Landscapes : Reading and Memory

I have recently finished reading Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Quartet” – which I thought was brilliant. As I progressed through the four novel set, which makes for a great summer read, I continually felt that I was experiencing the streets, the open windows, the smells of food, days at the beach, cramped apartments, gatherings and other interactions between the characters. Taking a step back I was intrigued at how something as simple as “text” – strings of symbols, concatenated or spaced – could conjure a fully fleshed out albeit imaginary world. The act of reading Ferrante created a flow; text became images, a fabric of sorts was sewn and stretched across my imagination.  I was delighted to find out that the Latin for “fabric” is textum. Texts can create paintings.

Shore Lines by Dan Nuttall
Dan Nuttall, “Shore Lines”, acrylic on wood panel, 4 x 8 feet

The opposite, of course, can occur. We can look at a painting or work of art and “read” it, creating a “text” of sorts. Symbols, signs, colour, forms and other stimuli create associations and messages that reach out to confront our gaze. Sometimes the story is robust and coherent and other times it is a rough assemblage of ideas, sometimes more like sentences, often just a few words or a notion. Sometimes art presents us with a blank page and it remains unwritten, unread.

Dan Nuttall, “Broad Stream” (quadriptych), acrylic on canvas board, 16 x 20″ each


The National Gallery in London breaks down the process of reading paintings as follows:

“Reading a painting is similar to reading a book:

  • The reader decodes symbols to establish meaning
  • The reader uses inference and deduction (e.g. body language) to deepen understanding
  • A reader’s previous knowledge and experience affects their personal response”

Memory of course plays a role, intimately tied to experience, and our reading of a painting’s text ends up being diagnostic – speaking about who we are, what some of our experiences have been, what our “world views” may be.

Dan Nuttall, “Siwash”, acrylic on wood panel, 36 x 48″

My first solo show at Lee Contemporary Art, in Orillia, this summer, is a retrospective of sorts, a chance to look back in time and allow viewers to read multiple texts at the same time. Or, in other words, to glance at a group of paintings or texts and ask : Is there an overarching or meta-narrative? What are the common themes?

Dan Nuttall art painting Cry Me Some Rivers diptych web
Dan Nuttall, “Cry Me Some Rivers” (diptych), acrylic on wood panel, 24 x 30″ each
rivers/symmetry/face/song/ecological art/ecology

Of course, telling someone abut a book or a painting is often both a dull and corrupting process. And yet people who visit galleries often want to know “What does this picture mean?”, “What was the artist thinking or trying to achieve?”. So, to accompany this exhibition I thought perhaps a balanced approach might work – I would say something minimal about these works – perhaps just words even, and allow the reader and/or viewer to assemble the text. These words are beneath each of the paintings above, and are intended to provide points of reflection, threads form which larger stories may be woven. These paintings, and others, will be included in “Landscapes : Reading and Memory”.

These paintings serve as a gathering of texts. From such gatherings a library of sorts arises, an edifice that is created by both the artist and those that gaze upon art. A place where both can dwell.

Please feel free to comment or to get in touch with me regarding this post. My exhibition information is as follows:


Dan Nuttall


 August 10 – September 2, 2017


Lee Contemporary Art

Upper Level, 5 Peter St. S.,

Orillia, ON, L3V 5A8

(705 ) 331-3145


Hours: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 10 – 4







Cool Blue Art : A Form of Air Conditioning?

As Toronto heads into its first heat wave of the summer we are all thinking of ways to stay cool.


When looking at art, particularly larger scale mostly monochromatic art, viewers often dismiss the simplicity of the work and regard the large expanses of colour as meaningless. Think of the work of Rothko or Newman and the often uttered comment that “I could do that at home”. But what are we missing? When we take the time to look at Rothko’s or Newman’s larger bodies of work, and we consider the fact that colour fields and colour combinations affect us psychologically and physiologically, a more nuanced interpretation of the works can emerge.

dan nuttall bone stream ULweb
Dan Nuttall, BONE STREAM, (1 of 4)

The role of colour is often thought of in psychological terms meaning colour is interpreted symbolically through learning. For example, green is considered lucky for some cultures while in others it signifies royalty . Red signals attention and alarm or excitement. While psychological interpretation varies from culture to culture, actual physiological responses occur and may tend to be more universal in humans – though there is still considerable variability. How do we begin to examine the relationship between colour and physiological response? In physiological terms the eye transmits electrical impulses to the hypothalamus in the brain which in turn governs our hormones and our endocrine system. More specifically, the hypothalamus governs:

  • water regulation
  • sleeping and behavioural patterns
  • sexual and reproductive functions
  • metabolism
  • appetite
  • body temperature



Think about the powerful role that colour plays in non-human animals, particularly in relation to mating rituals and the signalling of reproductive readiness. We humans, animals all of us, are also affected by colour.  Have you ever wondered about the effect that colour might have on your physiology? Can blue really cool?


In California, bubble gum pink is used to calm children at a detention centre. In neonatal wards blue light is used as a treatment for premature babies born with jaundice. Color can change the perceived taste of food. Color affects blood pressure, pulses and respiration rates and brain activity and biorhythms.


Blue is the world’s favourite colour, so a work of art with a preponderance of blue has a better chance of being liked that one of yellow. Green is a close second. The blues and greens of water and vegetation begin to explain some of the popularity of  landscape paintings. Research indicates that when people feel hot they prefer looking at blues and greens. Additional research on the physiology of colour effects indicates that blue helps people heal by soothing them – a greater portion of the energy directed towards day to day activities can be re-directed towards healing when a person is calm. Finally, “Through associations with the sky, the ocean and water, most people associate blue with openness, peace and tranquility,” says Zhu, who conducted the research with UBC PhD candidate Ravi Mehta. “The benign cues make people feel safe about being creative and exploratory. Not surprisingly it is people’s favourite colour.”

It’s a heat wave Toronto – so stay calm while enjoying the benefits of blue!

Need to be cooled by art in Toronto this summer? Go see the Art Gallery of Ontario’s “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris” which has been curated by Actor/Writer Steve Martin.

More colourful art by dandoesdesign and more cooling blue art by Dan Nuttall in the on-line exhibition “Other Ideas of North” HERE.



The Mind Is A Zoo

Shore Lines by Dan Nuttall
Dan Nuttall, SHORE LINES, acrylic on wood panel,  4 x 8′, $5000 CAD

The landscape in this painting was created through the reconfiguration of an abandoned bear exhibit found in a zoo. Originally opened in 1962 the bear exhibit expresses the era’s design thinking – nature simplified, abstracted into modern geometries that keep the animal contained and on view while accommodating the display of some behavior patterns. If the exhibit’s role in animal containment can be set aside the bear exhibit is actually quite a beautiful assemblage of shapes and spaces, a giant concrete sculpture squatting in a bowl, a sunken hollowed-out Guggenheim. The composition has clean lines and hard edges with nature abstracted as tunnel, bridge, pond, cliff face, edge, promontory and plain. The eye can discern different paths for movement and the minimal slopes that accommodate both the need for maintenance and animal safety.

Dan Nuttall, “Mimesis 1″, acrylic on wood panel, 36 x 36”

Mimesis is defined as imitation. Mimicry, for example is a form of mimesis in which, over evolutionary time frames, one group of organisms evolves to share the characteristics of another group – often as a form of conferred protection. The role of mimesis extends to the act of painting itself – artists try to imitate things. To what end the serialized imitations of nature found in art?


Dan Nuttall, “Mimesis 2″, acrylic on wood panel, 36 x 36”

Initially, the bear occupied an in situ habitat which was re-imagined as an ex situ zoo exhibit. Using the ex situ exhibit as a starting point the painting reorganizes the exhibits design language and, this time, imagines a novel “wild space”, transforming the exhibit into another habitat, a new wild. This new wild, metaphorically speaking, “returns” both the bear and the viewer to the wild. Further iterations are possible. In the painting the repetition of lines and shapes creates repeated spaces. The repetition allows the eye to make comparisons and to begin to sense pattern and discrepancy – akin to an animal surveying its surroundings. The repetition of form, with its genesis in nature should seem familiar to us – the observer is a sensing animal after all – and introduces a kind of déjà vu – a recollected story told through the repeated use of known words or phrases. What we know, as human animals, is coming back to us, inverted and flipped, playing with our perception and yet familiar.

Dan Nuttall, “Mimesis 3″, acrylic on wood panel, 36 x 36”

The oneiric state of the painting provides an overarching serenity linking both the familiar and the strange. One wonders what animals dream when they are born in captivity and exposed solely to a single environment. Is there still something deep and rudimentary that can arise from a genetic or shared consciousness? Some archetypical memory? As one gazes, the familiarity of lines and compositions is upended by the congruency of the synthetic whole and the desire to make sense of it. The water in the lower right hand corner of Shore Lines places the observer in the water, looking at the shore, as if in a boat, possibly adrift. There, at the edge, notions of distance, containment, barriers to movement and isolation come to the fore. Animal movement is naturally limited. Islands, mountain ranges, rivers, oceans. Is this the ultimate conundrum, coming to terms with the kinds of spaces animals will inhabit? How big should they be? Who should control inputs and outputs? Which species get to survive? Is domestication going to be the ultimate destiny for anything we allow to survive? Does it matter whether bars are visible or invisible? Does it matter that our dreams are merely stage sets designed by those who construct and narrate our realities? What thoughts should we be having about the fate of non-human animals? You can dwell on that HERE.

Dan Nuttall, “Mimesis 4″, acrylic on wood panel, 30 x 40”


These paintings will be on display at my first solo art exhibition, at Lee Contemporary Art in Orillia, Ojtario, August 10 – September 2, 2017. More about Lee Contemporary Art HERE.

You can see all the paintings in the above show HERE.

And find out more about my larger  body of work here:




Giant Mowed Grass

As Baudelaire once said “The whole visible universe is but a storehouse of images and signs to which the imagination will give a relative place and value; it is a sort of pasture which the imagination must digest and transform.”

Nobel prize winners (1973) for their work in animal behavior, Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen worked with “supernormal stimuli”. A supernormal stimulus refers to an exaggerated version of a stimulus. Lorenz, for example, discovered that birds would prefer to incubate artificial eggs to their own – if the artificial eggs were identical but larger. More recently (2011) similar Nobel prize-winning research has demonstrated that beetles will copulate with the supernormal stimulus of discarded beer bottles. In an evolutionary and adaptive sense animals seem hard-wired to go big or go home.

Red Nest by Dan Nuttall

Human animals are no different – we also tend to move toward supernormal stimuli whether one is considering a cheeseburger or aspects of human anatomy. Think of Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” which, despite it’s source of inspiration being liquid mercury, is most often referred to as “the bean”. Or Hapa Collaborative’s gigantic bright red “bendy straw” in Vancover’s Mid-Main Park, that references the history of the site. Given the grounding of landscape architecture in the natural sciences, our professional mandate for stewardship, and the current state of ecological crisis how might such scaled up truths serve clients and users and the environment?? And is going “big” the only approach? Is additional thinking required?

Giant birch bark pathways designed by Dan Nuttall, MALA

In my recent work with Schollen & Company Inc. Landscape, some of our discussion has centered on bi-directional scaling of stimuli – taking big things and making them small and small things and making them big – all with the goal of providing landscape users the opportunity to “notice” and connect with ecology.


As Senior Designer and Project Manager of the newly opened Rouge Crest Park in Richmond Hills, Ontario, we took great pleasure and pride in going both big and small before going home. In this park the sun and its rays manifest as scored elliptical tree pit grates which shrink both light and the cosmos under the shade of a tree while eschewing the traditional forms of round or square.


Where a significant boundary to movement is required the innate attraction of humans to maintained grass is scaled up in a towering weathering steel fence, its rust colours punctuated by vibrant green, its upper limits shorn as if mown. Pathways have transformed to giant birch trunks; movement along the path is akin to scaling the tree’s bark. Tiny snowflakes drift as giant benches in the shade of trees.


Those exploring the scale of the park at its fullest scale will discover a spiral hill where an elliptical stone bench ensures direct in contact with a quote from Burroughs: “ I go to nature to be soothed and healed and have my senses put in order”. In the world of landscape architecture both big and small can appeal to the senses and perhaps this is central to putting our world back in order.


Ten Thoughts You Should Be Having About Non-Human Animals…


1. Human and non-human animals live in a finite world. Whether the oceans the sky or a landmass, there is only so much space. The human animal is an effective competitor and has a continually expanding population. As the human animal population expands it collapses the volumes within which non-human animals live. This displaces non-human animals. As such, all non-human animals live in continually shrinking spaces.

Raven and Mirror (1 of 4), acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20″ (SOLD)


2. All spaces occupied by non-human animals are designed (affected) by humans. The spaces occupied by non-human animals have a variety of names: zoo exhibit, conservation area, protected area, island. These spaces have “inputs” and “outputs”. Regardless of name or designation zoo exhibits and conservation areas are the same – designed and shrinking spaces, with controlled quantity and quality of inputs and outputs, and a finite number of non-human animals that can be supported.

Three Birds Approaching An Empty Nest, acrylic on archival paper, 11 x 15″ each


3. Animals can thus occupy displaced ecologies or in situ ecologies. In situ ecologies, for the time being, require less intervention from human animals to maintain. A green roof, a fish tank, a zoo exhibit are all displaced ecologies. The care and maintenance of displaced ecologies require more resources than in situ (connected) ecologies.


Mimesis 3, acrylic on wood panel, 36 x 36″ (forms taken from abandoned zoo exhibits…)


4. Human animals control the quantity and quality of inputs and outputs for non-human animal habitats. In a sense all animal spaces have “bars” that regulate – some things are kept out and some things are allowed through.

dan nuttall art Competitive Exclusion painting triptych
Competitive Exclusion (triptych), acrylic on plywood panel, 14 x 18″


5. If the quality of input is less than optimal for a given non-human animal species this is a form of “competition”. Pollution is a form of competition. Waste is a form of competition. Noise is a form of competition.


dan nuttall dandoesdesign bird moments flicker
Bird Moments (Flicker), 16 x 20, oil pastel on archival paper (SOLD)


6. Ultimately, all non-human animals will be faced with extinction, captivity or domestication.


Benthic Creatures (triptych), oil pastel on archival paper, 10 x 14″ each


7. When engaged in competition human animals usually choose themselves over non-human animals.

Dan Nuttall art painting Cry Me Some Rivers diptych web
Cry Me Some Rivers (diptych), acrylic on wood panel, 24 x 30″ each


8. We are all animals and subject to the laws of ecology. The world can survive without economy but it cannot survive without ecology. Ecology trumps economy.


Habitat Is The Cage, acrylic on wood panel, 30 x 40″


9. Given the above the issues relevant to zoos and “captivity” are the same for “the wild” and conservation areas. Human animals need to think more holistically and along longer time frames.


Diving Loon, acrylic on wood panel, 16 x 16″


10. The number and diversity of non-human animals should be viewed as positive correlate of the probability of human animal survival.


Extinction Is A Won War (Dodos), acrylic on paper, 30 x 40″ each, SOLD


You can read more about my thoughts regarding non-human animals, and explore my art in relation to this topic HERE, or my ecological art HERE and HERE.


My web site is dandoesdesign.




Shore Lines

Shore Lines acrylic on wood panel 4 x 8'
Shore Lines
acrylic on wood panel
4 x 8′

The shore lines in this painting are derived from a line drawing I made of an abandoned polar bear exhibit located at Stanley Park, Vancouver, British Columbia.

For me this painting is a part of the cycle of imagining nature. Here, the polar bear’s in situ habitat, imagined as ex situ zoo exhibit, is re-imagined as a wild space, symbolically returning the polar bear to the wild.

The painting is informed by the work of Canada’s Group of Seven.