Sarah Davidson's Woven World

Updated: Sep 22, 2019

Sarah Davidson’s practice involves theoretical research, painting, drawing, and guiding group hiking trips for a nature school. Between these seemingly divergent activities, she has been synthesizing: working to deepen her understanding of the concept of “the natural”, to unravel the historically Western views of nature which have indelibly shaped her thinking, and to shed light on some of the many coinciding but disparate webs of thought through which we come to understand our surroundings. Where many may see the study of nature as a clear and objective series of observations, Davidson sees a “tangled thicket”[1] of complex, overlapping perspectives.

I meet the artist at Erin Stump Projects, the site of her recent show The Secret Life of Forms. It’s one of its last days open and we spend a little while there just chatting with some of her friends. Eventually we make our way to a nearby restaurant and set ourselves up on their patio outside with some drinks and, because it’s a cool, spring evening, some polyester throw blankets, courtesy of the dining establishment.

We soon get to discussing her current body of work. I ask about her signature use of overlapping shape and line, and how these formal choices reflect her underlying motives. It’s something she first began doing as a studio experiment years ago but it also stemmed from her interest in feminist science theory, her study of intersectional approaches for analyzing the natural world. She speaks, in particular, about the influence of Nancy Cartwright who uses the metaphor of dappled light[2], as it might be seen through the leaves of a dense tree cover, to describe “overlapping edges of different kinds of scientific thought”[3].

I see this analogy represented most vividly in a piece from 2017, the garden at night. At first you’re looking at an inky black background, over top of which bright, drippy, leaf-like shapes hang and interact like puzzle pieces. With more time, however, the previously distinct regions of foreground and background begin to blend into one another, shapeshifting. The forms become ambiguous. The eye picks up on finely-drawn details, like snakes and centipedes, peaking through gaps or briefly illuminated. Things overlap here but not there, disappearing into and then emerging from shadowy obscurity. Vibrant and nonsensical, the work is beautiful, optically engaging, and perplexing to the mind.

It’s a feeling like taking interest in a new topic and being confronted with a multitude of pre-established and unfamiliar schemas. Labyrinths of perspective and family trees of theory, whole lines of reasoning, branching off from one another as more nuance is revealed. I often wonder about the appeal of any single worldview or approach when there are so many with so much to offer, all so tightly and intricately constructed. Knowing the limitations of our subjectivity, is it not more responsible (or at least more self-aware) to acknowledge this? To see the world more like the way Davidson paints?

In the work at ESP, Davidson has placed a greater emphasis on drawn line than in her earlier paintings. These pieces are dense with overlain drawings, cross-hatching, and vigorous, gestural marks in pastel, pencil, and pencil crayon. They also all seem to contain depictions of insects and bugs, especially spiders which dominate as the central representational motif of the show.

Davidson sees the spider weaving its web as a metaphor for both drawing and thinking. A sort of extended-mind theory[4] for human beings and arachnids alike. “Not to project onto spiders”, she laughs, “but a spider is connected outward to the world via its web which, in a way, is analogous with drawing. You’re connected outwards through these lines, connected to other things from a specific place”3. Daily, we craft internal “webs” of meaning by making connections between what we observe and experience. We can only ever do this, however, from our own particular position.

Among the arachnids, I also spot a toad, a maidenhair fern, and a number of anonymous stems and branches articulated with the attractive detail and filigree of natural history illustrations. Davidson often refers to this type of biological drawing in her work. It’s a nod to a way of depicting (and thus constructing) the natural world that has been extremely historically influential: a way which taught us to find patterns and structures in what elsewise might have seemed merely chaotic. The repositioning of these drawings in an expressively snarled and abstract picture helps us to reconsider their initial context, makes their usage read more like an act of visual historiography than an act of faithful observation for the purpose of scientific understanding.

In a piece called plant blindness, I’m attracted to the artist’s intuitive sense of colour and movement. Bright and luscious hues, deep crimsons, mustards and greens, mix at random anchored by large, irregular shapes in magenta, navy, teal and orange. The work is a dazzling, harmonious whole comprised of many interlocking levels of detail. Like the phenomenology of getting cozy with wilderness, it is fragmented, sensual, and ever-changing. “My art is not dystopian”, Davidson says “it comes from a true love of being in the world”3. And this love certainly comes through in the exuberance of her work, especially in a piece like this.

It now seems obvious that such a lover of the world would be spending her summers guiding groups of hikers in Canada’s wilderness. This allows her to be immersed in the environment that inspires her while constituting a sort of fieldwork, a chance for her to marry theory with experience. In the position of a guide and educator, though, she also feels a great responsibility to question her relationship to the wild places she traverses and to engage her students in similar questionings of their own:

Eight years ago, when she first began working for the school, she was given a hand-me-down book of quotes intended as jumping off points for discussions. What the book contained was almost exclusively from the American transcendentalist tradition or the Romantic tradition, Western philosophical schools of thought known for such rosy beliefs as the “inherent goodness of humans and of nature”[5] and the power of intuition over formal education.

Over the years, Davidson has added to the primary list of quotes, roping in all sorts of different references from her extensive research, even introducing multiple dissenting perspectives. This summer her students will read Emerson and Thoreau alongside knowledge and stories by Indigenous writers like Lee Maracle and Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, something by science/speculative fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin, and questions from “deep ecologists” like Arne Naess whose work asks things like “what if we gave everything in nature, including rocks and sticks, the same attention and agency afforded to human beings?”3. Their discussions will be unforgettable surely, but beyond that, they’ll experience what it’s like to let things lie unresolved, tangled, and overlapping, to speculate without commitment, and to embrace the abundant variance of human thought.

[1] Davidson, Sarah. The Secret Life of Forms. Erin Stump Projects,

[2] Cartwright, Nancy. The Dappled World: a Study of the Boundaries of Science. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010.

[3] Conversation with the artist, May, 18th, 2019


[5] Goodman, Russell (2015). "Transcendentalism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Transcendentalism is an American literary, political, and philosophical movement of the early nineteenth century, centered around Ralph Waldo Emerson."

All images used are from Davidson's website: