Artist Landon Mackenzie
retraces the landscapes
charted by early explorers
By Alan Morantz, Canadian
November – December
One of the earliest-known cartographic representations
of what is now North America is The Map of the
North Atlantic coast of the New World, taken from
an anonymous Portuguese atlas and dated to circa 1540.
What catches the modern eye are the pictures adorning
the unknown lands: a unicorn, an elephant and ferocious
lions that seem ready to enchant, amaze or devour the
come-from-aways. The map was drawn by a French artist
who clearly had never set eyes on the mysterious world
beyond the European horizon.
Throughout the Age of Discovery that followed, artists
were often right beside explorers, drawing or painting
maps from the rough charts made by navigators, adding
some monsters in uncharted waters for good measure.
Once the New World was settled, of course, maps rarely
showed an artistic flourish. Cartography was left to
cartographers, art to artists. It is a distinction
that Landon Mackenzie greets with rolled eyes and a
shake of the head.
Mackenzie is among Canada's most accomplished artists,
with the awards, teaching assignments and shows that
mark her impact on the country's art community. But
her fascination with the exploration of Western Canada,
her knowledge of the manner in which the country's
maps were made and her ability to incorporate mapping
conventions into art all qualify her as a creative
cartographer of the first order. It is as if she were
in the canoe with that legendary explorer Samuel Hearne
in 1770, drawing an alternative picture of exploration
as he probed the Northwest. Far from obliterating conventional
maps, Mackenzie's apocryphal paintings start with facsimiles
of significant charts from Canada's past that she then
layers with her own stories and impressions. What results
is still a map, but you are not quite sure where it
takes you. "Those tidy red lines," she says. "That
Mackenzie's commitment to understanding Canada through
its maps is easy to comprehend in light of her upbringing.
Her great-uncle, George Douglas, was an accomplished
Arctic traveller and explorer; he led an expedition
down the Coppermine River in 1911 using a map sketched
by Hearne. Mackenzie has memories of her great-uncle
telling her stories of the North, though he died when
she was 10. "The little red line on the fold-out
map at the back of his book Lands Forlorn,
published in 1914, became a calling to the imagination." Mackenzie
says from her Vancouver studio. But it was Douglas's
wife — Aunt Chinka — who would have the
most enduring impact. "My armchair-travelling
techniques were learned at the skirt of my great-aunt,
Frances Mackenzie Douglas, at Stony Lake and Lakefield,
Ont., until she died in the mid-1990s," says Mackenzie,
who was brought up in Toronto. "She organized
the memory of his trip. What food was taken, what materials,
what instruments, what ammunition, tents. I revelled
in her knowledge of the 'North.'"
Mackenzie finally did go north, to the Yukon, in 1976.
After studying at the Nova Scotia College of Art and
Design, she worked for the Yukon government through
the spring and summer in a job that was filled with
irony: she was a painter who converted road signs from
miles to kilometres. The Yukon continued to cast a
spell over her, even when she was back south attending
graduate school at Concordia University in Montreal.
She returned to the Yukon and tried to experience it
as others had before her. She ran the rivers, climbed
the mountains and obsessed over the migration of caribou.
As an artist, Mackenzie first attracted attention
in 1981 when she won first prize at the Quebec Biennale
of Painting for her Lost River Series. The
paintings featured dark images populated by wolf-caribou
hybrid creatures prowling in silhouette. her next body
of work, named the Cluny series, again borrowed
from her Yukon experiences, with strange creatures
stalking the land.
Always in Mackenzie's mind were the circumstances
under which the great maps of the day were assembled
and the far-reaching effects they had on Canada's development.
"These guys were trekking through the bush with
their instruments, keeping their guides in line, keeping
themselves in line." she says. "Then they
would go back to London or Ottawa and have their notes
transcribed by a printing house, tidy up the
maps so that the person paying for the trek would be
Over time, Mackenzie decided to approach her painting
in a way similar to how her friend, Canadian novelist
Jane Urquhart, approaches her writing. Urquhart uses
pieces of documented history and extrapolates a fantasy.
Though maps do not have the same linear progression
as a novel, they are still storytelling vehicles, so
Mackenzie set out to create a different sort of historical
fiction. before putting brush to canvas, however, she
had to immerse herself in historical cartography. Beginning
in 1993, she became a regular at map archives across
Canada and visited the map room at Cambridge University's
Scott Polar Research Institute in England. She chummed
with the archivists so that they would allow her extra
time and access to the material and opportunities to
photograph some of the most interesting maps. ("I
get so excited when I see some of these maps," she
says. "You have to pull me off the ceiling.")
Knowing from her own experience that there was always
more to the map than met the eye, Mackenzie searched
the records and accounts for clues to what the maps
served to obscure. She wondered how women viewed the
same space and their role in exploration, which at
the time was a male privilege. And she noted that while
explorers were almost totally dependent on aboriginals
to move overland, their contributions were rarely acknowledged.
Archivists in Saskatchewan were particularly accommodating,
which was one reason why in the early 1990s she decided
to begin a series of paintings there. It was in Saskatchewan paintings
(1993-97) that she started making use of maps, mining
information and other archival records, blending them
with her own observations within the layers of the
pictures. she explored how maps and language served
to establish colonial claims and to displace the aboriginal
inhabitants. On maps of her own design, she wanted
to trace the trajectory of exploration, to untangle
the stories caught in the thatch of official maps,
treaties and the accounts of explorers.
As the Saskatchewan series was wrapping up, Mackenzie
began looking for material dating from Captain John
Palliser's map and commentary, political pressures
arose to make the prairies "productive," giving
rise to new forms of maps by geologists and railway
titans. Mackenzie now had a new use for the piles of
information she had collected over the years on the
districts of Saskatchewan and Assiniboia. Her next
project explored the mental and historical territory
"What interests me in looking at historic maps
is how the notations and calculations every five years
change the truth about the representation of that space," she
says. "If you take Lake Athabasca as a hit point,
you can see how many different ways it's spelled, different
ways it's drawn. It's like a hub; who goes in and out.
Also Athabasca was a fantasy of British exploration
of space: I'm going into the Athabasca."
As an artist-cartographer, Mackenzie does not obliterate
the recognizable maps of the past. Instead, she invites
the viewer to acknowledge that past and the way the
stories of that time were told and then see the uncharted
maps and hear the disembodied voices. In her approach
to the works in the Tracking Athabasca series,
she started with several maps of Athabasca, looking
at the region from different vantage points and working
with a scale of one inch on the map to one foot on
her pictures. The paintings are all massive and densely
configured. She works within the format by laying the
canvas on the ground and stepping onto it to fill it
"The dimensions work so that I can make sense
of this one-inch-to-one-foot grid.; it makes sense
of the body being lost in the space as opposed to a
nice large-sized painting," she says. "We've
become too accustomed to how we negotiate a picture.
I want people to fall off the periphery. And I want
to seduce them from 40 feet away and four inches away.
In some places, as you walk closer to them, they develop
into a precarious balance of chaos and order, and for
others, as you walk toward them, they develop into
more clarity and detail."
A good example of the shifting focus that Mackenzie
speaks of can be seen in Macke it to Thy Other
Side (Land of Little Sticks), completed in 1999.
Stand 30 metres away, and the eye immediately zones
in on acid-yellow splotches, which, if she offered
a legend to her map, would indicate abstract warning
signs for deposits of uranium tailings. Black discs,
frozen ponds or core sample holes from mining exploration
hover like UFOs. Lines transect the terrain with the
seeming logic of a map. snowflakes lie suspended over
fur country. green dots, seen from the side, appear
like pompoms. Take four steps forward, and you will
notice the makings of the boral forest and the treeline.
Step closer still, and you will begin to make out words
and phrases: "After a draught of Nelson & Hayes's
Rivers"; "Deer hedge where the French had
a place of worship." South of the treeline, it
is easy to make out a red grid of the map; north of
the treeline, the grid is but a shadow.
Elements of the painting were initially laid down
in collaboration with a friend from Fort Chipewayan,
a community on Lake Athabasca. Doris Whitehead, of
Cree, Chipewyan and Scottish ancestry, talked to Mackenzie
about her complex and sometimes tragic childhood while
drawing a diagram of her northern village on the linen
stapled to Mackenzie's studio floor. During the all-day
visit, Whitehead said, "I'm also a descendant
of Governor Simpson. It's rumoured that he fathered
over 200 children when he was factor at Fort Chipewyan."
Mackenzie recalls the shock of the insight: "I
went, Ding! These guys left their genetic code all
across the North. There was this tension, certainly
in Hudson's Bay memoirs, about what to do with the
men, because they were not military men used to holding
in their libido."
Mackenzie had invited Whitehead to draw a map of For
Chipewyan to teach her about the social, economic and
religious conditions of life there. Whitehead's contemporary
map begins the story of Macke it to Thy Other Side;
it was first drawn in Magic Marker and then overwritten
by Mackenzie in paint. The map was oriented with north
facing down and had places marked, such as Safety (grandmother's
place) and Danger. If you look closely, you can make
out the map in places, Safety peeking out in a bit
of appliqué encrusted by layers of acrylic.
There are white blobs, which could be snowfalls or
stand-ins for sexual spoor left by explorers.
There are five other maps in the Tracking Athabasca series,
including Winter Road, Diamond Mines,
where the effect is much cooler than Macke it to
Thy Other Side; its surface is layered with beads,
lace doilies and cut-glass stones. In Space Station
(Falls Said to Be the Largest in the Known World So
Far), Mackenzie offers a view of Athabasca from
a satellite beyond the pull of gravity.
The pieces in Tracking Athabasca are unmistakably
Canadian meditations. Mackenzie, after all, had lived
in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island,
Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia and the Yukon and
was spoon-fed on the exploits of her great-uncle. She
has been out on the land and understands the folds
of rock and the smells of the forest and tundra, much
like the explorers and fur traders of Athabasca. But
her sanctuary is the Vancouver warehouse studio where
she has worked for the past 15 years, a cross between
a laboratory and an urban wilderness. It has high ceilings
and smells like an old factory; a row of windows opens
to the North Shore mountains and the squawks of seagulls.
Inside are paints, maps, books, doilies, sequins, working
clothes, slides, camp kitchen, cot, old photographs
and piles of notes.
In the studio are four large paintings, unfinished
but well along. They are the first works from Mackenzie's
next series, titled Houbart's Hope, the third
part of her trilogy. The title was inspired by a 1636
map of Hudson Bay; "Hope" is a safe harbour
for Hudson's Bay traders who find themselves in a harsh,
unfamiliar environment. "Houbart" is a friendly
ghostly force in Mackenzie's imagination.
"The title also fits the idea of the brain as
a new frontier with its own hemispheres and veins like
rivers and layers of water like oceans," she says. "A
sequence of water roads eventually leading into the
interior, penetrating the imaginative space." For
this body of work, Mackenzie is researching a variety
of scientific imaging tools — MRI and CAT scans
among them. No doubt, they will show up somewhere in Houbart's
Hope, pointing the way to deeper ground.