This interview was conducted on Saturday December 16th, 2017 over the phone. Peter Clarkson is a Warden for Pacific Rim National Park and a Canadian artist whose pieces are crafted from debris found along the coastline where he works. His art, which brings about beauty from refuse, conveys both light-heartedness and a subtle directive, and is displayed in exhibits across the country.
Q: What inspired you to start making your art?
A: When I moved from Jasper to Tofino it spurred a reevaluation and I realized I needed a creative outlet. When I was working as a park warden in the Jasper backcountry it seemed like everyone had some kind of hobby; I experimented with different things but nothing stuck. When I started at Pacific Rim all that refuse stood out to me. I got the idea to start playing around with it and it worked. I got hooked on the free experimentation that came with it and how it sort of built itself. Shapes and themes would appear on their own and I would just go with it.
Q: You draw from different styles from first nations to more contemporary forms. What artists and styles influence you most?
A: Brian Jungen and other marine debris artists around the world, people who use similar materials to come up with completely different ideas. I sometimes try to incorporate first nations and other iconic images into my work. I also employ the colors and effects of pop art and play with word art as well.
Q: What images and themes (aside from marine pollution) do you find yourself returning to?
A: The material naturally dictates themes about the environment, the ocean, and the things that come from it. There is also a humorous aspect to most of my pieces.
Q: Why is cleaning up marine pollution important to you personally?
A: I have dedicated a large part of my life to conservation. That’s not to say it is the main purpose of every piece, but that message is always implicit.
Q: What is the most obscure object that you have incorporated into a piece? Your personal favorite object that you found?
A: I find value in and a connection with every object I come across. Walking along the beach I see many objects with potential. I’m amazed by how well some objects stay together through their ocean voyage and I’m interested by their history. Sometimes I’ll find these ornate wood-carved japanese chalk lines. Other times it’s things like house timbers, kitchen utensils, or items that share common printing and logos. All of this stuff makes me smile and I try to include it in my art. I think it’s more about patterns and distribution than individual objects though. Certain groups of objects wind up at specific places at specific times, and there are persistent shapes. I also take an interest into how the elements affect these objects. The patterns of debris begin to appear strangely organic.
Q: Is there anything you refuse to use, aside from things that are obviously dangerous?
A: Nothing. I like challenging myself to incorporate any and everything. I was especially challenged by the waste from the Japanese tsunami. I felt I was capitalizing on the tragedy of others, and that was why I decided to make a memorial.
Have you always worked in the outdoors, and what did you do prior to moving to Tofino?
Between Jasper and Tofino I’ve been a park warden for 35 years. I grew up in the city but I always loved camping. I developed an early love for wildlife and started with park services in university. I also spent two years working in a carnival that toured around Canada and the US.
Q: Could you ever see yourself working in a mass-production facility that produces (and disposes of) the kinds of materials that you pick up?
A: No, No way José. Shoreline cleanups reveal sobering aspects of the single use products and waste we generate. It influences what you buy and how you live.
Q: Does your art receive heavy criticism, or is it generally well received? Do you find people who struggle to get past the “garbage” aspect?
A: Yes and no. I’m surprised by how many people connect with my art. I make it for myself, so if one or two people connect it’s a win. Of course I get some people saying stuff like “my kid made something similar in kindergarten”, but it’s all part of the package, and over the years I’ve developed thick skin.
Q: Your work has been displayed around the island, in the Vancouver Aquarium, and now you have a permanent installation at the Canadian Nature Museum in Ottawa. Is demand for your work increasing? Do you think people are getting the message?
A: Yeah. It’s been a long road and it takes practice, like any other craft. I’m also learning more about the business side of art and how exposure creates value. I’ve been doing this since 2000, so the longevity helps.
Q: Do you feel more connected to the world and to other people as a result of the objects you find?
A: The art brings people together who want to help clean up these objects and learn about them. Everything I find has been moulded or touched by another person, has been owned by someone and contains a history of meaning. I can’t help but wonder why the ocean carries these things to shore.
Q: What did you learn from the Japanese tsunami debris, and from returning the palette?
A: The catastrophe and the story that followed brought more attention to the many things that make their way across the Pacific. I was able to become a spokesperson and it gave my art the spotlight. I tried to turn it into a positive message about marine debris, but for a long time I grappled with the morality of how such tragedy could bring me so much personal success.
Q: In a world without waste, your art would not exist— do you think pollution serves a purpose?
A: Well, any material can be raw material for something else, just the same way as compost creates fertile soil. I come across something that jumps out at me, something dozens of others have walked right past, and I think “all these people, and nobody saw this value”. So yeah, I think so.
Q: What do you see happening with ocean pollution in the future? What can we do?
A: More attention has been given to the problem lately. Everyone plays a role and it’s a multifaceted problem. I think better initial product development is important, but because of the way business works it is invariably the environment, not the company, that often pays the extra cost. But conscious shopping and small lifestyle changes play an equally important role.
Q: What are your personal plans for future projects and environmental initiatives?
A: I have a commission for a public piece in Tofino coming up in 2018. I also plan to produce a few more pieces to host a show in the coming year. I will be retiring from the parks soon, a change that will hopefully allow me to make art full time.
Though perhaps unconventional, Peter Clarkson’s art has verifiable links to tradition. His pieces and the materials they are composed of are central to a dilemma that carries implications for our future. He may be heading toward retirement but his style remains playful, colourful and sustaining, proving that he is anything but washed up.