Love the way we bitumen

Lucas Seaward uses unconventional materials to create art with an all too important message.

Seward’s detailed natural paintings are cool to look at, dangerous to create. - PHOTO SUPPLIED
Seward’s detailed natural paintings are cool to look at, dangerous to create.

Fort McMurray artist Lucas Seaward began painting with bitumen after 10 years of traditional visual art. It was a slow shift that marked a deepening of his connection to the natural world, and despite his move to Fort McMurray being a reluctant one, Seaward found the location was a front-row seat to the environmental impact of oil extraction—as a result developing a greater understanding of how humans use (and misuse) non-renewable resources.

"I love wildlife and nature and I love that we share all of this. It inspired me to see if I could communicate that," he says. "I wondered, 'Can I use bitumen? Is it something that I can get my hands on?' I wasn't going to go and call up oil companies to ask.

"It was much, much easier to get than I imagined."

Though industrial presence is looming, Fort McMurray is surrounded by boreal forest and the banks of the Clearwater and Athabasca Rivers proved to be the easiest method of collection. During the warmest parts of the year, oil simply flows over the banks.

"I was amazed at how much oil is naturally seeping from the land into the water," says Seaward. "It's happening on a phenomenal scale, and it's been happening for thousands of years."

After some trial and error—"I didn't want to just smear this viscous goo on the canvas," he says—Seaward came up with the perfect blend of bitumen and a binding agent, creating a very pale substance that he applies in many layers, making incredibly detailed paintings of the natural world. In many cases, Seaward creates haunting images of endangered wildlife using the same substance that has indirectly resulted in their habitats being destroyed.

But it's not without its hurdles. "It's incredibly toxic, it's just not human-friendly," Seaward says. He paints in a hazmat suit with his own oxygen source, in a studio as well-ventilated as he can manage. However, the binding agent he mixes with the raw bitumen is perfectly safe once it has dried, and also serves to preserve the painting. "I can't say with any absolute certainly how it will hold up 100 years from now, but I've taken every precaution," he says. "I've been doing this for four-and-a-half years and the pieces still look as they do the day they were created."

Seaward hopes his work will make people think about how we consume oil. "We have this incredible resource that we take for granted, right now I can look outside and see a tremendous amount of snow, and here I am in a 23-degree home, eating pineapple," he says. "But it's not oil that's evil—it's our usage of oil. There's a paradigm shift that needs to happen."

And while the natural world serves as a canary in our collective coal mine, Seaward hopes his pieces remind us of just what is being destroyed. "These are the incredible animals we share space with—these are the species that are affected. If we want them around we need to reflect on how we live our lifestyle," he says. "We can talk and communicate in so many different forms but these animals don't have a voice."

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