The empowerment of place

By Aaren Madden, February 2011

Jane Baigent’s fascination with rocks have nurtured her love of place.

One evening last fall, I sat at one of several tables in the new Vic West Community Centre with a few neighbours. There we were presented with a large map of the block of Craigflower Road containing the Spiral Café, Sailor Jack kids’ consignment and all the other great shops my family frequents.

While I sipped lemon balm mint tea harvested from the nearby Bamfield Commons, artist and community activist Jane Baigent introduced the concept of placemaking. The idea, in a horse-chestnut shell, is about what makes a community unique, including its geography, its history, its present, and its people. Placemaking shows the handprints of its residents not just visually, but in the feel of the place. Portland’s City Repair Project is an example Baigent cited where neighbourhoods are brought to life through road murals, handmade benches, hand-painted signs—unique DIY touches that go a few steps beyond the usual banners hung from lamp standards. These other things make you feel like you’re somewhere. 

As a member of the Vic West Community Association, Baigent was fully engaged in the four- to five-year process that culminated in the evening’s adjacent purpose: a public meeting regarding planned traffic calming measures.

 “We fully accept that we live on commuter routes, but we want a walkable community and a sense of community…a clear message to vehicles that we live here, that we use the road by walking on it and across it,” stated Baigent. Placemaking starts with facilitating walking, the pace that inherently fosters deep experience of place.

By night’s end, our map emoted with notes, exclamations, plans. We had overhead lanterns, a road mural a block long, sidewalk chalk, you name it. 

A couple of months later, as we sit in her living room, Baigent recalls: “I felt good about it because I had to keep on interrupting, to even be heard. The din was great, people all talking to each other and pointing to the maps, meeting new neighbours.” 

Eight years ago when she moved into her Vic West home, Baigent’s house stood on a blackberry-brambled, tucked-away lane where people wandered and cars slowed accordingly. She loved its slow, neighbourly ambience, and wanted to keep it that way. When she learned it was to be replaced by a busy, three-lane paved road, she joined the community association and her interest in placemaking was kindled. Although she lost the battle for her lane, she won a community. Now, she’s finding independent ways (like the workshop) to build community through enhancing sense of place.

Baigent’s art practice, too, centres on the subject of placemaking. She teaches photography at Vic High and uses photographs as guides in her impressive drawings, two of which confront me as we sit and chat. They have both an imposing and tranquil presence. A four-by-six-foot rock face rendered in graphite on raw canvas interprets Agawa Canyon in northern Ontario. A smaller piece shows cobbles and kelp at Cattle Point in Oak Bay. In depictions of tiny fissures, seams and  veins in the rock, the smooth swirl of seaweed and water-sculpted stone, both drawings evoke their settings through basic and defining elements. She calls them “portraits of places.” Indeed, the drawings of her Rockface and Tidelines series are meditations on place. Shown in galleries across Canada and housed in collections throughout North America and in Germany, Baigent’s been producing these drawings since the 1980s and they testify to her lifelong fascination with rock—“the texture, the colour, the form of it.”

It was that fascination which led to her interest in the ancient Pueblo Peoples, and their homes hewn into canyons. Beginning in 1989, she volunteered with archaeologists at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. The place, showing evidence of life lived within the rock, “just felt right,” she recalls. She split the next eight years between teaching at an art school in London, Ontario; the “red rock and cobalt blue sky” of the desert; and the cool-hued stones and filtered light of the West Coast. 

Her peripateticism generated within her a unique state of constant return; an ability to see through eyes filled with the wonder of newness, and that allowed her to maintain a knowledge of place that never faded into complacent familiarity. “I was acutely aware of what made this place different, special, and then what made that place,” she says. 

The Vic West visioning project she was involved in through the community association about five years ago was all about that. One of its products was a map Baigent drew, satisfying another passion (she has an entire bookshelf devoted to maps and atlases). The map shows local landmarks including ecological, cultural, and historical ones. These landmarks represent what’s meaningful to the people who live there, and the map functions as a multifaceted community-building tool. 

“If you identify a place as important to you, the next step is being a steward of it. The step after that is to enhance,” she explains. A group of grade six students who had learned the community’s coastal marine biology gave a tour as part of the visioning process. Baigent overheard one commenting to a classmate afterward, “You wouldn’t believe it, but I saw an adult throw a coffee cup down into Lime Bay!” “He was appalled!” said Baigent; “I thought that was great; he’s got it. He’s already looked after it, picked up the garbage, watched the fish, counted them.” The creatures he and his classmates studied are labelled among the hand-drawn waves on the map’s shorelines.

Just after the placemaking workshop, Baigent returned to the desert and she was reminded of how culturally intrinsic stewardship was for the Pueblo People. They cultivated tiny pockets of land from the canyon’s ridge down into its depths, knowing that some, but not all, of the plots would produce. Small dams built into the rock in just the right places controlled and pooled precious rainfall. “If you’re farming in a desert, you can’t make any assumptions,” Baigent observes, tapping a book on her table called Canyon Gardens. “It was all set up based on looking, watching, and being respectful of the environment. It was a matter of life and death. It is for us too, we just don’t realize that.”

As she observed and documented the desert landscape through her camera lens, Baigent found herself frequently overcome. “Down into canyons and onto mesa tops you are actually travelling through geological time, through eons, and you learn what kind of rock was put down by an ocean hundreds of years ago, what was put down by sand dunes, volcanic activity, pressure and heat; you start to recognize them. To me, that’s learning a place, becoming aware of a sense of place, of where you are,” she explains.

The desert and the West Coast have at least one similarity in Baigent’s mind—a sense of “opening out.” Standing on a brilliant red mesa top is “the same as the sense of vast space I get here when I am by the ocean or on the ocean in a kayak,” she says. It’s that vastness that makes her acutely, and inversely, aware of the intricate details in every tide-sculpted stone on our own shores: the dark basalts laced with gleaming quartz, the speckled granites, muted rusty jaspers, the milky greens.  

“It would be magic if we could somehow, in any urban environment—we in Vic West, we in Victoria—get in touch with that sense of living within our means and find a heightened awareness of our place.” 

The simple act of walking, of being here, is, for Baigent, the essential beginning. From there, our place is what we make it.

Jane Baigent can be contacted through her website: www.janebaigent.com

Aaren Madden has a son whose first drawings were of maps, and a daughter who is forever tucking rocks into her wee pockets.