pure’, placeless, and autonomous, is an important aspect of my praxis and interest in redefining progress. In One Place After Another, Miwon Kwon describes three paradigms within site-specific art as phenomenological, social/institutional, and discursive [4]. She elaborates that the three can overlap within a single project.

Phenomenological site-specific art considers the physical or empirical elements of a site to “relocate meaning from within the art object to the contingencies of its context” [5]. Social/institutional site-specific works problematize the cultural framework of art institutions. Here, Hans Haacke, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and Michael Asher maintain that the gallery is not a ‘neutral’ site, but rather one subject to invisible atmospheric engagements (Condensation Cube), patriarchal controls (Hartford Wash), and particular cultural narratives (Claire Copley Gallery, 1974). The specificity of the discursive site maintains a trajectory of blurring ‘non-art’ issues, spaces or institutions with art. From sexism, racism, to environmentalism, the discursive site questions the confines of aesthetics and art-history.

While Kwon reveals the challenges of site-specific work, especially its coerced nomadism for the market economy, she also reasserts the value of place:

… the phantom of a site as an actual place remains, and our psychic, habitual attachments to places regularly return as they continue to inform our sense of identity. And this persistent, perhaps secret, adherence to the actuality of places (in memory, in longing) is not necessarily a lack of theoretical sophistication but a means for survival [6].


[We are] casualties of a belief system that places man and his possessions supreme over birds and beasts. We begin to feel the limitations of this system that inhibits our true dreaming and spiritual growth. It is a system of thought which has had a disastrous effect on our environment – the land and animals are seen as subjects rather than revered and honoured as guardians and teachers. The dream has lost its power. Poetry of the land has lost its music because we no longer listen.

— Jane Lahr [7]

I was born on the prairies. My mother has Irish, Prussian, and Dutch heritage. My father’s heritage is Ukrainian. All of my great grandparents fled poverty and/or persecution in Europe and became settlers in Saskatchewan. I spent a lot of time with my Ukrainian grandparents the year my parents divorced. I was five. By that time my baba (grandma) and gido (grandpa) had sold their large farming operation to live on an acreage. Despite their ‘retirement’, they were always working. My baba processed most of their annual food supply, and my gido ensured the crops and livestock were tended. On special occasions we gathered with my aunties and made pysanka: patterns on eggs. Here, complex line work would intertwine among geometric and representational forms. Deer, wheat, pine trees and stars referenced Christianity and unacknowledged indigenous cosmological kinships. I would later learn that pysanka was not initially Christian, but an old European Indigenous (pagan) practice that honoured the processes of life, marked by the ancient meander or unending line around the egg. To my European Indigenous ancestors, to create pysanka was to ensure the continuation of life. Looking back, I remember soaking the egg in coloured dyes, after mark making with wax. I loved the smell of beeswax as it melted in the cup at one end of the kistka (wax pen), over the candle flame.

When I was nine years old, my mother, sister, and I left the prairies when my mom got a teaching position on Seabird Island, which is part of the Stó:lõ Nation. We lived in Chilliwack. I went to a school in a historic jail building with bars on its windows and a concrete playground. If I had any opportunity to skip school, my mom took me to Seabird. Hovering in the mists of the Fraser, the mountains watched over the inlet and its great soccer fields. I felt at home. I don’t ever remember being told what I “should” be doing, I simply moved among the buildings and often found myself in a classroom with a piano and art supplies.

After six months, my mom’s students became increasingly receptive as her pedagogical approach shifted from fixed indoor scheduling to greater nature-based learning activities. One day an elder from the community came to her classroom, which at the time was located in a temporary trailer. He told the students that there was going to be a ceremony conducted to determine if the elders had chosen an appropriate site for the building of a new school. If the site was approved, the Creator was going to send a messenger in the form of an eagle that would descend from the sky, circle the site three times, and ascend. For my mom, this was a stretch. She was afraid that the students’ confidence in the elders would be undermined by their expectations for a “successful” ceremony.

Despite her concerns, my mother joined the staff and students as they assembled at the rainy, cold and windy site. They danced to petition the Spirits and natural world. For my mother, up until that point, the oral tradition of the Stó:lõ had been understood as a metaphor but that day she embodied the experience as she round-danced with the Stó:lõ community. Hours into the ceremony, as the elder fell to the ground in exhaustion, a speck appeared high in the sky. As it neared, the speck revealed itself as an eagle, as the elder had anticipated. The eagle circled three times before it ascended in a vertical line back to its origins. Today there is a school, designed to represent a salmon rising from a river, built in that location.

When I was in my twenties, my baba told me that as a child her parents made offerings of intricately woven wheat to their cattle at certain times of the year, namely around solstice. They also placed wheat under the kitchen table, for children to play among the grain and discover hidden candied treasures. It was important to celebrate the wheat and acknowledge the animals that gave them sustenance and strength. For whatever reason, my baba did not continue these practices when she raised her children. The sacred for my father was directed by men with books in church, not as an exchange among animals, plants, soil and sun. Later, I would find out that the term baba, which I always thought only meant grandmother, had another meaning: healer [8].

In 2007, my mother moved to England for a teaching position at Lancaster University. Only a 6-hour trip to cross the Irish Sea, her new job provided an opportunity to explore her Irish heritage. On her way to County Clare, she noticed a highway re-routed to avoid passing through a ‘faery ring’ (also known as a fairy fort). In Irish faery rings are called raths. Imbued with Druid magic, or perhaps even the source of Druid magic, these physical landscapes are acknowledged in Celtic culture as entrances to the faery world. Passers by are welcome to walk the perimeter of the ring, but are prohibited from entering the circle. As the philosophers and healers within the Celtic tradition, the Druids revered and protected sacred sites. The earliest written accounts of the Druids are from the Greeks and Romans. Once Julius Caesar encountered resistance from the Druids. Barry Cunliffe tells us, Caesar declared Druids were “a vicious sect that reveled in human sacrifice – thus providing a moral justification for conquest” [9]. For my mother, the Celtic-Druid culture surfaced in her felt experience of the land: its verdant flora and stark stone cliffs holding back the restless power of the sea, the sense of timelessness and mystery radiating from ancient echo stones, a pervasive feeling that the land itself welcomed her, watched her, warned her, and introduced her to a sense of reconciliation of identity dislocation.

Polyvocality as Healing

Adebayo Akomolafe is a clinical psychologist and faculty member at Covenant University, Nigeria. His research emphasizes narrative reflections that support his growing interest in postmodern perspectives about “the storied self, the ambiguity of identity and human interconnectedness” [10].

Akomolafe is concerned about the modernist paradigm, which imposes universal narratives that homogenize and colonize diverse worldviews. He advocates for a new therapeutic landscape that recognizes indigenous healing systems, and a “polyvocality of healing praxis” in Nigeria [11].

One of the homogenizing tools of orthodox clinical psychology that Akomolafe points to is the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual). Developed by the American Psychological Association, the manual is enforced in Nigeria as the standard perspective on mental illness. For Akomolafe, DSM is a singular narrative, which purports superiority. An example of this is the Western tenet of autonomous independence. The perceived ideal in Western psychology is that a healthy human is “autonomous, independent, and rational” [12]. However, for the Yoruba, Igbo and many indigenous cultures, autonomy does not exemplify health, but rather is understood as a type of imbalance. By distancing oneself from the community or Others, a kind of gap or emptiness occurs. This encourages illness. Thus, ‘conventional’ mental health, which often pathologizes indigenous worldviews, promotes a specific worldview of separation, which is known to transmit sickness.

Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, travelled to Europe to understand the source of settler/colonizer Western culture. By offering prayers to various forms, such as the Rhine River, he experienced the sentience of the land. The forgotten spirits conveyed that like Native American peoples, indigenous Europeans’ were also colonized by empires and institutionalized religions. Indigenous Europeans, entranced in the Imperial dominant worldview, forgot who they were.

Goldtooth defines indigeneity as the capacity to build respectful relationships with the earth in ongoing, place-based exchanges. He believes that anyone can develop this way of being. For Goldtooth, “it’s not a race issue; it’s a human issue of understanding our relationship” to the universe as sacred [13]. What would our world look like if the boundaries between the individual, autonomous self, and the Other dissolved? With reverence toward the myriad forms of life, how would our waters taste, smell, feel? What abundance and diversity could manifest?

Like Goldtooth and Akomolafe, Joseph Beuys (1921-86) was deeply concerned about the damaging ecological and psychological consequences of the modern mechanistic worldview, and found resilience within spirituality. Beuys grew up in the Lower Rhine village of Kleve, and has been described as the “pioneer investigator of the role of art in forging radical ecological paradigms for the relationship between human beings and the natural environment” [14]. For Beuys, the natural world and human psyche were interrelated in meaningful and mysterious ways, which he aimed to convey through his art. While he addressed larger forces, such as the economic growth paradigm, consumerism, patriarchy, and ecological destruction, much of his work focused on the inner human experience.

Actions such as The Chief – Fluxus Song (1964) recognized the agency of Others. Beuys, over an eight-hour duration, emulated the calls of a stag, while being rolled up in layers of felt. Akin to meditation, his intent was to “switch off the semantics of his own species in order to assist the kind of transformation of inner-self necessary for any outward social and environmental change” [15]. Beuys, influenced by the work of Rudolf Steiner, was interested in the pre-Socratic worldview, where the artistic encompassed the scientific. Here, the production of creative works was a kind of magical or spiritual activity that offered both social and ecological intimacies.

Gregory Cajete, an Indigenous educator and Chair of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico, describes Native science as “the collective heritage of human experience with the natural world,” where one acquires knowledge through non-hierarchical methods, including “sensation, perception, imagination, emotion, symbols, and spirit, as well as that of concept, logic, and rational empiricism” [16]. Cajete considers Western science as an aspect of Native science, which has disassociated itself and declared ‘neutral’ superiority over Other ways of knowing.

Chaos Theory is a narrative that Cajete links to indigenous worldview. Chaos theory is nested within nonlinear science, which recognizes that “throughout nature, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” with spontaneous, unanticipated outcomes [17]. Here, nature is understood as a chaotic system that is predictable only on superficial levels. Moreover, the most minute, incidental activities can be significant to how a process unfolds, and often create unexpected results. Native science recognizes that all things come out of the field of chaos, which then begin to self-organize. The aim is not to control the product of this unpredictable creative process, but rather to observe and adapt to the ‘flow of events’.

medica as process

Cajete, in “Art as a Means of Ceremony and Transformation,” emphasizes the process of making art as more important than the product. While the product may convey certain aesthetics, the goal of the work is ‘aliveness’. The sentience or energetics of the work is cultivated by aligning with the ‘flow of events’.

Cajete, Beuys, and Akomolafe remind us of the narratives that are pervasive in Western/modern culture, and how those narratives affect the psyche, as well as the environment. They recognize the limitations of living within a culture that collectively operates within a Newtonian, objective paradigm. The agency and value of differing worldviews are offered as a remedy. In my own life, Other worldviews have expanded to include experiential practices.

Embodied, experiential practices that expose alternate perceptions are what Jennifer Fisher calls Technologies of Intuition. Fisher, a Media and Culture faculty member at York University, discusses intuition as a relevant object of research and artistic methodology. Intuition is associated with real activities that encourage the production and acquisition of knowledge and human awareness. For Fisher, an intuitive practice is legitimate as an artistic practice if it employs communicative or perceptual rigor, which may include: “accessing interior perception, attuning oneself to one’s surroundings or to other individuals, communicating ancestral knowledge, collaborating with trance mediums, informing aesthetic choice, effecting a means of self-transformation, haunting art history or creating alternative networks” [18].

Since 2005, I have practiced a form of intuitive technology or waking-dream journeying, taught by Eliot Cowan [19], which has become central to my art praxis. I was introduced to dream journeying, while studying Plant Spirit Medicine, a healing modality that combines household shamanism with Classical Chinese Medicine. ‘Household’ shamanism refers to the everyday, common and accessible act of working with local plant spirits. Cowan asserts that whether we were raised within a culture that acknowledges spirits or not, everyone visits a different state of awareness where contact with spirits is spontaneous, natural and commonplace – the dream-state.

Prior to modern, industrialized culture, most towns and communities had healers that offered preventative medicine through their engagement with spirits. Even today, there are many pockets within the world where this awareness still exists [20]. In these contexts, not only healers have access to spirits, but also by the time anyone reaches adulthood, meaningful relationships with spirits are developed, which can be called upon to assist with daily life.

Place, bioregional flora and fauna, along with dreaming are central to Plant Spirit Medicine. Local plants, whether indigenous or invasive, which grow without human intervention are recognized for their capacity to support the wellbeing of the region. Since these plants thrive within the given environment, they support the vitality of the given inhabitants. An integral part of the practice bridges practitioner, plant, and client. Communication occurs through gestures of respect, observation, and waking-dream journeys. Following, the healer evaluates signatures of the plant. The plant may deliver image-narratives, colours, feelings, or sounds that mimic the wellness or ills of a future client. Plant communications are delivered in a manner that will resonate with the perceptive capacity of the healer, often through the senses.

With Plant Spirit Medicine, I have come to understand that the senses are not separate, measureable activities that report to the brain, but rather are interwoven in perception. The senses are collaborators. As my senses focus on things, they draw me into another centre. The more time I spend there, the more involved the relation becomes. Therefore, in my art praxis, I utilize dream journeying as a way to open a sensual dialogue with the elements imbued in the materials around me. Dream journeying is a kind of dialogue that participates with the agency of Others. The dialogue is an exchange, a methodology for co-creation. The more I practice, the more the barriers of separation between myself and Others dissolves. As I dialogue, I feel more at home in myself and in the world. Anxiety mysteriously vanishes, as I open to the ‘flow of events’.

I have been producing a series of textiles, in conjunction with plant spirit medicine methodologies. I like the idea of taking an ephemeral practice, where a fleeting image, sound or feeling, is marked with beeswax onto fibre, which is then soaked in a dye bath pigmented with locally harvested plant materials. Recently, I have been illuminating these textiles with solar panel technology.

Carolee Schneemann is also an artist interested in the enactment of intuitive methodologies. For Schneemann, intuition is a form of research that can access a reservoir of creative potential:

As a four-year-old, my Scottish nanny would wake me up for prayers and evocations. Staring at the full moon, I was able to see my grandfather’s face emerge, our secret… The psychic bonds to dream, to the ecstatic body – flowed from nature [21].

In Western culture, much of our intuitive experience is negated. Within this worldview, both the dynamic agency of nature and emotions are often feared. Schneemann acknowledges the trauma associated with intuition as a methodology, when she discusses the witch trials, where visionaries and healers were tortured for communing with animals, plants and the natural world.

Between 1500 and 1800, over 100 000 women in Europe faced accusations of witchcraft, and an estimated 60 000 women were executed. Up until 1977, the history of the “Great Hunt” had largely been disseminated in ‘witch-hunters’ propaganda. Dale Hoak, author of “The Great European Witch-Hunts,” posits that the timing of the craze was a by-product of “the European transition to modernity” [22]. He offers the following synthesis:

The Reformation intensified an awareness of Satan. Like the spread of Protestantism, this obsession with Satan followed the coming of print: the Reformation was the age par excellence of the Teufelsbücher, or devil books, in German.

The extraordinary concurrence of various crises (inflation, disease, war) in the post-Reformation era (1550-1650) created the social conditions of cultural fear. Since the devil could be blamed for these woes, it remained merely to identify his human agents – the seers, magicians, and sorceresses of traditional village life.

The same period (1550-1650) marked the first time in Western history that the governing classes possessed the technological and administrative means of Christianizing the European peasantry [23].

Technologies of Intuition such as dream journeying are engagements within a larger process to reclaim innate and spiritual methodologies known by my ancestors. In my studio, I open a receptive space, and ask, “Is there anything you (the Other) wishes to impart through my art?” I listen to what arrives, and begin making.


Throughout my undergraduate visual arts training, I became increasingly sensitive to the types of materials I was using. Every painting class involved the use of acrylics, and every sculpture class required metal, industrial tools and chemical substances. The engagement with these materials was behavioral rather than relational – a distinction that has become vital to my entire approach to art. I bought ‘art supplies’ and, like all the other students in the program, attempted to make something called ‘art’ with them. After each semester I was struck by the fact that the fine arts yard would be filled with discarded projects, which were shipped off in industrial waste bins. As a result of this experience, among others, the ecological implications of the materials I use have become an important part of my research.

An early example of this can be seen in listening arms (2010), a sculptural work in which the site of the source where the clay originated, next to the Pacific Ocean, directly informed the development of the work. Eighty-four arms, made from both local and waste clay, had the capacity to simultaneously reach and listen. This project was exhibited as part of an outdoor group exhibition, Mary and Moses Sculpture Garden, initiated by Christine Clark, a curator in Victoria, BC.

The sculpture garden was dedicated to the late Mary and Moses Martin, who had tended their gardens in Deep Cove for forty years. On a typically cool and damp west coast day, I walked around the four-acre property. I knew the arms wanted to be there. After spending some time next to the ocean, I happened upon a stand of trees in various states of decay, where woodpeckers had excavated holes in search of food and habitat. The passageways into the heart of a particular tree, offered the ideal site for the long, hollow clay vessels. One by one I inserted them where woodpeckers left traces of their work. I also began to notice a proliferation of Monotropa uniflora, commonly known as ghost plant. The bone white colour of the plants, as well as how each section of the stem appeared to be stacked, mimicked the aesthetics of the clay arms that fit one inside the other. I started inserting arms alongside ghost plant colonies.

Later, I learned that ghost plants were bone white because they received their energy, not from the sun, but from fungi. As a result, ghost plants can live in extremely dark places. Essentially invisible fungi allow ghost plants, as well as the trees, to access otherwise unavailable nutrients, such as phosphorus. Without the fungi, neither the trees nor the ghost plants could thrive. Unlike the trees that provide carbohydrates to the fungi, botanists have not found any evidence that ghost plants give anything ‘useful’ back in exchange for energy. I would like to suggest that the ghost plants, with their nearly translucent, mysterious aesthetic remind us of the forces, such as the fungi, that maintain the flow of energy and integrity of the forest. Ghost plants are the visual manifestations of these invisible transactions. Akin to this perspective, my art aims to give sensual form to hidden or unseen exchanges.

When I moved to Toronto to pursue my Masters, I left my acrylics behind – acrylic paint is a petroleum-based, synthetic polymer that contains harmful additives such as “biocides and emulsifiers” [24]. Not only energy-intensive to produce, water-based acrylics contaminate watersheds, particularly during the production of their associated pigments, such as manufactured Titanium Dioxide or Titanium white [25]. While it is difficult to exempt all materials that cause environmental destruction, I longed to deepen my praxis of relating to naturally occurring materials local to my environment.

After a short period of time in the Visual Studies program, I felt a strong desire to paint. If I was to paint, what would I paint with? I began to network with members of the Living Earth School of Herbalism [26]. Our conversations led me to black walnut (Juglans nigra). Fortunately, the year I arrived in Toronto there happened to be a boon black walnut harvest.

The first year of the program, I became fascinated with how the walnuts stained my hands as I processed them. After several hours of removing the outer husk, my hands would be blue-black. From this direct engagement, as well as the timely opportunity to deconstruct my space, due to the planned demolition of the building that housed my studio, I began to apply walnut washes to the walls. During this time, I began to sense the energy of the site directing my work. My current paintings, created on organic cotton, are extensions and elaborations of this process.

As fabric soaks in Juglans nigra, I reflect on the micro and macro-processes that form and sustain life, and how those provide the tannin-rich hues of the stain. I like to apply several stains, and leave the cloth in the bath for long durations. I have also expanded to work with other local plants. When I go out to harvest, I take note of the health, location, and industry surrounding plant ecosystems. Within the city there are socio-economic conditions tied to each plant. Many have been salvaged from yard waste bags, including: Rosedale smoke bush (Cotinus: warm yellow – burnt orange); Vaughan golf course common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica: yellow, brown, green, purple and pink); Kilbarry barberry (Berberis: pale yellow – red/brown).

Water – The Great

The ancient writings of Lao Tzu, in the Tao de Ching, warn against excessive authority and mechanization. His accumulated knowledge and observations of the natural world inform what it means to be human, and are referenced throughout Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The human body and all Other bodies within TCM, are perceived as variations of five interdependent elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. The health of the body depends their unity. If one element is weak, all can be disrupted.

Water is the most elusive of all the elements. Impossible to live without, we are essentially a large skin-covered container full of water. In the human body, two central agents or Officials oversee the water element: the kidney and bladder. These Officials not only ensure that impurities are removed in order to maintain our physical wellbeing, but also help to maintain fluidity among our emotions and spirit. If someone’s water becomes contaminated, their anxiety may lead them to incessant, rapid actions. Or, they may distract themselves from confronting their precarious future. Resisting fear causes it to accumulate. Fears can grow into terror, even paralysis.

Shelly Sawada is a TCM practitioner in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). During a series of discussions about water, she reflected on how our interior elements can affect how we engage with our exterior environments:

…if our [water] energy does not reach the end of our fingertips, then we can’t emanate. We can’t actually have an emanation, cause we just don’t have enough energy to come out into our environment… We want to have enough energy that we are contacting our environment with our energy, so we are not sucked into ourselves. So if there is not enough energy flowing out to those points, we’re not going to have a certain contact-fullness, which would prevent us from having a certain kind of information relationship [27].

If we lose an information relationship when our inner waters are depleted or contaminated, what happens when we block or contaminate the waters in our exterior world? Given that the majority of Western people are born into large urban centres, where many waterways have been buried or combined with sewers, perhaps the absence of relationship with water has provoked an unnamable void or increased cultural fear. To remedy irrational fear, the Chinese Medicine practitioner, will ask the client to name their fears. Once they are uncovered, the sense of overwhelm or burden begins to lift. As fears are cleared out, more room is available for other emotions to circulate.

Taddle Creek

O, mighty Taddle! I stand for the last time at thy side, and look, as 
Far as thy manifold indescribable impurities will allow, into thy
dark depths. Strange thoughts come and go in my disturbed mind –
tears start to my eyes; and something – I know now what, affects
even my nostrils…
No more shalt thou behold the varied scenes upon thy banks, nor
thy mighty influence. Nor more shall the sight of thee inspire noble
thoughts. But thy work has been accomplished. Thou goest down to thy grave, unknowing and unknown. And the spectre Typhoid, the demon of thy banks, is correspondingly disappointed.

—    ‘A Graduate’s Farewell,’ The Varsity, 1883

Running five feet below Philosopher’s Walk, one of the few places where the ancient urban waterway, Taddle Creek, can be heard on the University of Toronto campus is next to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). Once habitat for salmon and trout, Taddle was the longest downtown watershed. In the 1860s, Taddle was dammed to produce a pond, named after the first president of the University of Toronto, John McCaul. For twenty years, McCaul’s pond was an ecological ‘feature’ used to recruit students to the university. In the summer, students would collect wildflowers by the shores, and in the winter they would skate. As alluded to by the graduate student in the Varsity, Taddle became increasing polluted through waste (mis)management. By 1884, Taddle was so contaminated with raw sewage from upstream, as well as from the newly constructed Toronto Baptist College, that it began to spread water-borne illnesses such as Typhoid fever. The city decided not only to bury the creek, but also to transform it into a sewershed. Today, remnants of Taddle and the pond can be seen throughout the topography along Philosopher’s walk, as well as in front of the Hart House, “its banks becoming part of the foundation for Queen’s Park Crescent West and its overpass” [28].

During walks to Queen’s Park to collect walnut husks, I would cross Philosopher’s Walk, and began to be drawn towards Taddle Creek’s centre. Later, I was introduced to the history of the creek by Professor Stephen Scharper, during his graduate class: Worldviews and Ecologies. Along with a particular interest in ecological narratives, Professor Scharper valued diverse spiritual engagements with the land. In his undergraduate and graduate classes, he brought guest speakers including First Nations filmmaker, Danny Beaton to discuss Iroquois Speak Out for Mother Earth, as well as Jennifer Baichwal (who studied theology and philosophy) to talk about her film Watermark. Professor Scharper is also the co-editor of The Natural City: Re-envisioning the built environment, and is currently co-authoring a piece about Taddle Creek: Uncovering a Sustainable Flow of Thought.

One particular piece of writing of interest to me in The Natural City is Urban Place as an Expression of the Ancestors, by William Woodworth. Here Woodworth puts forward that “Understanding the city in the indigenous mind can recover for each of us our profound natural relationship to place and a renewed sense of commitment to it” [29]. Woodworth is an architect and archaeological consultant of British and Mohawk ancestry. He posits that humans have the capacity to participate with the land, in a sacred/reciprocal way, based on our intentions. Moreover, despite outside ‘development’, Woodworth argues that the occupation of this land is still informed by an “unconscious streaming of the Ancestors” [30].

Woodworth acquired a way of seeing the built environment through a daily practice of offering tobacco to the land. He says that the Ancestors may have chosen to speak to him through the built form because he is an architect. While the Ancestors began to reveal themselves in the urban landscape, what became increasingly apparent was the need to renew the relationships with these forgotten spirits.

The waters of today have circulated since the time of our Ancestors. Waters in Taddle can make their way to my tap. The resilience of water can also be seen in the recorded history of Taddle Creek, which has conducted several clandestine resistances, including causing the Park Plaza Hotel to lean (1930s), ‘haunting’ the University of Toronto Library basement with annual floods, bursting through cellar walls of homeowners in the Annex, and destroying the retaining walls of the College and Bay Street Metro Police headquarters (1985) [31].

Along with Taddle, thousands of small streams and tributaries have been buried, which amplifies the toxicity of Lake Ontario. Environmentalists have since reevaluated the capacity for forgotten creeks to cleanse city water. Proposals within the last decade have been put forward to restore waterways and ravines, noting that with natural enzymes, they “possess an amazing ability to purify water and break down chemicals and contaminants typically found in storm water” [32]

The National Film Board documentary Crapshoot: The Gamble with Our Wastes (2003) describes the hazardous waste intrinsic to sewersheds, and the associated systemic public safety concerns [33]. At Toronto’s Ashbridges Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant, samples taken from the solid waste sludge show high levels of flame retardant. Once collected within the plant, the sludge is dispersed onto farmlands in Ontario. Meanwhile, in Europe where samples show lower levels, researchers have linked flame retardant in sewage sludge with a rise in non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer of the lymphatic system. In Sweden, a ban on dumping sewage sludge onto agricultural lands was driven by public outrage at the findings. The film reminds us that industrial technology has not been employed (and may never be able) to remove pathogens or chemicals from wastes that are being released back into life cycles. One contributor suggests that mixing human waste with industrial waste marks the “peak of non-life connected behavior” [34].

vylyvaty visk: the pouring forth of fear

In the winter of 2013, I was gifted the book, Baba’s Kitchen Medicines, where I learned about the wax ceremony, a form of Ukrainian spiritual healing. I asked my relatives if they had ever encountered this modality, and discovered that one of my cousins had been remedied of nightmares through ‘wax pouring.’ As I looked into this practice further, I encountered the M.A. thesis of Rena Hanchuk, The Word and Wax.

Hanchuk describes how wax pouring was an European Indigenous technology that survived through syncretism. While some wax pourers might have been referred to as ‘witches’, they were accepted among early pioneers due to their pious affiliations. Today, they continue to practice in Alberta. Some wax pourers will donate a substantial amount of their earnings to the church. Through a close reading of their incantations and rituals, Hanchuk has found explicit Christian elements, along side pre-Christian relationships. Hanchuk elaborates that although the worldviews are fused, the prayer “wields power and even medicinal properties” that are experienced by the client [35].

The following incantation was translated from Ukrainian, which had been intoned during a healing session, while molten wax was poured into a bowl filled with water:

…I take to the head of [name], to the blood of [name], to all the joints of [name].
To adjure, to summon this fear of fears,
From the north and from the south,
From want, from work, from food, from water,
Sent upon us, steeped in sleep.
With the evil hour I adjure you,|
I summon you not by my power alone, but by the power of the Lord
God Jesus Christ with the Mother of God
And the sister-stars –
You number seventy-seven and one.
Help me to walk, help me to work,
Help [name] to contain this fear.
[Name] was not born with this, [name] was not baptized with this,
[Name] was not anointed with this.
Disappear and vanish from [name’s] head, from [name’s] blood,
From all [name’s] joints.
Do not drink red blood, dehydrate a white body, or strip a yellow bone
By the heart do not appear,
Do not make yourself a nest.
I summon you with God’s lips, with God’s words,
And release you beyond the mountains, beyond the seas…

In my studio, I pour wax onto organic cloth, while saying a prayer. I describe the industrial nightmare, my own fear, and open toward a remedy. I acknowledge the agency of the site, the waters, Taddle Creek, the land beneath, and the forces that move among things. I open myself to listening. It is me, but not just me pouring the wax. I continue three times, as my Ancestors have done before me. I recognize that healing does not come from my autonomous self, but from an engagement with this vast unnamable mystery. Then, I soak the cloth in the rich tannins of Juglans nigra. Just as some specialized wax pourers can divine the shape of the pours, would they be able to interpret the cloth?

Materia medica: daylighting the sacred

At present, the human scale of development and industrialization is overwhelming and undermining the environment. Relational specificity ― a fourth paradigm put forward by Kwon ― is one way to address this predicament. Through relational/intuitive methodologies, the basis of Materia medica, remediation can occur by feeling an embodied connection to the Other. In nurturing relational engagements with the invisible elements that sustain and facilitate life, we can reawaken our perceptions of the natural world.

Materia medica is a response. Here, material processes with local plants embed a kind of awareness of the land. In knowing where and how colours can be grown, cultivated, and extracted sustainably, a certain intimacy with place occurs. And, by experimenting with local or organic materials for artmaking, fewer chemical inputs to produce a body of work are needed. Perhaps akin to chaos theory, these minute or incidental activities can be significant to how social and ecological processes unfold.

Medica or medicine is about healing that begins with relational activities. Healing is a process of relational exchange that initiates a movement toward balance. Dream journeying, walking, observing, and opening a dialogue with the land heals ideologies of separation, and antagonism toward nature. Once the Other is no longer mute, but felt as sentient and aware ­– a sense of the sacred wells up. Like the ghost plant, Materia medica serves to give sensual form to the sacred, with the hope that some type of feeling may surface through engaging my work.

Materia medica acknowledges that the sacred is an experience of something larger. It is an engaged porousness with the Other: the tree, the wax, the sky, the lake, the tapestry, the buried stream beyond the manhole. Here, a listening place dissolves the duality of the observer and the observed, and things intertwine.

Next to the ROM, I lower a directional microphone, into a manhole, and am struck by the depth of isolation, in the amplified echoes of the water spirit. There are voices deep in the tunnel, in the base undulations - splashes on metal – forgotten sonics. The counterpart to fear is courage. Water is difficult to define in terms of where it ends, begins, supports, or erodes.

I am Taddle’s subterranean presence. I hold those waters. I am buried like her technologically-mediated voice, yet, I know she is not dead. Taddle reaches up and transforms me. She is the consciousness of all waters. She is the poetry – the music – of this site, the reason I have come to this place. Listening to Taddle’s voice is Materia medica.

Daylighting is the term given to buried waterways that are uncovered. I wish to bring attention or daylight the present condition of this waterway, and by extension the multiplicity of urban waterways. Her voice-thread connects my present to my biological, experiential, ecological and spiritual ancestries. By daylighting her voice, I intend to initiate the re-surfacing of the sacred. She both gazes and lives inside my work. Materia medica, is an offering to her, and an invitation for engagement. I wish to amplify her marginalized voice, her gifts, her inseparability.


[1] I use the word praxis to refer to the process of embodying theory and skill.

[2] Relational specificity, coined by Miwon Kwon, “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” in Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985, eds. Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2013), 34-55.

[3] “The colon is inserted to denote the Aboriginal intonation,” William Woodworth, “Urban Place as an Expression of the Ancestors,” in The Natural City, eds. Ingrid L. Stefanovic and Stephen B. Scharper (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 223-230.

[4] Miwon Kwon, “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” in Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985, eds. Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2013), 41.

[5] Ibid., 35.

[6] Ibid., 34-55.

[7] Jane Lahr, ed. The Celtic Quest: An Anthology from Merlin to Van Morrison. (New York and San Fransisco: Welcome Books, 2007), 10.

[8] Rena Jeanne Hanchuck, The Word and Wax: A Medical Folk Ritual Among Ukrainians in Alberta. (Toronto & Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, 1999).

[9] Barry Cunliffe, Druids (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2010), 6.

[10] Adebayo Akomolafe, “About, share research,

[11] Adebayo Akomolafe, “Decolonizing the notion of mental illness and healing in Nigeria, West Africa,” Critical Psychology in Changing World. (Canaanland: Covenant University, 2013), 726,!RrxLb8r5.

[12] Ibid., p 730-731

[13] Tom Goldtooth, “Everyone’s Indigenous,” by Sharon Brown, Sacred Fire: The Heart of the Living World, no. 14, (Marina Del Rey: Sacred Fire Foundation), p 34.

[14] David Adams, “Joseph Beuys, Pioneer of a Radical Ecology,” Art Journal, 51, no. 2 (1992): p 26.

[15] Ibid., p 30.

[16] Gregory Cajete, Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence. (Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers, 2000), 2-3.

[17] Avshalom C. Elitzur, Silverman, Mark P. and Tuszynski, Jack, The Nonlinear Universe: Chaos, Emergence, Life. (Berlin: Springer, 2007), 370.

[18] Jennifer Fisher, Technologies of Intuition. (Toronto: YYZBOOKS), 14.

[19] Eliot Cowan was formally trained as a Five-Element Acupuncturist by J.R. Worsley. He served as a faculty member at Dr. Worsley’s College of Traditional Acupuncture from 1979-1980, and had an active practice for many years. Anthropologist Michael Harner became his first mentor in shamanism. Following, he began an apprenticeship with the Huichol shaman, Don Jose Rios, and today is a fully initiated Tsauirrikame (elder shaman) in the Huichol tradition. See:

[20] The Sacred Fire Foundation supports Indigenous peoples and spiritual traditions for future generations. See:

[21] Jennifer Fisher, Technologies of Intuition. (Toronto: YYZBOOKS), 92-96.

[22] Dale Hoak, “The Great European Witch-Hunts,” American Journal of Sociology 88, no. 6. (1983): 1274.

[23] Ibid., 1273-1274.

the great witch-hunts began when aggressive, book-borned demands for religious uniformity of the post-Reformation states forced newly defined heretics, or witches, into the open.

[24] David Anink, Chiel Boonstra, and John Mak, Handbook of Sustainable Building: An Environmental Preference Method for Selection of Materials for Use in Construction and Refurbishment. (London: James & James Science Publishers Limited, 1996), 148.

[25] GreenSpec, “Paint: the impact of paint on the environment,” (2014):

[26] Living Earth School of Herbalism teaches Western herbalism, which is recognized by the Ontario Herbalists Association. See:

[27] Shelly Sawada, personal interview, November 28, 2013.

[28] Eduardo Sousa, “Re-inhabiting Taddle Creek,” in HTO: Toronto’s Water from Lake Iroquois to Lost Rivers to Low-flow Toilets. eds. Wayne Reeves & Christina Palassio. (2008), 238.

[29] William Woodworth “Urban Place as an Expression of the Ancestors” The Natural City, eds. Ingrid Leman Stefanovic and Stephen Bede Scharper. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (2012), p 223.

[30] Ibid., 225.

[31] Alfred Holden, “The Forgotten Stream,” Taddle Creek 1 (1997):; “Taddle Haunts University Library,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, ON), Oct 29, 1948.

[32] Alfred Holden, “The Forgotten Stream,” Taddle Creek 1 (1997):

[33] Crapshoot: The Gamble with Our Wastes, directed by Jeff McKay, (National Film Board of Canada, 2003)

[34] Ibid., 44 minutes

[35] Rena Jeanne Hanchuck, The Word and Wax: A Medical Folk Ritual Among Ukrainians in Alberta. (Toronto & Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, 1999), 10-13.

[36] Ibid., 43-44.


For over a decade Portal has exhibited art and curatorial projects, including: buried waters (Quest Art Gallery, 2015); (re)member of water (Galerie du Nouvel-Ontario, 2015); jars-microhabitat (No Vacancy, Supernova, 2015; Black Cat ARTSPACE, 2015); Journey into Fantasy (McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 2015); Materia medica (University of Toronto Art Centre, 2014); claybank (Whippersnapper, 2014; University of Victoria, 2012); Juglans manos (Galerie du Nouvel-Ontario, 2013); urbeing (Xchanges Gallery, 2012); Mark Laver: Shining Examples (Legacy Art Gallery, 2012); aline (Upstairs Gallery, 2012); Greenw∞sh (Open Space Arts Society, 2011); Species-at-Risk (Ministry of Casual Living, 2011); listening arms (Mary & Moses Sculpture Garden, 2011); advanced life support unit (Upstairs Gallery, 2011); Taché (Audain Gallery, 2010); Real Eyes (Online, 2007-09); Elements (Northern Arts and Cultural Centre, 2008); Lost & Found (Javaroma, 2006); Flower of Life (Somba K'e Public Art Project, 2004); Reclaimed (Old Town Glassworks, 2004).

Portal’s art practice has been awarded: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Grant (2013), Master of Visual Studies Graduating Scholarship (2014), University of Toronto Fellowship (2013), Jamie Cassel's Research Award (2012), Fine Art Festival Bursary (2011), Pat Martin Bates Scholarship (2011), Royal Bank Scholarship for Innovation (2009), The Tenline Sales Material Award (2009), and NWT Arts Council Emerging Artist Grant (2007).

On environmental issues, she has been given the University of Victoria’s Dr Lorene Kennedy Environmental Studies Bursary (2011) and Eco-system Bursary (2011). Along with teaching studio art, she studied Worldviews and Ecologies and worked as a teaching assistant at the University of Toronto's School of the Environment.

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