Kelly Bruton’s artwork has a hypnotic effect. Layered, patterned, painted and stitched, they compel you to look longer and further, as though there is a great secret to discover.
And there may very well be.
Inspired by the fossil remains embedded in the rock outcroppings of Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, Bruton’s multimedia work is the product of her own ever-questioning mind and her effort to make sense of the world we live in.
Originally introduced to the world-famous fossils during an impromptu weekend camping trip in 1994, she was immediately fascinated by their beauty.
Then when she learned they had been created by a massive volcanic eruption that had destroyed all surrounding life forms, her appreciation for them as an artistic source grew.
“I was reading about why they were preserved that way and realized that it was a catastrophe,” she says. “Everybody says they are so amazing, but really we are looking at something quite catastrophic.”
This tension between tragedy and beauty had significance for Bruton, who by that time had already spent three years of her life teaching art in Botswana.
As a westerner, she had been confronted daily with more illness and the poverty than she was used to, but she was also touched by the “grace in the way people were connected, took care of one another and were so incredibly respectful of elders.”
Knowing as well that the section of land at Mistaken Point had also once been part of Africa before the continents shifted, the location took on a very personal meaning for the artist and became the stepping off point for a series of small and large-scale works that took her several years to complete.
A self-described “thinker,” Bruton says that the time spent on her work is as important as the final product.
“Living with them is part of the process. I have to let them be for a little bit so I can see what the next thing is,” she says. “Sometimes, I might go off and work on another piece that may have something related in it and I may learn something that I can bring back to it. … If I didn’t stop and let them be then I wouldn’t be able to layer them successfully.”
Similarly, her choice of technique reinforces her themes of mishap, mystery and wonder. While the final works are a collage of elements — from purchased textiles to painted canvas — she also incorporates textiles that she has printed herself using dye techniques such as discharge and shibori, which produce images that look remarkably like fossils.
The results, however, are not always predictable.
“I don’t know what I will get and that process is important to understand about my work,” she says. “I want to have an element of the unknown, an element of it that you’re not able to control, like what happened at Mistaken Point. … These things are our reality but they’re not within our control, and maybe that’s part of what I would like people to think about.”
The fossil images themselves are, of course, also important to her work. In many of her pieces, circular shapes that are based on the fossil Aspidella are prevalent. Over 560 million years ago, these ancient creatures were likely holdfasts to another part of the organism that broke off before fossilization happened and so are they are powerful symbols of connection and mystery.
The unknown and our inherent vulnerability are ideas that Bruton has considered carefully herself. As a teenager, her own unforeseen personal circumstances made her realize how fragile any human being can be so after she graduated from the Nova Scotia Collage of Art and Design, she knew her heart lay in community work.
Her time spent teaching art in Botswana as a United Nations volunteer was followed by a decade-long commitment to Oxfam Canada, with whom she has been both the national board chair and a trustee for Oxfam International. She has also been an artist mentor at the Murphy Centre and was board chair for Choices for Youth for five years.
While many of these positions were more administrative, Bruton says that her work was driven by the same motivation she feels as an artist — her hope for a better world. In fact, she doesn’t see any separation between her community work and her artwork.
“I see it as my work as an artist. I see it as part of my practice,” she says. “When I worked with Oxfam as a young woman, I felt I was there because I have the ability to think laterally, to have good observational ability. I listen well and I can put things together in a way that other people might not think of.”
Her out-of-the-box thinking has also served her well in her burgeoning career as an art director. In the past 10 years, she has worked on the popular TV series “Republic of Doyle,” and on a number of local films by directors such as Ruth Lawrence and Joel Hynes.
She also recently participated in the prestigious Women in the Director’s Chair program at the Banff Centre for the Arts. While other female directors from the province have participated in the past, Bruton’s attendance marked the first time for an art director.
Commenting on the connection between her textile-based artwork and set design, she notes that she uses a lot of fabric on her set and that she’s not afraid to use colour.
When looking at her work, it’s clear why. Despite the artist’s original interest in the catastrophe that created the fossils at Mistaken Point, her final works are overwhelmingly festive, perhaps a testament to the artist’s optimistic nature and her own conclusions on how to deal with uncertainty.
“There’s a certain playfulness that I experience, too, when I am at Mistaken Point,” she says. “It’s so incredibly beautiful that it makes you feel joy. I want people to rejoice in it, celebrate it and find things that you don’t see at first glance.”
Entitled Mistaken Point, Bruton’s art will be on display at the Craft Council Gallery starting Saturday.