Allen Smutylo on Travel, Painting, and The Memory of Water

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Nunavut Coastline (Allen Smutylo)

The Memory of Water (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013) is Allen Smutylo's account of over 40 years of travel and adventure around the world—the Arctic, South Pacific, Great Lakes region, and India—accompanied by original artworks and tales of wildlife, human hardship, and the ever-present water. 

Julie Wilson: Introduce us to The Memory of Water.

Allen Smutylo: The ten episodes in The Memory of Water are from where I lived or where I travelled, and they are about whom I met and what I encountered. My writing and my artwork combine aspects of memoir, ethnography, adventure, religion, travel, biology, and art. Connecting and influencing it all is the presence of water. At its core, the book probes a crucial and contemporary issue, that of our relationship to water, and the wildlife and human life that depends upon it.

Six of the stories are based on sea kayaking and backpacking expeditions to the Canadian Arctic and Greenland during the late 1980s and 90s. These stories combine the fears and joys of adventure, detailing personal encounters with most of the major land and sea animals of the Arctic, including the polar bear. Paralleling this personal narrative is my interest in the Arctic’s "land memory," namely its 4000-year history of human habitation. In that regard, a changing climate, the ability to stay mobile, access to sea mammals and new technologies, such as the kayak, determined if these early Palaeo-Eskimo cultures endured and perhaps even prospered or were buffeted to the point of disappearing.

Of the four other stories in The Memory of Water, one is about the start of my career as a young artist in a small fishing village on Georgian Bay and my relationship with a retired commercial fisherman that lived there. Another story is about tangling with a sportsmen’s group in Owen Sound over the usage of the community’s main river. In another episode, I travel to the South Pacific to swim with whales as part of a documentary film. The experience is unexpectedly derailed and becomes, in part, a commentary on political and cultural exploitation. Finally, there is a story about the River Ganges and the city of Varanasi. There, I found that the water’s use and misuse was complicated by a billion people’s faith-based adoration of the same water.

JW: Why do you refer to these as "autobiographical stories?"

AS: In trying to encapsulate this book, others, including myself, have described it various ways—memoir, storytelling chronicles, episodic adventures, and autobiographical short stories. Like my artwork, I think the writing, basically, is about telling a story.

I have always told stories, although not always in written form. Normally after returning from a trip, I would find myself telling friends and family about some aspect of the adventure I’d just had. The reaction of these people to the episodes (and perhaps to how I told the stories) encouraged me to consider writing them out, formally. As well, delaying the process until I was older, and the perspective that time allows, probably benefited the writing.

The Memory of Water. Artwork: Greeland Passage, by Allen Smutylo.

JW: With water as the through line of your stories—what you refer to as "life's common denominator"—how did you approach each locale with a new sense of reverence? And how has your eye matured over 40 years?

AS: The formal aspects of how to depict water in motion (and other artistic challenges, such as portraying the human form) that dominated my energies as a youth, no longer do. As my skill level and artistic abilities matured, my interest in accurately depicting water as a subject matter’s focal point (like in the oil painting, "Northwest Buoy" in the story titled "Tobermory") gave way to other approaches. Gradually, I used water or the lack of water more tangentially, as an influencing element on a particular theme or a way of getting hold of a related idea. An example would be the book’s cover image, "Greenland Passage." Like "Northwest Buoy," it tells of the relationship between man and water, but here, water is absent, with just a shrouded boat floating in a space dense with memories.

The Memory of Water, by Allen Smutylo.

Another variant to that idea is seen in the oil painting, "The Memory of Water (East Greenland)," with the viewer immersed under water in an alien world. Such a perspective, with the focus on the iceberg, gives the feeling both of the silent foreboding of water and of its ethereal, if not spiritual, presence. In the etching, "Way Down Deep" (Bylot Island—Northwest Passage), water is again depicted from below the surface. But this cross-sectioned vantage point is meant to show the extraordinary convulsion and dense complexity of the underwater world.

Sometimes, the book contrasts the image with the written text. In the mixed media work on paper, titled "Blessing, (Varanasi) a Hindu woman is depicted bathing in what is for her sacred water. The surrounding floral design (referenced from a Hindu temple’s wall) is meant to re-enforce the elevated reverence of the act. The river’s polluted condition revealed in the text makes the visual portrayal all the more poignant.  

JW: Of the locales in this collection, which experiences stand out in memory because the landscape itself no longer resembles itself?

AS: As in the saying “You can’t go back,” some aspects of what I’ve experienced, depicted, and written about over the last 40 years would be very difficult for me to easily dial up again: experiences with wild dogs, whales, polar bears, wild water, walruses, and rolling icebergs. In other stories the specific charm found in the setting no longer exists. This is particularly true in the Maritime culture in Tobermory in the late 1960s, and also in the indigenous culture that I glimpsed in East Greenland and Maui.

Of course, as it has been documented, environmentally, the Arctic is rapidly changing, with less sea ice, diminished glaciers, warmer and rising water and melting permafrost. This, if it continues, will impact all aspects of Arctic life. And if our planet’s great air conditioner fails to function as it has, everything everywhere will be affected.


Excerpt from The Memory of Water, by Allen Smutylo, courtesy of WLU Press.

Cape Dorset, 1989

About halfway through our trip we awoke one morning to still air and a hard rain. We paddled in the downpour until the noon sun broke through and bathed us in warmth and humidity. We stopped on an indent of land facing the open ocean with a couple of narrow offshore islands in view. Our lunch was pancakes deep-fried in butter, with syrup, some Florida oranges, and a fresh-brewed pot of coffee.

While we ate, relaxing in the sun, we noticed some movement among the shadows on one of the offshore islands. It was about half a kilometre away. With binoculars we counted six dogs, noses in the air, picking up the smell of our food. We observed the lead dog, followed by the others, move along the shore to where the wind was carrying the scent of pancakes. It was clear they were becoming increasingly fixated on what we were cooking, but they didn’t make a sound. Given that there was a lot of water between them and us, we found their interest in our food amusing. Buoyed by our full stomachs, we yowled out numerous howls, taunting the dogs like young pranksters.

Our behaviour belied the fact that we all knew how exceedingly dangerous Inuit dogs can be. They are not pets. They are raised to work, and from their wild lineage, tough environment, and the fact they are often not treated well, they demonstrate an aggressive, “survival of the fittest” pedigree. At almost every Arctic village I ever visited, I heard recent stories of dogs snapping chain restraints to go after people, usually children. Death from dog mauling is not at all uncommon there.

After lunch we packed up and launched our boats, taking a swing by the island to get a better look at the dogs. They didn’t see our approach, nor had they recently been paying attention to us. But at about 60 metres, the lead dog spotted us and quickly alerted the pack. They gathered in silence, standing motionless, their feet at the water’s edge, their eyes glued on us. Paddles at rest, we eyed each other across 40 metres of still water. Then, to our astonishment, the lead dog led the pack into the water and they started swimming directly towards us. Our first reaction was stunned incredulity. We sat and watched what we were sure was going to be a very quick about-turn in the icy water. But no, they kept coming, their eyes fixed on us. And they came with surprising speed.

In no time they were halfway to us. Without saying anything, at least anything that could be said in polite company, we all started paddling like crazed maniacs. Whacking each other’s paddles in a froth of white water, we managed to get our boats turned around and headed away from our pursuers. We dug in and pulled hard and fast. After a minute or two we stopped paddling and looked back, expecting to see demoralized dogs turned around and heading back to the island. But, my God, they were right behind us, we had barely gained on them. We paddled at the fastest stroke rate that was in us. But they wouldn’t give up. Again we put our full force into it, and only gradually were we able to pull away from them. One by one the trailing dogs turned back until only the lead dog remained. He pursued us for over a kilometre before he finally gave up.


Allen Smutylo

About Allen Smutylo: For the past 30 years, Allen Smutylo’s artwork and writing have been based on extensive travelling to some of the most remote areas in the world, including the Canadian High Arctic, Greenland, Antarctica, Patagonia, the Amazon, the Himalaya, and Rajasthan. The paintings and writings from these experiences have garnered a large following and numerous awards both nationally and internationally. Visit Allen's official website:

April 17, 2013
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