Delicacy and Dirt Biking: Sarah Burwash’s Hungry Valley

Sarah Burwash’s mixed media show Hungry Valley is on display in The Dayroom until December 4th.

The Dayroom is a project space run by Penelope Smart, Executive Director of Eastern Edge Gallery. The space is a small room in a large building on Water Street that is primarily rented out as artist studios. The floor of The Dayroom is splattered with paint and there is a sink in the corner, also covered in splashes of dried paint from the previous renter.

At the opening of Hungry Valley a bouquet of bright flowers is balanced on a ledge outside of the exhibit space. Below the flowers there is a small table with boxed wine, a case of beer, and a cash box. People can leave small donations that will help Burwash pay for her trip back to the Ferry in exchange for a drink.

Burwash was invited to Newfoundland to do a two-week residency, which is offered through a collaboration between The Rooms and Gros Morne National Park. She drove to Newfoundland from Cape Breton in her diesel camper van with her motorbike in the back. During her time in Gros Morne, Burwash spent her days painting and riding her dirt bike through the park.

Burwash explained that the exhibition was inspired by a trip she took last spring. She attended a three-day camp-out for women bikers at a motorsport park in Hungry Valley, California. The sport had felt very solitary to Burwash until she spent the weekend riding with other women. Burwash wanted to depict how her experience in Hungry Valley made her feel both feminine and empowered.

The show is mostly composed of small watercolour paintings of women riding dirt bikes, surrounded by intricate floral borders. Burwash explained that biking is often perceived as being masculine and destructive, and she is interested in it as a tool for appreciating nature in a way that she sees as being very feminine.

“I wanted to work with imagery that felt feminine and floral and decorative, and pair it with the bike imagery,” Burwash said about the show. “I was kind of playing with the beautiful and the feminine and connecting with nature through biking in a way makes me feel empowered as a woman.” 

Burwash printed some of her original paintings on soft fabrics that could be worn as bandanas, a symbol of biker culture. The borders on the paintings are a reference to the patterns that often decorate the edges of bandannas.

Some of the smaller paintings in the show are replicated on silk scarves that are hung from copper pipes on one wall of The Dayroom. The pipes are tilted towards the ceiling so the scarves almost look like flags, about to be dropped to signal the start of a race.  A breeze coming through a window on the opposite side of the room ripples the scarves.

“There is all this implied motion in the work, having them come alive when the wind blew through wasn’t anticipated but it was a very welcome activation of the work,” Burwash said about seeing the scarves flutter in the exhibit space.

There are two larger watercolor paintings in the show. While neither piece has a border, scarves are represented in both paintings. In one, a table is draped with scarves and strewn with supplies, including a half-eaten apple and some bungy cords. In the other a crumpled scarf bears muddy track marks as though it was run over by a dirt bike.

For Burwash, the first painting is an exploration of how to make objects that seem on the surface to be very utilitarian, aesthetically pleasing. The second looks at how precious objects are changed by unglamorous circumstances.

Watercolour is a delicate medium, often involving a technique of layering transparent veils of colour. The medium has been thought of as feminine, partly because watercolour paintings are often small in scale. Burwash creates an ironic contrast by employing this delicate medium to paint motorcycles.

All of the pieces in Hungry Valley juxtapose motorbike culture with elegant, natural imagery, forcing us to reflect on our perceptions of gender and our relationship to nature.

Sarah Burwash’s mixed media show Hungry Valley is on display in The Dayroom until December 4th.

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