Our Own Back Yard: Sarnia Gallery Hosts Colourful ‘Monument of Nature’
Without a doubt, Sarnia’s best attraction is the Judith and Norman Alix Gallery. Opened just two years ago, the gallery hosts world-class special exhibitions, as well as a permanent collection that includes works by well-known artists such as the Group of Seven. The current show, ‘Our Own Back Yard’ showcases the works of Sarnia’s Mary Abma and Australian-Albertan Lyndal Osborne. Abma’s work is an ode to local plants (including many considered weeds) through vibrant, yet almost scientific displays. Osborne displays thousands of natural objects she has collected over decades in eye-catching, colour coordinated groupings. These mixed media displays are tied together by the overarching theme of appreciating nature (even the minute or overlooked elements) as a monument.

Even those who aren’t art aficionados or museum regulars will enjoy this visually stunning exhibit that inspires visitors to look more closely at the delicate aspects of our environment and our impact on our own backyard.
A majestic brick Victorian landmark on the corner of Lochiel and Christina St N in Sarnia, the Thom building could have continued to fall into disrepair like so many other period buildings in Southwestern Ontario towns. However, through the work of local visionaries, the building was restored to its former glory and re-imagined as the Judith and Norman Alix Gallery. The enormous plate glass windows along the street draw in curious visitors an inspiring lobby with soaring ceilings and grand central staircase. The second floor, with seating for events and seminars, has a modern feel with unfinished concrete floors, exposed ductwork, views over the downtown, and a bright, graffiti-style mural by Ontario’s James Kirkpatrick. The third floor is home to the permanent collection of oil paintings, including those by Arthur Lismer and Lauren Harris, which stand out on stark black and white walls.

This floor is also where you’ll find the temporary exhibits and ‘Our Own Back Yard.’ You step out from the elevator and are greeted by a friendly volunteer. However, your eyes will be drawn over their shoulder to the lively and unusual displays beyond. Unlike some traditional art exhibits, these works have a raw appeal that could speak to anyone, even young children.
First up are Lyndal Osborne’s tabletop displays. Dozens of wood boxes are filled with colour-coordinated, richly textured objects, both manmade and natural. These ‘micro-objects’ are all tiny – thistles, pinecones, beads, unidentified petrified sea life, bird feathers, painted twigs – and were collected by the artist through her travels (mostly in her native Australia and in her adopted home of Calgary, Alberta). In addition to the table displays, there are uniform square boxes lining the wall that showcase a few larger pieces from her collection. Although Osborne chose the boxes and display format to resemble the meticulous organization of objects in a museum or scientific collection, there is something undeniably artistic in the arrangement of each piece and its relation to the others in its grouping. Since most of these objects can be seen (and often trampled or discarded) every day, it is clear that a truly artistic eye can find value and beauty that many of us overlook.

Around the corner, tucked into a nook is Mary Abma’s Triptych Altarpiece which features three drawers vertically hung from the wall and filled with richly hued seeds and soil. One year’s worth of precipitation collected from Abma’s backyard is displayed in 365 communion glasses that line the path to the ‘altar.’ The message here is to be grateful for the life-sustaining, daily natural gifts.
Another exhibit highlight is Abma’s ‘Herbarium of Lot 161 Plan 150.’ Plant specimens from the area around Abma’s home (many of which are weeds) are adhered to 122 coloured masonite panels with beeswax, sprayed with metallic paint, and labelled with scientific names and precision. By displaying these artistically to fill an entire wall, Abma draws attention to what is typically beneath our feet.

There are several other displays using a variety of materials and mediums by both artists to explore, but you will have to visit the exhibit to check them out.

‘Our Own Backyard’ is on display until January 4, 2015. Admission to the museum is free.
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