Braxton Garneau didn’t grow up poor, but he spent much of his childhood playing in dirt.
“I wasn’t a big video game kid,” he says. “My family does a lot of business on farmland, so my dad would take me out in the summers, and while he’d be working, I would keep myself occupied in the field, playing on haystacks and screwing around on things I shouldn’t have. I could have died during so many summers,” he laughs.
Before he was an artist, Garneau was a collector of natural things. On family vacations he would stack rocks and build things out of sticks, and catch frogs and other creatures to bring back home. But artistically, he kept his hands clean, focusing on illustration — until university.
That’s where he was introduced to installation art, and people like land artist Robert Smithson, who spiralled over 6,000 tonnes of black basalt rocks and earth into a counter clockwise coil off the northeastern shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. “I was like, this is beautiful. It combined my two favourite things, art and nature, into one seamless thing. It opened a mental door for me.”
Garneau then walked through that door, with bags of dirt in hand. “I would fill rooms with soil — it was like my M.O., finding the best type of soil, the best mixture of soil that was easy to transport.” He graduated from the University of Alberta at the beginning of COVID, and, the very next day, when the world first shut down, he started painting portraits in his home studio, because “what else was I gonna do, dump soil in my house?”
The dirt remained bagged, but he started creating “little pocket environments,” small vignettes based off classical portraiture and landscape art that used sticks and stones and scratched his Earth-based itch. “Then I realized my practice is all of these things. I was painting in the morning, sculpting in the evening, and then a mix of both all through the night.”
The pocket environments were step one. Step two involved building four-by-eight-foot cubbies, which he scaled up even bigger to fit soil, natural objects and even his brother and friends (temporarily, for photo purposes). This eventually led to his 2021 installation, Cannes Brûlèes, which featured a straw-stuffed doll, painted with asphalt and secured with jute twine, sitting among cast sugar cane stalks on a layer of soil.
His current body of work is a mixture of asphalt, raffia, sugar cane and cow and chicken bones, all of which he collects, cleans and curates into art. “I love nature but I also love manipulating nature,” he says, pointing to a surprisingly organized table in his basement studio covered in objects that hold memories and inspire future works.
He’s clearly kept his childhood fascination with the elements, but now his reason for playing has a purpose, and his playground is global. His paternal lineage is from Trinidad, where sugar cane was the basis for the economy when enslaved people worked the fields. It’s also home to the largest deposit of natural asphalt (Pitch Lake), “and when the English first came to Trinidad, they used that asphalt to patch their boats. A lot of these ships were slave ships, and they brought tons of this asphalt back to the colonies, so it literally shaped infrastructure globally.” The last time Garneau was in Trinidad, he took chunks of asphalt rock so that there would be “a literal piece of the motherland inside the work.”
His art isn’t overtly political, but he imbues it with materials that are meaningful to him and get his subtle message across. “I’m never the loudest person in the room, but I suggest a lot, and [my work] holds a lot of cultural and historical motifs. As a coloured person — in the Canadian art world, and just in life — you can’t always come on too strong or confrontational right away. I’m not naturally like that anyway, but you gotta play the game.”
But the most important thing is to share the love of the natural world he’s had since he can remember. “I want to respect the innate qualities of these materials. I reorganize, but I would never cover anything up with a façade, because I could never make anything as detailed as they are. I admire the structures that are found in nature.”
This article appears in the May 2023 issue of Edify