Canadian Artist Sarah Clement: Connection and Gentle ActivismCanadian Artist Sarah Clement: Connection and Gentle Activism


July 12, 2018

7 min read
Words: Ginni Seehagel
Photos: Sarah Clement

Sarah Clement is an illustrator and surface pattern designer from Vancouver, British Columbia who gathers her inspiration and knowledge exclusively from nature. Sarah and I found each other’s work via social media and began to bond over natural philosophies and a love for ferns. I asked Sarah about her relationship with nature and how art and environmentalism might fit together.

You’ve grown up in the Pacific Northwest and live here now. How have your work and personality been shaped by your environment?

The Pacific Northwest is an intrinsic part of my artwork and me as a person. I grew up in between the city of Vancouver and Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, getting the best of both worlds. I now live in East Vancouver in a fairly green neighborhood with many parks nearby. Since I grew up here, I've observed the natural world around me for the past 31 years – camping alongside and swimming in the ocean as a child, collecting rocks and feathers, noticing the dance of sea kelp, the way the ferns sing a vibrant green chorus under the cedars – I've been taking it all in with my senses, and in that way I think it has become a part of me.

Sarah in her natural element
  1. Sarah in her natural element. (Portrait: Mariana Montes de Oca).
gold version
  1. 'We are all connected', gold version.
Your focus as an illustrator seems to be exclusively flora and fauna. How did this come about?

Even as a little kid, I carried around a sketchbook and markers. But before I launched into being a full-time artist, I worked at a variety of jobs, including at an art supply store and a whole bunch of small organic grocers/health food stores. Not one of them was ever a place where I was going to 'climb the career ladder'. Art was what I continued to spend my time and energy on. As for the subject matter – I don't feel it was a conscious choice. I’ve always been innately inspired by nature. Luckily my mom held on to some of my childhood drawings, which were mostly of animals. I came to drawing plants a bit later, but again it felt like it happened naturally. I've started to include some drawings of people in my work and it's something I'd like to develop further.

What, if any, motif or muse appears in your work? What about ferns?

Ferns! Yep, they seem to sneak their way into my work pretty often. In our rainforest environment, the forest floor is often covered in ferns and salal [a native shrub], and so I associate those plants with home. Birds have also always been of interest to me. I think that throughout history humans have been fascinated with them and the way they are such symbols of freedom, grace and hope. I envy the way they can inhabit land, water, and sky. Deer and salmon are also recurring motifs in my work.

“I believe that the more time we spend in nature, the more we see how we too are part of it, and it is a relationship of interdependence and deep connection.”

  1. Kayaking in a favourite spot - Galiano Island, British Columbia.
You've said nature is your greatest teacher. Describe a specific lesson or insight it has offered you.

There are so many! Though over the past year, I've developed a regular meditation practice. I recently realized that nature is perhaps the best meditation teacher you can ask for, and it's there right in front of you. Look. Breathe. Pay attention. Wonder and awe will wash the mundane from your life because there is magic everywhere if you choose to see it. If I'm not feeling great, I know that I've disconnected from my true self and disconnected from a larger perspective.

I believe that nature's beauty can bring us back home, piecing together our fragmented selves. Swimming in the ocean is one of my favourite things in the world. I feel at home in the ocean, connected to the wonder of it all, and for a while my petty worries and fears slip away. I love to lie on my back, eyes closed, face to the sun, letting the salty water cradle me. The ocean has a special pull on my heart. It ties me to everything else, reminding me that yes, I am human, but I am also water, rock, tree and bird. We are all connected.

colour version
  1. 'We are all connected', colour version.

“Nature is perhaps the best meditation teacher you can ask for, and it's there right in front of you. Look. Breathe. Pay attention.”

  1. 'Life/death/life' by Sarah Clement.
Your piece for Watershed Watch Salmon Society ['We are all connected', pictured above] focuses on connection related to wild salmon. What is your experience of this?

Connection: this is one of my favorite lessons from nature, and if there were to be a mascot for this message, I think that salmon could be it. Wild salmon are an integral part of our ecosystem and the culture of our coast. [Naturalist] John Muir said: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." Try to pick up a salmon and you won't just pick up a slippery fish, you'll hold an entire ecosystem; the rich culture and livelihood of the First Nations people and the health of our forests. In your hands, you'll feel the heartbeat of our waterways.

I remember when I was canoeing down the Yukon River a few years ago as part of an artist residency. We had pulled up our boats onto shore and as it was the wilderness, there were no signs of other humans but trails of animals were left behind. There was a dead salmon along the shore, with its reddish-orange eggs trailing into the water, wolf paw prints in the sand and eagles in the air. It was a really cool feeling, stumbling into a whole other world and getting a glimpse of the rhythms and cycles.

How do you feel about the term 'gentle activism' to describe your work? How important is it for your work to get exposure?

I haven't heard it before, but I like the term ‘gentle activism’ as an interpretation of my work. I believe that art can be used as a force for good in the world. It's only recently that I've started to think of my work as a tool to bring awareness to important environmental issues. It's something that continues to evolve for me and I would like to push further still and get a bit bolder. With issues like overfishing, deforestation and fish farms spreading disease, I think now more than ever salmon need our help. That's why I decided to team up with Watershed Watch, an organization that is working to protect wild salmon for future generations.

I think the poet Mary Oliver put it best when she said, "Attention is the beginning of devotion." I believe that the more time we spend in nature, the more we see how we too are part of it, and it is a relationship of interdependence and deep connection. The more we befriend the natural world, the more we will see that we are connected to a larger whole, and therefore will treat all of it with more care, love, and respect.

Northern Flicker with cut-outs
  1. 'Northern flicker' with cut-outs.

Follow Sarah on:

Instagram: @sarahkclement