Robyn Thomas's "A Christmas Story" is a Christmas tree made out of pages from 'The Walrus' magazine. 12 artists are displaying their Christmas tree artwork at Toronto's Gardiner Museum. Photo by Michael Swan

12 artists bring out the best in Christmas trees at Toronto's Gardiner Museum

  • December 17, 2016

Toronto’s Gardiner Museum has put up 12 artist-decorated Christmas trees again this year, but this time it’s about more than pretty baubles hanging from artificial trees.

Under the title “12 Trees: Good For the Earth,” this year’s Christmas tree display tries to connect Christmas and the natural world.

For artist, environmentalist and curator of the “12 Trees” show David Buckland, a divorce between nature and Christmas simply doesn’t make sense.

“The Christmas festival is certainly about celebration and family,” he said. “This is so much a part of our inheritance, our cultural inheritance, the idea of birth…. Everybody who has been a father or a mother gets that one. It’s a fantastic thing to celebrate. For religion, especially the Catholic and Christian Church, it’s central to that narrative.”

Buckland founded Cape Farewell, an agency that tries to harness art and creativity to foster new ways of talking about climate change and the environment. Curating the Gardiner’s annual collection of artist-conceived Christmas trees was an obvious project for him.

“We had nearly 40 submissions for the trees. Curating it down to 12 was a task. They were all incredibly good,” Buckland told The Catholic Register. “I loved the way each of the artists found such a different story to tell, whether it’s talking about boats, whether it’s talking about recycled shirts or recycled plastics. The way they’ve used those metaphors is fantastic and enlightening. I think the role of the artist is partly to celebrate and to enlighten.”

Buckland is a big fan of Pope Francis and his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, which he calls “a very, very clear and salient statement that will probably influence more people on this planet than anything else.”

To celebrate Christmas this year with an ecological consciousness recognizes that the Earth has moved into a new geological era where human influence is at least equal to natural forces in shaping the environment.

“We can no longer sit back and observe nature,” he said. “We all have to see ourselves as intrinsically part of it and, in a way, protect our own salvation. That, theologically, is a really brand new and exciting territory. You can’t observe any more. You are part of it. It’s a very different position.”

A Christmas that tries to reconcile humans with nature is no good without reconciliation between people. Artist Amélie Desjardin’s canoe-shaped Christmas tree highlights reconciliation between settler and aboriginal Canadians. She describes her tree as a “Christmas Ark Tree.”

“We are Yorkick” by Fiona Legg highlights the death and disappearance of bees and warns of human death if we alter our ecology in the wrong ways.

Erin Lightfeather’s “The Wishing Tree” recycles old Christmas cards into hand-made feathers that demonstrate a second life for discarded materials.

Recycling is also highlighted in Susan Avishai’s tree, “Twice Blessed.” Avishai constructed her tree from discarded clothes and she points out that an average Canadian throws out 14 kilos (31 lbs.) of textiles every year.

“If we took all the textiles thrown into Canadian landfills in a 12-month period, we could build a solid structure as wide and tall as the SkyDome (Rogers Centre), three times over,” Avishai points out in her introduction to the “Twice Blessed” tree.

Doves flying in and out of Avishai’s tree make the traditional connection between Christmas and peace.

If people take time to read the artist statements and contemplate the artwork that goes into the “12 Trees,” they will realize that each tree is something more than just a tree, said Buckland.

“This is actually a way of thinking about humanity and about the time of year,” he said. “And also our responsibilities and our joy.”

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