Walking the Land by Leslie Pearson
We stood in anticipation as gale force winds lashed across the eerily beautiful granite peaks of the You Yangs mountain range, which rise dramatically from the surrounding volcanic plains between Melbourne and Geelong in Australia. The weather, no matter the severity, would not stop the epic adventure that was to take place over the course of the next two days.
A hush fell over the crowd as a deep drone growled from a didgeridoo, signifying that the Wadawurrung smoking ceremony had begun. With ochre painted faces, the indigenous aboriginals sang and danced in a cloud of smoking eucalyptus leavesto mark the start of Mountain to Mouth, an extreme two-day spiritual pilgrimage, which traced the songlines — or history — of the Wadawurrung people in the region.
Art was a central theme in Mountain to Mouth, a multi-award winning biennial journey of discovery. My reason for being a part of this extraordinary event was in the creation of Canoe, Mountain to Mouth’s lead ephemeral processional sculpture. M to M started in 2009 with a desire to connect people to each other and to the land through the arts.
I was beyond excited to receive such a prestigious commission, especially since I had never been to Australia. The coastal town of Ocean Grove, where my husband and I stayed, was beautiful. Every morning we walked the beach, collecting shells then I would head to the art studio to work with artist Kerrie Bedson. Kerrie and I found each other two years ago through Facebook, but hadn’t met in person until we were selected to collaborate on the M to M project.
We sourced natural materials such as bamboo, cane, handmade paper, and fabric to create our sculpture, which was to be an artistic expression of a canoe. The most interesting material we used was hog intestines. I have been using gut in my work for several years and it was the perfect addition to Canoe because of its translucency; it allowed for the illusion of weightlessness.
Although we had a pretty good notion of what we wanted Canoe to look like, we worked intuitively, responding to the capabilities of our chosen materials. Using softened cane, we created undulating lines to represent the waves of the ocean. Near the bottom of the structure we wove in large pieces of leathery bull kelp, which dried and shrank into place.
Images of indigenous mammals were incorporated as a reminder that both animals and humans are dependent on the land for survival.
Luckily the skies soon cleared because for two days Canoe was carried on foot by alternating groups for 50 miles beginning at the You Yangs mountain range, crossing Geelong’s industrial heartland, passing through rolling Bellarine farmland, and along ocean beaches. The route was punctuated with tree plantings and edgy artworks commissioned for M to M, bringing people together through shared experiences of extreme arts that celebrated the land.
The last ceremony, Gathering of the Elements, marked the completion of the pilgrimage and was a meditation upon that which heals us. In a ceremony of song, dance and fire, Canoe was laden with fresh cut rosemary and hundreds of Clooties, pieces of cloth with prayers for healing written
by participants of M to M. It was then set ablaze and sent out to sea from the mouth of the Barwon River.
What struck me the most was the community participation. At one point along the walk, I looked over my shoulder and saw so many people that I almost cried. Each one with their own reasons for being a part of M to M. The different groups who carried Canoe did it with such pride. It was moving and emotionally overwhelming to walk beside the residents of the region and hear their individual stories; each of us taking step after step while portaging Canoe through incredible vistas. We talked, we laughed, we cringed together as our blistered feet started to bark. Personally, I was in awe of God’s glorious creation all around me – I could see Him in every blade of grass and in every smiling face.
Many people along the way asked me how I felt about Canoe being burned in the end. It was liberating and freeing to make something beautiful that would be offered up as a sacrifice. When I saw how many prayers for healing went into Canoe before it was set on fire, it reminded me of how everyone in America came together in unity after 9/11. A nation holding on to hope and in prayer, asking for healing. In our slow walk of contemplation, we honored our connections with earth and with each other.
Leslie Pearson is an award-winning multimedia artist, community arts advocate, and educator living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, USA. She is also the owner of Fayetteville Pie Company, a restaurant serving savory and sweet pies. Pearson is actively involved in the community of Fayetteville by serving on the Board of Trustees at the Arts Council. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Surface Design Association. As an artist, Pearson utilizes many fiber based materials, processes and techniques to create sculptures, installations, encaustic paintings, and handmade books in which she explores themes of memory and identity. Examples of her work can be seen on her website: www.lesliekpearson.com.
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