Artist & Middle School teacher Simone Littledale Escobar reflects on the role art has played in supporting her in exploring the links between being inspired by her Columbian roots, resource extraction & self-care.
Simone Littledale Escobar is an emerging multidisciplinary artist whose practice uses foraged and naturally derived mediums to explore ties to place, tradition, ritual, superstition, and personal history. Her experience is strongly shaped by her Colombian/Canadian heritage and her upbringing by the ever-changing waters of the Pacific coast. Aside from art, Simone is a middle school teacher and a published poet who spends her free time bird watching, tending to the small jungle in her apartment and scouring cut blocks and riverbeds for natural artifacts. She currently lives as an uninvited guest on the unceded territories of the Lək̓ʷəŋən and W̱SÁNEĆ people.
Transcript Resilient Creatives S1 EP1
0:00:00.1 Simone Littledale Escobar: I think everyone connects with art in a different way. For me, personally, it is both the place I go to seek solace and the place that I go to maintain a good state of being, to maintain an even keel, so to speak.
0:00:16.8 Chantal Solomon: Welcome to Resilient Creatives, a podcast that explores the role of creativity in our society. My name is Chantal Solomon, I am a mixed-race artist and community herbalist. Through my practice, I explore remediating the connection between people and the natural world. This season, I'm talking with artists about their creative practice and the hurdles and triumphs along their journey.
0:00:40.9 SE: My name is Simone Littledale Escobar. I am a Canadian of Colombian and other assorted descent, living on unceded Lekwungen and Saanich territory, also known as Victoria BC. My art practice, at the moment, focuses both on my identity as first-generation Canadian on one side, as well as questions of mental health, women's work, and, more recently, how I am reacting to resource extraction that is happening in our province and around the world. I am a full-time middle school teacher, and while that takes up a lot of time and effort and passion, I always try and make time for art.
0:01:34.8 SE: My practice originally sort of centred around my heritage as an adult, and that was partially spurred by various trips I took to Colombia to visit my family. Travelling back and forth and spending time there immersed in my culture and immersed in the artistic traditions of that country that I always felt I had an affinity to was really... It was the spark that set off a lot of exploration into those topics. It's not something I've been working on as regularly, but there's always an undercurrent. There's always a little bit of that cultural context that underlays my work, and I think, though it may not be obvious, it's always there, it's always with me. There was a point in my career where I was making art commercially under the name Ghost Mountain Co. I still am, I make commercial pottery for, sort of, more utilitarian purposes where people can use mugs and plates and things every day and they're dishwasher safe and all of that.
0:02:40.4 CS: It's great to hear that you've been able to continue to develop your art practice while devoting yourself to teaching. It sounds like you've explored a few different topics and mediums. And I'm curious, what are you working on these days?
0:02:55.8 SE: Lately, my focus, especially after several months of pandemic, has really been pulled in another direction. Not to say I won't keep making under Ghost Mountain Co because I enjoy it as well. But not having access to a proper studio, as well as feeling the need to parse this general low-level hum of anxiety that has been a constant for the past 16 months, has moved me more towards doing things that are a little crazy, a little alchemical and out of the box to the resource extraction question, the politics and the ethics, and my own personal feelings around that. And I guess it began a little bit before, where I... Getting more into hiking and bird watching, I found myself in clear cuts a fair amount, especially.
0:04:03.8 SE: And they completely took the words out of my mouth, witnessing that kind of devastation and that kind of waste. And I found myself feeling really angry and having a lot of resentment and a lot of really strong feelings around seeing forests cut down and the ground ripped open for mines and other extractive industries. And, of course, we have the questions of pipelines and energy uses. Living on Vancouver Island where logging is such a major component of our economy. I felt like I needed to speak to that, so I've been going up into the clear cuts and collecting material with great effort, dig out and forage myself, both clay for pottery and Earth pigments from those road cuts and that disturbed landscape, as well as material for actually firing the pottery.
0:05:11.7 CS: That's really awesome. I know topics around resource extraction can be so polarising and is so charged with emotion. And I'm someone who's definitely in the same boat as you, I'm really sensitive to witnessing and hearing about these types of things, of being close to the land myself. But I also think it's really interesting that you are taking this topic and exploring it in this way. I've dabbled a little bit in making pigments and dyes, and it's quite the process. What's the story behind what got you immersed in this medium?
0:05:49.0 SE: I had been experimenting formerly with making water-colour paints out of Earth pigments. I had all this dirt floating around in my house in little jars that I had collected from various places, hoping to eventually do something with them. And I took a class with Caitlin French into how to convert those into watercolours, and since then, I haven't looked at any other paint media. I haven't touched acrylic paint since, because it's so different and it felt so right, in terms of the kind of art that I wanted to make. Most of the pigments I have collected are from BC, though I do have a few from other places such as Utah and some that my friends have been so kind to gather me in places like Greece and Oregon and other spots abroad.
0:06:42.5 SE: I hope to take more trips to Colombia in the future in order to gather Earth materials and perhaps comment on some of the extraction that's going on there. Canadian companies, in particular, have a really hideous track record of human rights abuse and exploitation in South America. So it's a question that I want to get to but have been more focused on the local at the moment. I actually did a residency in Tahsis the past two years, which is on the North Island, where a sculptor lives and offers residencies in a former cut block. And that, being there and also seeing the effect of logging in that whole area has really sort of shifted my practice from one of internal investigation to one of external.
0:07:45.7 SE: I feel that working with natural materials is something that I have a natural affinity for it. It feels a lot more normal to me than working with something that is plastic or petrochemical-based, as hippy-dippy as that sounds. It just feels a little bit more right for the messages that I'm trying to convey and for how the materials work. I tend to like things that are a little difficult, a little temperamental. Being a person who loves to do things the hard way, natural materials, and especially wild clay. The not knowing whether it's gonna melt into a puddle or look awful or come out this terrible muddy brown colour is really exciting and really fascinating to me and it feels right. It feels a lot more right than, to me, than going to the shops and just buying the medium in whatever particular colour you want it to be. It always defies your expectation, it never quite does what you want it to do. It is the intersection of both how I want to engage with these questions of resource extraction and how I want to engage with my other love, which is science. I don't have an actual background in science, but it is one of my passions.
0:09:08.2 SE: As I said, I am a bird watcher. I also am dabbling in amateur geology. I'm fascinated by human's sense of place, is so often connected with those scientific components that we take for granted. And the way that things have evolved and grown in our particular ecosystems, and especially here in the ecosystem of the coast, to fit these perfect niches has been one of the driving forces behind my more recent practice. It has been a real source of solace for me to throw myself into working with these materials and exploring these wild clays and their personalities, and ask those questions of myself and examine my own emotions and how I want to convey that.
0:10:09.4 CS: Yeah, thank you for sharing. I really hear you on this topic. And what it's bringing to mind is how the average person, I think, is more familiar with the experience of being transformed by other people's art, whether that's music or a film that really moves them and can bring up emotional reactions, a release. The act of having a creative practice and bringing these big emotions, whether or not they be from our own experiences or things that we see in the community when we bring these to our practice and we work through something creatively, that it actually transforms what we're feeling and how we even perceive things sometimes. And I just think it's so beautiful that you're taking this community issue, it's this big thing that there's so many thoughts and feelings around it, and really working with it on a personal level.
0:11:14.9 SE: I've struggled to find a way to constructively express how I'm feeling, 'cause I was holding on to a lot of... And still I am, to an extent, holding on to a lot of anger and a lot of sadness and a lot of, sort of, disgust around that that I don't think is necessarily productive to just hold on to. So art has been a really important way for me to figure out how to parse that and has, sort of, also forced me to examine my own feelings around it, examine my feelings around both the politics and the ethics of taking more than we need from the natural world.
0:12:00.0 CS: I know for myself as well, or has been a way to process or at least our conversation about these kinds of topics. I think it's really honourable and important to follow the threads from the places where we have strong emotions and see where that leads within our creative practice. I did a show a few years ago that was inspired by my life-long fear of predatory animals here on Vancouver Island. I kind of grew up with this cougars and bears, oh, my fear in the pit of my stomach. And even though I had grown up going in the woods and foraging for a long time, I was always looking over my shoulder. And then naturally, the longer time you spend in the woods and you start to meet the different inhabitants. I started meeting bears quite regularly and it was a peaceful and often fun experience, and then the most powerful moment was when I met a cougar. When I came face-to-face with this magnificent creature, I had no fear, I was completely peaceful, and I was in awe of its grand presence. And I just wanted to honour that, because it was a powerful thing for me to face that fear, and on the other side of that fear was this sense of personal power and strength that I was able to keep walking in the woods for years and years with the fear that I might bump into this creature and then finally doing it and it being okay, being okay to face my fear.
And I did a show that was highlighting these creatures through painting their auras and just trying to bring out their innocence and show that they are just these beautiful, beautiful creatures. But a really interesting thing happened when I went to view the show on my own during opening hours. I stumbled upon people who were having organic conversations that were inspired by viewing my work. And hearing those conversations as the fly on the wall really brought a new perspective to myself as an artist, and even being able to really call myself an artist and really own that title and understand what that meant for myself was, that it wasn't about me. It wasn't about the perfection of how I drew these animals or whether or not I got the proportions correct and all of that. For me, the powerful thing was the reaction to it and the conversations that were being inspired from it and realizing that those conversations may not have happened otherwise.
From that experience, I kind of started to step out of my own way and started to make art in just from that place of passion and not worry about meaning or precision in these types of things that were kind of boggling my mind before. It was this emotional process in this bending for me on a very deep level. And I'm really grateful for that experience. And it sounds like through your work that you're doing a lot of similar type of work, and that's why I share this story. For yourself, when did you realize that being creative was something that could support your emotional process?
0:14:15.4 SE: So I began making art at a very young age, and from a young age realized that it was really important to how I felt and how I was doing. I guess you could call that integral to my mental health, being a person who at a young age was diagnosed with depression, I found that in order to sort of maintain my mental health art was central to that, among other things, there is no one panacea for mental health, and especially depression for everyone, it is very complicated, but for me personally, I found that art was sometimes the only thing I had the energy to do, so it has been a tremendous help to me and a tremendous source of joy to me through my entire life from youth to now as a near 30-year-old. That early diagnosis was kind of a gift in a way because it has given me a lot of time to learn how to handle it and learn how to maintain it and live with it, and sort of approach it with care and compassion, and a big part of that is art practice is to make time and carve out time to make art at least a couple of times a week just to keep that practice going.
0:15:51.3 CS: I appreciate you sharing that, and I'm glad that you were able to find an outlet at a young age to help support your mental health. I can hear your compassion for yourself as you speak and your love of your art practice.
0:16:05.8 SE: For me, going through difficult times, it has been often the one thing that has kept me going and the one thing that has kept me motivated to do anything. I think everyone connects with art in a different way, for me personally, it is both the place I go to seek solace and the place that I go to maintain a good state of being, to maintain an even keel, so to speak, just like exercising my body, I want to exercise that artistic muscle as well, I feel that need to do it.
0:16:42.9 CS: Thank you for sharing. I think it's really important to hear uplifting stories like yours. It sounds like you've had some really hard times but you've also found an outlet that's brought you a lot of joy and passion. I think it's so important for people to hear about how different tools can support them with their mental health. It was a delight to talk with you today and hear the passion that you discovered through your curiosity of natural pigments and your work with clay and I hope that your journey continues to inspire you.