By: Katerina Stamadianos | Photo by: Yves Jarvis

As with most online discoveries, I can’t pinpoint the pathway of taps that brought me to the Tree Museum’s Instagram account. There, I saw a skeleton carved into a pre-Cambrian shield. A mirrored outhouse. A wreck of cars stacked upon themselves, with grass and thin branches grown over and through their windows and tires – all somewhere in Gravenhurst, Ontario. I wanted to go, but I was as motionless as the wreck – not only did I lack the wheels, I wasn’t allowed to rent any, either, given a long-held (and recently squashed) resolve to never get my driver’s license. But my friend Harrison had a car and the legal authority to operate it, and we ended up making the trip in early September.

Hiking through the Tree Museum was a highlight of 2020’s warmer months. Founded by EJ Lightman and Anne O’Callaghan over 20 years ago, the Tree Museum’s open air gallery holds a history of sculptural works by Canadian and international artists, interspersed and integrated within Gravenhurst’s foliage, wildflowers and towering rock formations. The Museum is a year-round home to “projects [that] explore concepts of identity, memory, and territory in respect to nature and natural processes, while underscoring the imbalance that characterizes our current relationship to the environment.” Visitors not only view, but touch, climb next to, and place themselves within these structures.

Close to the end of my visit, I noticed the unmistakable likeness of Yves Jarvis setting up a drum kit in front of Badanna Zack’s Mound of Cars, filming what would become the video for “In Every Mountain”, a single from his most recent release, Sundry Rock Song Stock. Jarvis has become a mainstay of the Tree Museum, having lived in the site’s solitary cabin for the last three summers with his partner, musician Romy Lightman. I didn’t expect to see Jarvis there, but he seemed to fit right in as a human embodiment of the space’s off-kilter artworks and their desire to communicate a message.

As with Mound of Cars, Jarvis has wholly integrated the Tree Museum’s natural and manmade landmarks into his visual output. His Instagram is rife with images of the museum’s exhibits, clips of outdoor sessions, and photos of himself looking up at the camera, grounded in the site’s porous earth. Sundry Rock Song Stock is, unsurprisingly, full of nods to the natural world, due in no small part to the Museum’s impact on the artist.

Curious to know more about both the space and his experience within it, I chatted with Yves Jarvis over the phone as he entered Toronto for a couple days in the city. 

Katerina Stamadianos: What is the Tree Museum, and what is the Tree Museum to you?

Yves Jarvis: It was founded by EJ Lightman and Anne O’Callaghan in 1998. They were, until recently, having site-specific sculpture events once a year centred around a particular artist or group, and hiking trails to view them. It’s all public and free, open year-round except for when it’s snowing. Up to just three years ago, they were doing that yearly – and [the Tree Museum] is still active, there are more people coming now than there ever was – but they don’t really have shows anymore.

My partner and I did do a show there last year, which was supposed to be its last event, but I think that [the Tree Museum] is being a bit revitalized by the fact that we’ve been spending the last three summers there. It basically maintains itself because it’s so open. I’m glad to hear you came across it on Instagram, because that was an initiative of ours… because it wasn’t on that platform.

KS: It does seem like it used to be this really insular thing, reading a lot of the descriptions of the artworks, a lot of artists almost referencing it as some sort of pilgrimage.  

YJ: I think it’s always been like a haven for Ontario artists. International artists have worked there a few times, but for a pretty fundamental group of Ontario artists, it’s been a haven for them to go back to and work with nature.

KS: You came to just spend the summers there…

YJ: I’ve been able to do that because EJ Lightman is my partner’s aunt. Since it’s been inactive the cabin is vacant. I feel like it’s very symbiotic to be there; we’re able to keep stock of things, lightly maintain things, and keep the vitality of it. I’ve got like three albums that I’ve made there, so it’s still very active now.I feel lucky and like the Tree Museum is benefitting from it too.

KS: Can you tell me more about the show you did with your partner Romy Lightman, ‘The Sound of Landscape’?

YJ: There isn’t much documentation of that show in particular, but on my Instagram, I’ve posted a lot of the sessions that I’ve had outside. I’ll bring my own studio outside and record a lot of those sessions, and a lot of those are the bare bones of basically what we did. All we did was set up outside and experiment all day, recording and processing the nature sounds and working with all that.

KS: Are there natural sounds on the record? “Notch” sounds very outdoor to me. Are there outdoor elements that are incorporated across the album?

YJ: In the past, in order to broaden the sonic spectrum, or just open it up, I’ve always been drawn to field recordings. Since I’ve been in Montreal I’ve worked in apartments, so it feels so constrained, and while I’ve always been able to express whatever in that context, it was important to open it up to the reality of sound and add the textural things – the traffic, the birds.

On this record, I didn’t do that, I basically recorded all of it outside. A lot of the sounds from outside I was trying to hide, which is like the opposite – being at the whim of the wind is so disruptive to a recording. The fact that I was in open air influenced the playing a lot, but a lot of those sounds are still present. Like you said, I think the open air worked its way into the production.

KS: I went back and listened to “Notch” and couldn’t even pinpoint where I was getting that impression from, which was cool.

YJ: Yeah, because I was recording outside and playing the sounds back into the open air without the reflection of the walls, the reverb, no room sounds. I was really kind of working with that openness, for lack of a better word, trying to make sounds that fit into the sonic landscape of not being in a dead, controlled studio.  

KS: I read this one essay from the first Tree Museum Catalogue – it spoke about how you leave the city and think you’re exposed to silence, but nature is actually quite loud. But I also read this other quote in it by Bill Viola: “Contemporary urban spaces talk to you incessantly… removing all cues from outside, the voices of the inner state become louder, clearer.” Has being at the Tree Museum changed your internal voice at all?

YJ: I started my life in the country but all my foundational experiences were in the city, so I’ve always had a tendency to close off and build walls in order to keep a consistent sense of self. Being removed from the city, it allows me to be more meditative… coming into the city today, I was complaining a lot … the imposition of everybody else, when I’m not used to it, I’m very critical. That ability to get out of the space and get to a place where I’m healthier and I actually love society… in the city I often hate society, but when I’m out there I can see it for what it is, and not be at the whims of it.  

A lot of what came out of working in this context is the confrontation of ego and the acknowledgement of being one consciousness with the universe, one with all life. So that’s a really important practice for me out there, being with the trees and really communicating in a way that allows me to feel grounded with all being.

KS: Is “Fact Almighty” about this? “Every reckless view decreed; I depend on you and you on me; from insular growth one will bloom.”

YJ: That definitely hits the nail on the head. And that’s how I work lyrically. I like to have lines picked out, because the song as a whole tries to evoke something that I can’t really articulate. But when you pick out a line, that is really what I was getting across.

KS: Bringing it back to the Tree Museum, which pieces are your favourites?

I just love Skyshelter at the gate. I like that it’s interactive a bit, I’m both scared and excited by heights, so I like climbing things. Another favourite is Skeleton Rock by the cabin. There are some great mirror pieces, the outhouses… but the thing that amazes me on a regular basis just the shield.

KS: I do wonder how they came across a setting that works so well for displaying that kind of work.

YJ: I feel so privileged to be growing up in Canada where there’s just a lot of space for that.

KS: “In every mountain I’ve ever known there is a stone and a soul.” It’s not a mountain, but there is a soul in the stone, right next to where you live. Do you have lines that come back at you based on your interaction with where you’re living?

That line… it’s one of the few times where the line was floating around much before. I must have written “In Every Mountain” five years ago before I ever went to the Tree Museum. It’s one of the few songs where I was like: this is relevant to my life now, this line… that really did come up because of that one universe idea of just feeling like nature is a mirror. And wanting to express that.

KS: You must feel somewhat protective of the space now. Opening up the space, do you ever worry about people engaging incorrectly – people not finding value in the way you do? I can see how that would mirror with your artistic output as well.

YJ: It’s such a common thing for me to see. I feel like a lot of the time, when people bring kids along, you see it go over a lot of people’s heads. It’s a long walk, and there’s not much infrastructure, there’s no shop or anything like that. A lot of people who expect an infrastructure that’s not there are disappointed in that. But a lot of people are obsessed, they come all the time. There’s a good balance to where I don’t think it’s being overlooked by the right people. I think that being so public and being so open of a space, it’s bound to have a bit of both.

KS: I visited at a point in time, and you over a period. Have your ideas surrounding the artworks changed, or have you developed any sort of apathy?

YJ: I’m very adaptable… where I usually would have gone up there in the spring, I was in Montreal because of the pandemic. I was in a room that was so small I couldn’t even stand up straight for four months, and I can make myself comfortable anywhere. But being there, it felt like a bit of both. I don’t really take it for granted because everyday I try to acknowledge it, just actively be with the life there and really appreciate it.

KS: What does that look like for you in a day?

YJ: Well for me, I started taking my shoes off and starting to ground to the earth.

KS: There’s so much great moss!

YJ: Being barefoot in the moss feels amazing. Really, it’s just breathing exercises with the trees and mindfulness. The only way for me to really connect is through music, so that’s my focal point, what I spend most of the day doing. I don’t spend as much time outside as you’d think, unless the studio is outside, I’m kind of over it – I’ve destroyed my back setting up outside every day.

KS: You’re clearly feeding off of the environment. A lot of the literature/descriptions there relate to this idea of reliance and exploitation, and I’m curious how you see it with regards to your life. Do you ever see it as a pernicious relationship? You’re not like… extracting resources from the earth, but sometimes it’s interesting to think a bit more about what you’re really doing.

YJ: This crossed my mind yesterday because the power went out, and I was thinking about the impact of the network of power and having to rely on that so heavily. But in terms of the experience and trying to funnel that experience, it definitely does feel like a kind of extraction, but maybe it’s not depleting. It’s beneficial to both of us in the same way that I would call the relationship symbiotic… I guess it’s a bit more metaphysical, the energy I’m feeding off of.

KS: One of the Tree Museum’s policies is as follows: “Some of the works are permanent and others are of a transitory nature with the elements and nature determining their lifespan. We tread very lightly on the land.” You’ve featured much of the Tree Museum in your visual work, especially Mound of Cars, but you’re transcending that rule. You’re actually rewriting its lifespan in a different way than the average person taking a picture on the phone could, because you just have a way wider reach. So I’m curious about whether you think about that idea of permanence and impermanence.

YJ: That’s very relevant to a conversation I was having today related to this notion of legacy when one is creating a body of work. And this doesn’t just go for me, but obviously, the Tree Museum is being documented in a way that, as long as there isn’t a permanent collapse of society, will be permanent until then. I feel lucky that I have the opportunity to document the space in that way and through those formats because I feel like it hasn’t been really explored by the Tree Museum in particular. And, you shouldn’t have to go there to experience it.

KS: It’s two hours away by car. There’s a huge accessibility issue.

YJ: In the city I feel so restricted by all the red tape. I don’t know if I can shoot anywhere because of private property, etc. I’ve never felt like I had the energy to go down those roads, whereas being at the Tree Museum, any time I get an idea, I am confident to try and get some traction on it. I’m lucky that I can have an outside shot in my mind and I don’t have to go to a park to do it. Documenting it in that way, for photos or just outside of the energy exchange we’re talking about, being able to just document the space for people is important to my time there.

KS: I read in an interview that colour is like a language to you, and obviously Sundry Rock Song Stock is centred on the greenness of it all.

YJ: For me, the natural element of green being so prevalent in nature was an afterthought for me. For me it was a personal thing, and maybe this ties into being mirrored in nature, and that oneness with everything. For me, I feel green, I’ve always felt green, I’ve always said this and identified with it.

This record was supposed to be an exploration of self in a way that my other records have been more situational and more directional, and this was more of a confrontation of self. The green was more initially that. The idea of going back, syphoning energy of being in the open air, feeding off of that and working with that, I feel like it really bookended the project for me really well, because I could really one-to-one directly work on a sound that blends with the elements as much as possible. After the foundational beds were laid down, I was given a good direction of where to go because of this meeting with nature itself. So that pastoral [feeling], the breeze, the smell of grass or flowers, all of that being a beacon to put a lid on this project when it really began as a personal confrontation.

KS: It feels really green to me.

YJ: I’m glad it evokes that.

KS: I read in an interview that nights can be very difficult for you, and they’re difficult for me as well. I’m curious whether the transition from summer to fall impacts you too. Has living at the Tree Museum changed your routine or your feelings at all, or maybe amplified them?

YJ: I feel like I’m almost more negatively affected by it out there. I’ve never been a very social guy, but I had plans every night – I never put myself socially out there like that, but when I lived in Montreal, there were shows every week, almost every day, so I would find myself with people every night and then you get home and just crash. But now, at night, it’s a question of – do I work? If I don’t, I feel restless, and if I don’t, do I entertain myself? There’s just a lot of existential dread in the night, I’m always trying to stay awake in case I get an idea, because that will be the most fulfilling way to end my night, but I’m also trying to relax…

It’s been happening again really recently, now that Sundry Rock Song Stock is out… I want to keep working, but I feel like I deserve to relax, these days I’ve just felt like… more troubled by that. But I do feel rejuvenated by the fall personally. While I say that, it’s a personal sense of invigoration, but I’m met with that same feeling…

KS: I’m curious if the external has influenced your internal environment.

YJ: I’m such a control freak about space, it never gets away from me. Even the fact that I could go outside and roll around and feel like everything is perfect… when I go inside, I’m still very concerned with the cleanliness and the flow, and I’ve always been that way. It’s exhausting to be in such a picturesque environment and still concerned about dust.

KS: Would you be what they call a minimalist?

YJ: No, organized chaos.

KS: I want to get on your level of cleaning.

YJ: No, you don’t. I feel like that’ll be my one regret on my deathbed, how much time I spent fucking cleaning.

KS: I assume you’re there a lot of the time with one person. I’m curious, without asking for any details, if this changed your experience with companionship.

YJ: It didn’t really cross my mind about what that would do to our dynamic and how we relate to the rest of the world, but after doing it for six months at a time over the last three years, it definitely changes the dynamic. A lot of people feel like it’s you and your partner against the world, but it really gets to be that way, and that can be good and straining. I’m getting to a place where I realize how important it is to balance that, outsource some of that energy and not impose it on who you’re living with. We go weeks at a time just seeing each other.

KS: And she’s working on stuff too?

YJ: She’s a musician as well, and she’s a perfumist.

KS: Woah – can I get a Tree Museum fragrance?

YJ: We’re not that big of foragers yet, despite being surrounded by all that mushroom and moss.

KS: What’s next for the Tree Museum? I saw on your Instagram that when things get safer, you want to reclaim the space for BIPOC and financially undervalued artists.

YJ: This was a huge priority for us in taking the reins. Of course, the land itself makes certain elements of the hike inaccessible physically. But in terms of just being welcoming and really encouraging that exposure to everybody… These things are so niche and precious, and a lot of people see something like it and think they don’t belong there. Even me – a lot of people see me and think I don’t belong there. You know. So, having to confront myself and realizing how it may make other people feel left out, it’s important – not that there’s an overwhelmingly active initiative here – it’s important to paint the picture that it’s somewhere people can go.

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