Lyfeboat Prototype—Blackwood Gallery’s thought-provoking exhibit
A conversation with Ellyn Walker, the gallery’s acting director and curator, on the complex components of Sean Procyk’s art.

Since 2019, the Blackwood Gallery has been collaborating with artist Sean Procyk on the development of Lyfeboat Prototype—an art installation that consists of a pentagonal floating sculpture on a platform near the Lakefront Promenade Marina shoreline in Port Credit, Mississauga. Ambitious yet minimal, Lyfeboat Prototype is an invitation to question our relationships to and with nature and land. While questions can be never-ending given the sculpture’s mysteriousness, it is important to consider them, for they can lead to marvelous conversations.

As the Blackwood Gallery’s acting director and curator, Ellyn Walker has been directly involved in Lyfeboat Prototype’s development which, in her own words, “pivoted and shifted over time.” Like every powerful artistic project, the process was an ever-changing journey that prioritized flexibility and change over static planning.

One word to define the installment’s development process is “collaboration.” During an interview, Walker explained to me that the Lyfeboat Prototype is not just a typical partnership between an artist and a gallery, but rather a project that involved many parties. “During the winter term, engagement and collaboration took place with engineering, arts, and biology students as well as staff, faculty, and Indigenous communities,” said Walker.

Through participating in Lyfeboat Prototype, the Blackwood Gallery stayed true to its collaborative spirit—the gallery’s most defining trait. Possibilities existed for anyone to engage in the research and production phase of Lyfeboat Prototype, creating a community-building environment that drove the project’s successes. For Walker, the development of this generative floating platform was meant to “serve many communities, not just one community, considering how social justice is at the heart of what we do as an art gallery and research center.”

The end goal of the exhibit is to foster a relationship between humans and our intersecting ecosystems. Interestingly, the Lyfeboat Prototype holds a Crimson Fire oak tree in its center as a way of experimenting with living ecologies. Can a plant survive outside of its natural habitat? Is the sculpture a mere artistic statement, or can it be used for something other than art? Here, the idea of survival allows us to question the installment’s functionality. At its core, a lifeboat is meant to rescue us, but Lyfeboat Prototype approaches the issue of functionality in a thought-provoking manner. “The Prototype, by carrying an oak tree, honors living things, which, come to think of it, is the actual meaning of a boat,” explained Walker.

Given the exhibit’s site at the Lakefront Promenade Marina shoreline, it is no surprise that community outreach is one of the artwork’s central components. With his background in architecture, social practices, and playground design, Procyk approached the installation in a careful and considerate manner—one that would result in diverse pedagogical experiences for sightseers. Behind Lyfeboat Prototype is a commitment to in-depth research about different subjects, my favorite being the research done on the Black Locust plant, a species whose nationality and origin remain highly debated.

The research conducted by Procyk and the Blackwood Gallery also took into account Canada’s dark history of colonialism. When I asked Ellyn Walker if the racial and colonial connotations were intentional, she explained that the Lyfeboat Prototype is “an impactful prompt that leads to greater conversations about race, belonging, and land.” As a Black person, I felt the need to continue this conversation about race. I wanted to understand the intricacies of the sculpture’s stillness: does it allude to settling and consequently, to colonialism? According to Walker, this stillness is just an illusion. “The water breaks the stillness, but our responsibility is there all the time. Stillness is a colonial idea, and actually, we are never still.” 

The Lyfeboat Prototype touches upon topics that encourage us to examine our interactions with the ecosystem that we live in—a practice that Indigenous communities have been doing for millennia. For far too long, we have overlooked the importance of waterbodies and natural species, forgetting that caring for them is our responsibility. However, thanks to Procyk’s perceptiveness and Blackwood Gallery’s unrelenting support, Lyfeboat Prototype gives us the opportunity to redeem nature and ultimately, to redeem ourselves. 

Lyfeboat Prototype is available to view for free on Lakefront Promenade Marina until September 25, 2022.

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