Lost and found on the river

Broad canvases of art sweep down the river’s edge.

It is not something you would notice until you happen right upon it.

You walk along, lost in your own thoughts, or scanning, as everyone seems to do, for a special rock to hold, or throw, or perhaps put in your pocket and take with you. You think back to childhood, and to the hours spent collecting and throwing and sorting rocks. Then, as if by magic, a river-hued rainbow appears. It is the first sign of an artist’s hand at work along the shoreline.

Broad canvases of art sweep down the river’s edge, created with the greys and speckled whites, the varied tones of aquamarine and muted orange found on the banks of the Kootenay River.

The artist behind the work is Hope Clarke. Hope had been drawn to this Valley because of her great uncle, Pete Lum, who lived in Skookumchuk. As a kid, she would travel to the Valley to stay with the old trapper and trail guide. He was a fascinating man, Hope relays, who built many of the local trails, and had a deep knowledge of animals and a soft spot for dogs.

Much of her learning, and her formation as person, happened in the hills and valleys and waterways of the Columbia Valley. Mr. Lum died in 1998 when he was about 100 years old, Hope recalls, but left a lasting impression with his great niece.

While she was raised in Ontario, there was quite the enclave of Newfoundland residents living in her small community. As a young adult, Hope headed east to where the familiar lilting voices of her Maritime neighbours came from. She signed up for a textiles art school in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It was hard work, but Hope left with a textiles diploma and a deep new appreciation for art and her place in it.

She spent 10 years in Newfoundland. In that time, she became a teacher, and moved to an isolated First Nations community in northern Quebec where, for the last eight years, she has worked with the most challenging students, the ones who don’t fit into the traditional classroom setting. It was rewarding work, but incredibly hard. And finally this year, Hope knew she needed to step away and recharge.

And so, she came to Canal Flats, to the area where she learned to connect with nature, to slow down and breathe deeply.

She feels a pull to the river here.

“I’ve always liked the water,” she reflects.

She comes to the river to centre herself. As she spent time on the shore, she began piling up rocks, unsure what would take shape.

“I really like the rocks. The colour is really something else. It’s captivating,” she describes.

Almost daily, she scans up and down the rocky shoreline of the Kootenay River, looking for the next perfect rock. She stacks them in coloured and sized piles – some as small and light as a leaf, others as heavy as a car rim. Without an overall plan in place, she places a rock. One more. Another. Then another. They form circles and flowers and winding rows, reflecting the curve of the river nearby. The arrangements shape themselves under her artistic hands.

“I found something in it. A meditation. Mindfulness,” she says.

As we walk along the beach, Hope pauses and scoops up a rock. Green the colour of a mountain lake, small enough to fit in her palm.

“Do you always look for rocks while you walk?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says. “You’ll see why.”

We follow the river and I, careful footed, keep my eyes on the ground. Suddenly we are standing almost on top of a mandala-inspired circle, barely noticeable until we are right beside it. This first rock garden she made last July. It is as much a part of the landscape, blending in because of the elements used, yet standing out. It fits in the same way an old wood swing hangs on an ancient oak tree. It is not of the landscape, but in it in a way so perfect, it seems it was meant to be there all along. That mandala has gone under the water a few times. Some is worn away. Remnants of the circle remain.

After that we walk down the riverbank to her largest creation so far. It started as a small circle and kept expanding and expanding. Now it is a swirling mass of rocks, intricate in detail and mesmerizing in scope. It spans several metres wide in a large, partial flower-shaped circle. After she decided to stop on that one, she has moved her rock pilings to another stretch of beach where she now has a new project, taking on a different shape and even a different feel, though it uses the same elements. She drops the rock she picked up earlier into a green-toned pile.

Hope’s rock art varies in scope and size all along the shoreline. She has made some pieces to rest in the watery transition between river and land, so the stones would glimmer through the waves. In another area she has created a series of cairns – simple rock stacks, as the start of some sort of new art venture. They remind her, she says, of the missing and murdered Indigenous women. She would like to use red rocks (think the red dress movement, where a red dress hanging in a tree is to remember the women), as tribute to the lost lives.

While the work has been meditation for her, she wants others to take away an appreciation for nature through her work. She acknowledges that it has become public art, though that was never the original intention. She knows others have happened upon her work and celebrated the complex simplicity found in her creations.

“People are so far removed from nature now,” Hope says. “I’m so appalled and sad and scared. This is the end of nature.”

She wants her work to be an act of discovery. For people on the shore, looking to connect with nature, to happen upon her creations and maybe take away a deeper sense of self. To that end, she encourages people to not have a concrete map to find her work. Instead, to get out of their vehicles, wander paths they have not trodden, and see if they can discover for themselves. And maybe, if you choose the right path, you will uncover Hope’s mesmerizing rock art too.

As we leave the beach, heading back to civilization, we pass a couple beachcomers. They walk along the rocky shore, heads turned down, scanning back and forth looking, it appears, for the perfect rock.

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