Work in progress

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Carol Wallace’s Instagram feed is populated by the hashtags you might expect from a painter: #workinprogress, #canvas, #contemporaryart, #painting, #inthestudio, #BCartist, #Canadianartist.

But the Nelson, B.C.– based artist also tags her paintings with phrases that might feel more at home in a geology textbook: #fossil, #geology, #bryozan, #anthropocene, #geologictime, #stromatoporoid, #erosion.

For Carol, the juxtaposition makes perfect sense. In her world, painting and geology are inextricably linked: they are her passions, the bookends to her professional life. And in the middle of those bookends? Her kids — 10-year-old Tuzo, and Zach, who’s seven.

Becoming a parent marked a shift in Carol’s working life: when she became pregnant in 2008, she left her geology consulting company to pursue painting, with several years in the middle devoted to being a full-time mom.

“I knew I wanted to focus on art in a more serious way, and having a child gave me a good excuse to do that,” says Carol, now 50. “But it wasn’t until Zach was three that I started to rent a studio a couple of days a week. I didn’t want to be working when my kids were really small — my heart wasn’t in it.”

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Not that stay-at-home parenting wasn’t enriching. “It was a time of thinking and processing and reading about art, if not making it. And I was lucky that my partner” — Jim, a fellow geologist and environmental consultant — “had work that could support me and us in that decision.”

A few years later, when a friend suggested sharing studio space, Carol jumped at the chance. “Paying rent was the best motivation for my practice. And having kids gave me the discipline I needed — the only time I had to paint was when they were in school or daycare, and so that’s what I did.”

In the beginning, Carol took inspiration directly from her sons, creating compositions based on their drawings of fantastical creatures. More recently, though, she’s turned to geology as a muse. Her most recent show, called “In Between Time,” is a meditation on the divergence of ancient and modern time frames in geology.

For billions of years, she explains, geological forces have been in charge of changes in our environment.

“And now, we’re in an age that some are calling the Anthropocene, where humans are the main cause of change in our biosphere. We’ve been here such a short time, but we’ve made a lot of changes.”

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The oil and acrylic paintings in the series explore the scale of these two time periods: canvases are often separated by a horizon line, where — in the foreground — Carol has painted repeated, magnified images of ancient fossils, relics that have survived many extinction periods. On the top of the horizon are tiny human silhouettes, individuals, and groups. “They don’t have or give much information — they’re a little bit clued out like they don’t know what to do.”

The compositions are meant to show humans’ relative importance in the grand scheme of things. It’s a viewpoint she finds calming, as do many who have seen the show. “We can all get so caught up in our minds, in our worries and fears. In this landscape, though, we’re all so tiny — our individual concerns are insignificant in comparison.”

That spirit of collectivity colours Carol’s understanding of our approach to environmental concerns. Yes, of course, she and Jim talk with their boys about things like why individual juice boxes or yogurt containers are wasteful and don’t go in their school lunches. And that’s important. But significant change, she says, will happen only when people and governments work together to create it — moving away, for example, from economies and technologies that rely on burning fossil fuels.

Carol is drawn to geology because it helps her answer the question, “Where are we?” She cherishes being able to understand her literal place in the world, the story of the earth and rock beneath her feet. She’s drawn to art “for its problem-solving elements,” because “it takes me to a place where I’m not really in charge, but rather responding to something outside of me, where I just know what to do next. When you tap into that creative flow, there’s nothing like it.”

There’s an element of trust in creating, she explains, much in the same way that parenting requires trust in oneself: “You can’t compare yourself or the work to other people; you can’t look for other people’s affirmation. You have to trust that you know what to do, and do it.”

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SUSAN GOLDBERG is a regular contributor to the Whole Family Happiness Project, where she is thrilled to eco-geek out on composting, reducing plastics, and other low-carbon life hacks. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s ParentFull Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines, and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and co-editor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can often be seen picking up cans to recycle on her neighbourhood walks.


The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Join us on Facebook.

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