Offsite_Onsite / Research + Production Residency + Installation Projects / Shelley Vanderbyl

December 3 2020 / 10:00am - September 4 2021 / 5:00pm

Offsite_Onsite / Research + Production Residencies + Installation Projects

Shelley Vanderbyl (British Columbia, Canada)

During the past year Shelley conducted research + engaged in collaborative production work at CVAG and at her studio as part of the the Offsite_Onsite convergent program as she prepared for participation in the Under One Sky exhibition 16 June – 4 September 2021.

Shelley Vanderbyl was onsite at the Comox Valley Art Galley for a production residency in the Project Room Studio, Dec 2020 – March 2021. During this time, Shelley further explored her inquiry of signal fires as way-finding / making visible / a calling out into the distance in her fresco work. Simultaneously, she continued to expand her work of painting tiny landscapes inside small medicine tins that fit into a pocket and when opened, become portals for being transported to another world. Exterior influences have further informed Shelley’s research and development. A fire started just outside the doors to Shelley’s working space at the gallery imposed an unexpected staccato in the flow of her onsite residency practice, demanding new responses and articulations in the process of making.

“The residency was partially derailed by the fire. The way it intercepted my work that was already about fires, with only a garage door between my studio and the blaze, caused me to stop and consider where I was going. For one thing, I was going out of doors. I hadn’t yet cleared an interior space to work in when I felt the need to continue the project, And the outdoors brought new possibilities.”

Fire Safety, video 4′ 10″, 2021.
In my work I am looking at visual ways to converse about mental health, exploring care and hope. I look for inspiration in many places. I have often drawn connections in my work between the lengths Search and Rescue teams will go to in searching for someone who is physically lost, and the attention that we put into seeking out those who feel mentally distanced. Signal fires have been a recurring theme in my work for many years, representing the desire to be found, or to “let oneself be seen”, as well as a way to improve one’s own morale when lost. Recent conversations about societal systems to “handle” mental health, and the recent fire at the gallery, led me down a path of considering signal fires in a more controlled way. Fire Safety, lighting contained fires using wicks, with intentionality… being purposeful. Little lamps and candles existing in domestic spaces, raising morale, and lighting one’s way. The residency was partially derailed by the fire. The way it intercepted my work that was already about fires, with only a garage door between my studio and the blaze, caused me to stop and consider where I was going. For one thing, I was going out of doors. I hadn’t yet cleared an interior space to work in when I felt the need to continue the project, And the outdoors brought new possibilities. As a former construction worker, I’m familiar with plaster’s use as a way of containing potential fires. Fire-taping was the entrance into my world as a drywall taper. Extra layers of drywall/ plaster sheets are used to help contain potential fires in apartment buildings. It offered protection to the wooden substrates I use. In the open air, I explored fire as a medium on the plastered panels, reclaiming something destructive to build the image. On the same panels that were cleared of the ashes from the gallery blaze, I allowed a fire to make something new exist.
– Shelley, April 2021

 Shelley continued her research + production residency offsite prior to exhibition.

Notes from residency:

There was once a time, when relatives were gathered around. They sat at a table, and nearby chairs, talking about friends, then about maybe changing the conversation because it was starting to feel like gossip, when into the open space someone began to tell a story. They hoped they remembered it right, they’d printed it off the internet and “could bother to find it, or maybe just do their best anyways.” Right at the height of the story, when the different threads began to overlap, when tears filled their eyes, I should have shared the moment. It was at that same moment though that my suspicion of “true stories” written on the internet grew in size. Had my exposure to emotional stories found on the internet hampered my ability to be fully present? Was I a cynical person? Their emotions were real, inspite of the story. I felt so unsure about how to respond. Could I be a holding space for even those emotions?


How can I hold so much in some moments and so little in others? I feel my own capacity for empathy change often. Can I extend my capacity for holding space to something outside of me? Can I create objects to hold space when I cannot? Can I create a surface, with scars to reveal, it’s own stories to relate to, it’s own listening ear? I cannot go where I want to go during a pandemic. I cannot go be with people that I could listen to, in person, when I am a mother with young children that I don’t feel I can freely leave. How many moments of hardship will no one ever know about? Can art somehow be set in areas one might expect hardship, to ease discomfort, like a “Danger ahead” or “Caution” sign? Can we be concerned with preventing physical injuries, and also concerned with mitigating undue emotional toil through having art to act as holding spaces for difficult emotions? I seem to have more capacity for dealing with others’ emotions when I am in front of my artwork. Like prayers sent out, they offer a release of burdens.

Internal boundaries and empathy

When do I open the door into another person’s pain, and when do I keep my eyes on my own paper? How to not take on burdens that I’m not meant to, or can’t, carry? How not to be crushed by the burdens of another? To hold space and then also live free? To quietly notice the hardships of others, and say nothing, because it’s not my place, and go to the studio and tell the whole thing to the materials, seeing the person come to a place years later when they start to talk about healing, and tell them which painting was about them. Embedding secrets and prayers, hopes and finding resolution in my studio…

Has the internet added a layer of distrust to my interactions? What does this mean when so much of life is happening through virtual interactions? Is this why physical in-person art experiences are so important to me right now? Even if I have to shrink them, to distill them down to fit into tiny containers and send them out into the world? Is this why I want to labour over a fresco painting, doing the splitz over them to reach the middle, gashing away plaster, pouring all my attention into them, making tiny glowing, hopeful details in the surface, and why I want to leave them in places I can’t go, like card-board cut-outs of my soul?

Dirty Shoes

I tried to hide my shoes. Before I brought them here I thought I should clean them inside. The outside, that was fine, beautiful maybe, the worn leather, slouchy shape telling tales of my escapades in them, the art I made in them. But the insides told stories of my dirty floors, my harried busyness, my falling-behind hygiene. “No one else has shoes this dirty inside” I thought. I kicked them out of sight as often as I could, while rushing out the door to my other duties.

And then the shoes appeared online.

And then my shoes appeared on the poster greeting passers by, advertising the residency.

I wanted to laugh and to cry at the same time.

-Laughing was the stronger instinct.

Because I felt…


Am I more proud of my wrinkles and scars than I am of my inner imperfections?

“Looking good on the outside and not paying attention to the inside.”

Okay with outer imperfection, and not okay with an imperfect mental/emotional state?

Do I have to clean up my heart before I let people in?

Maybe they don’t mind my dirty shoes.

Maybe they photograph them and use them for advertising posters.

So why hide my heart?

Mildew grows in the dark.

Bringing things into the light, into the U.V. rays cleans them anyways. Some problems cease to exist in the light.

Nobody asks to see the inside of my shoes.

My grimy places aren’t pleasant.

But seeing my grimy places dealt with, with such ease, with humour, makes me feel unashamed of having grimy places, makes the work of dealing with them less of a hardship.

I was talking about reaching out, and letting oneself be seen, when someone came and found my dirty shoes.


The Plaster is always

The mysterious

The untamable

The force against or with which I am working

The chaos or the order

The flow or the turbulence

The gust, the stream

The tripping hazard, the ripple

The roar, the sound barrier, the sky being rended behind the jet

It was given to me for building, for making, but I am also using it for demolishing, for unmaking, for disassembling for removing.

Making + unmaking

Speaking healing  and Unspeaking Damage

Breaking and Healing

– Shelley Vanderbyl

Offsite_Onsite Installation Projects – Fire Safety + Help – Video installations visible day and night @ the Comox Valley Art Gallery corner of 6th Street + Duncan Avenue lower level window and gallery entrance space.

Facebook Album

Images: Angela Somerset
Video construction: Tom Elliott