Turning trash into treasure

There’s a horse upstairs at the Ted Harrison Retreat. There’s also a wolf, some birds and a rabbit.

There’s a horse upstairs at the Ted Harrison Retreat.

There’s also a wolf, some birds and a rabbit.

But the intriguing menagerie isn’t alive.

Made from bits of scrap metal, moss, copper wire, wax and old mining machinery, the animals are stunning trash transformations.

Using local garbage, visiting artist Veronica Verkley rearranged a little bit of the Yukon.

“I just mushed it together into some forms,” she said.

Instead of bringing materials with her from Toronto, Verkley used what she found in the territory.

“I think working with stuff that’s been discarded is a way of showing people that there’s beauty in discarded stuff — you can reinvigorate it, put spark back into it by looking at it,” she said.

During her stay, she travelled to Dawson and visited its dump.

Struck by the recurrent image of plastic bags caught in the trees, especially around dumps, she decided to work with plastic.

“It is the ultimate ugly material,” said Verkley.

“I’ve never really worked with it before. No one ever looks at a piece of plastic and says, ‘Cool, look at how the light hits it,’ like they would with a piece of copper.”

Certain that people would think she was insane for choosing plastic bags as a medium, Verkley began to sculpt animals, a common focus in her work.

As the plastic-bag wolves came to life, they were woven into trees along the Dawson waterfront.

“The ultimate challenge was to make it look lyrical,” said Verkley.

“And plastic does have its lyricism, because it’s translucent and see-through. The light shines through it in a different way, and in with all the leaves it is kind of beautiful.”

Verkley’s work is often subtle and transient.

“I like working with things that are organic, or just outside, then you make something and eventually it will disappear again,” she said.

“I don’t think everything you make has to be this big bronze, soldier guy on a horse that will be there for 8,000 years.”

In Whitehorse, Verkley wove dogs from tall grass found along the Yukon River near Shipyards Park. The dogs, perched on their verdant haunches, were spread out and barely visible.

“They’re there for awhile and some people will see them, some people won’t,” said Verkley.

“They’re sort of accidental viewings and eventually they’ll disappear and then it’s just grass again.

“So, it’s not like I went and did this huge open pit mine of a sculpture — I just did something gentle.”

Verkley’s big, scrap-metal horse is more permanent, but even its rusting rods and wires have been shaped into gentle and very realistic animals contours.

The wire and fencing used in this horse would have been some fence a Yukoner took down, and it has all this history, she said.

“You wouldn’t get this if you went to the store and just got a roll of new wire.”

Stuff that was something else before just has so much more character, she said.

“It’s like buying used clothes, they’re more funky somehow; they’ve been around the block — someone else loved them.”

Verkley has always been drawn to refuse, and organic materials.

“I don’t know why,” she said.

“It’s just my way of interpreting the world — my metaphor, what makes the most sense to me.”

Growing up in rural Ontario, near Lake Huron, Verkley lived an uninhibited, imaginative and TV-free life.

She remembers playing alone, fearlessly in the woods as a four-year-old, building toys and animals from the materials nature provided.

As she got older, Verkley had her father, a cabinetmaker, help her create toys by drilling holes in pieces of wood she found.

Leaving small town Ontario to study art at York University in Toronto helped solidify her passion.

In her hometown, Verkley’s infatuation with art was considered weird.

“It wasn’t cool,” she said.

“Then at York I was suddenly surrounded by all these kids who also wanted to make art and were weird — I loved it.”

After university, Verkley joined a collective.

Taking over abandoned buildings that had interesting histories, the group would create art exhibits in the space.

Renting an old liposuction clinic, at one point, Verkley remembers rummaging through the drawers and shelves, creating pieces that reflected the clinical atmosphere.

Over the years, her passion for found objects has grown stronger and stronger, she said.

Especially through living in the city, where there’s just so much stuff everywhere.

“I thought, I just can’t go buy more stuff and make more stuff out of new stuff,” said Verkley.

“So, I thought I would just work with old stuff — it’s better and it’s already there.”

Verkley argues that garbage is really in the eye of the beholder.

“A weed is just a plant in a spot you don’t want it to be,” she said.

“And garbage is the same — it’s a term for stuff we don’t want, or we’re not willing to use. So we’ve thrown it down, but that doesn’t mean that it’s inherently a bad thing.”

She has spent whole days at garbage dumps with friends, just hanging out and making stuff.

“You get caught up in it and it all becomes interesting,” she said.

“You can look at everything with this eye of delight, and see everything as something.”

Yukon dumpsites are particularly stellar, she said.

The Carcross dump, near the Harrison retreat, actually organizes its refuse by type, which makes Verkley’s job so much easier.

You don’t have to dig through all the rotting food and real trash, she said with a laugh.

In the Yukon, she has run into other treasure hunters at the dump and had some intriguing conversations.

Verkley’s work hangs between the public and private realm. And many of her creations don’t have any apparent audience.

“When I am hiking through the bush, or down a road, or through an alley somewhere, I’ll make something with what I find there and just leave it there,” she said.

“And it’s often somewhere where no one will ever see it, or it will fall apart, but I just enjoy it and feel the need to express myself creatively.”

Verkley happily worked away at the Harrison retreat for two months and didn’t really feel the need to show her work to anyone, although she did hold an open house last weekend.

“And the horse is staying in the Yukon,” said Verkley, whose residency ends this week.

The horse is for sale and will roam the territory until it finds a permanent home.

It may take up interim pasture outside Yukon Artists at Work in McCrae, said Verkley.