Somewhere off the shores of the Pacific Ocean, a left hand reaches above the surface of the water. Its fingers stretch towards a horizon that’s framed by the outline of navy-blue mountains in the distance. A handful of moss-covered rocks sit at the base of the hand’s slender wrist. It looks like it’s low tide. On this particular day, the British Columbia skies are sunny and blue apart from a few fluffy clouds that linger just above the mountain peaks. Beautiful British Columbia—the province’s famous slogan rings true today. The hand’s index finger is slightly curled. Just above it, one of the clouds forms the shape of a heart. The whole scene is so unique, it’s one that would stop any hiker passing by.
That’s kind of the point.
This hand is a sculpture by Fraser Valley-based artist Alex Stewart. It’s one of many human forms that someone might see amid natural settings on Vancouver Island or trails near the artist’s home. For the past five years, Stewart has been creating all-natural, biodegradable and eco-friendly art (usually stencils, sometimes sculptures) which he places in the cool, wet BC rainforests or on a rotting tree stump near his next climbing route in the Fraser Valley.
Most of his creations are portraits of women: a sleeping snow queen, a woman with moss for hair, a pensive lady gazing towards the sky. Mother Nature, Stewart says, is his inspiration. This makes sense, considering both the subjects and where he’s chosen to exhibit his work. Unlike most other artists or makers, when Stewart creates a piece, he leaves it outdoors in the west coast wilderness. Exposed to the elements—rain, mist, wind, sun, snow—the pieces of art will decay and rot in only a matter of days, weeks or months. Stewart knows and embraces this. His work isn’t made to last, it’s made to evolve and become part of its surroundings.
Creating something with a short lifespan has become a cathartic process for Stewart. “That became very freeing,” he says. “That detachment from my work just let me know that nothing is really meant to last forever.”
Stewart is an avid climber and hiker. He has always enjoyed exploring the outdoors and being active outside with his dog. He’s passionate about the environment, volunteering his time with beach and trail cleanups as well as working with organizations like Surfrider Pacific Rim, The Ancient Forest Alliance and One Tree Planted. “I wanted to create art that meant more to me and the world around me,” he says.
He explains that one of the main goals of his work is to catch outdoor adventurers off-guard and encourage them to slow down, look around and pay closer attention to their surroundings. The mindfulness that often occurs outside is what he’s aiming to enhance. Spotting a pair of piercing blue eyes peeping out from a moss-covered surface or a pouting woman glaring from under a tree branch is likely to do that.
“The human form on a tree can be shocking if someone stumbles across it. It causes people to take a moment to look around,” says Stewart. “That’s really the main goal: patience, pausing and looking around and to see what you’re doing there.”
He’s onto something. Picture trekking through BC’s damp, cool forests and spotting a Snow-White lookalike on the stump of a tree. That’s likely to create a moment of pause. Who created that portrait? Why here? Is there another one nearby? Is it trash, littering the environment, or is it treasure, slowly decomposing into something new? In stopping and asking these questions, you might tune into your surroundings long enough to notice a deer dashing through the woods, the fresh scent of pine wafting through the air or a bird fluttering its red wings after taking flight.
That’s the goal. As for the process, here’s how it works: Everything that gets left in nature is made from natural products itself. It’s all biodegradable, non-toxic and eco-friendly. For example, Stewart makes his stencils out of rice paper in its rawest form. Paints and glue are wheat-based mixtures of sugar, flour, water and egg. Pigments are all non-toxic and natural. When finding a home for a piece, Stewart looks for a canvas that’s not living (like a tree stump or abandoned building) and nothing gets altered. That means no stripping back bark, peeling off moss or tearing down existing plant life to make room for the piece. His aim is for the artwork to blend in with nature, not upstage it.
It’s not a quick process… but it is a fun one. Instead of simply walking his dog or spotting a new place to climb, Stewart wanders, taking a detour here and there, stopping to examine a fallen tree or holding up his latest portrait to see if it will fit a dead birch tree just so.
“I wait until I find the right home for a piece,” says Stewart. “Sometimes that’s the day after I paint it, sometimes it’s two months after. That's part of the fun. It’s taught me not to be so rushed. It definitely makes my hikes longer because I'm always looking for a cool spot.”
For the average climber, hiker, trail runner or dog walker, coming across a decaying, side-glancing face or a hand popping out of the ocean is an experience that will probably only make the day more exciting. However, as Stewart points out, there’s the argument that his work is contradictory to the “Leave No Trace” movement. He says his artwork “has started interesting conversations surrounding how we interact with our environment and how we could continue to interact.”
As with all art, everyone will take their own value from it. Maybe it sparks a discussion about human influence on the environment and what we should or shouldn’t be doing. Perhaps the issue of climate change is discussed. Maybe some see it as a stroke of luck to come by something so random, so intriguing and so rare in the middle of the woods. Maybe some spot a portrait in a state of decay and think about the fact that, as Stewart says, nothing will last forever. Whatever the impact is, hopefully there’s a moment of pause and consideration.
“When I go in nature, I shut off and don’t think,” says Stewart. “That’s, in part, what my art is for others. It’s to pause and have to be in the moment rather than in their thoughts.”