Jim Holyoak: Aroborescence

installation shot

Feb 17 - April 9, 2022

The Green Web

 Arborescence: noun, resembling a tree in growth, structure, or appearance

A forest is much more than you see - underground there is this other world, a world of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate and allow the forest to behave as though it is a single organism…. Forests aren’t simply collections of trees, they’re complex systems with hubs and networks that overlap and connect trees to allow them to communicate and they provide avenues for feedbacks and adaptation, this makes the forest resilient. [1]


Jim Holyoak is first and foremost a drawer. His tool kit includes brushes and pens of all shapes and sizes, whisk brooms - large and small, straws and bubble making gear. Chinese and India ink are his preferred media, and the forest and its inhabitants (real and imagined), are his preferred subjects. Drawing inspiration equally from faerie tales and folk lore, alongside research from the most current forest science of biologists like Suzanne Simard and E. O. Wilson, Holyoak casts a mesmerizing spell in this all-immersive drawing installation. The undulating limbs and trunks of trees seem to reach out from the wall. They invite us - they beckon us into the fecundity of their rich biodiverse universe.

The main component of Arborescence is made up of two large works; Energy and The Thicket that were graphically conjoined on site to transform them into the one continuous drawing measuring 11x120 ft, completely enveloping four walls of the gallery. Holyoak explains the work titled Energy this way: “I wanted to describe the world as entanglement of flowing energies… a place where atmosphere, hydrosphere, geology, plants and animals are all blending into one another and transforming…where things are growing and dying and shifting in almost hallucinogenic ways. Where things seem to be one thing – and then maybe they’re not. Is it wood, is it bone, is it air, is it water, is it land, is it positive or negative, is it presence or absence?”[2] The Thicket was created as an homage to the great banyan trees found throughout the region after the artist did a residency in Mumbai India. Banyans are known for living many centuries and for growing complex rhizomatic root and branch systems. When the branches grow larger, they send down shoots that join the root system and become supportive pillars to the latteral branches above. Holyoak speaks of walking under a single massive banyan tree while in West Bengal and feeling as though he was walking through a forest.

This rich biodiversity that Holyoak’s work celebrates and alludes to is key to nature’s resiliency, and tragically the very thing we lose when we supplant old growth forests with tree farm monocultures. Concern and anger over the loss of the last old growth stands on BC’s coasts have been fuel for Holyoak’s art practice for many years and has inspired the reading room found within the gallery. It is filled with books from which the artist has drawn inspiration and that inform his research.  The exhibition also includes five large prints reproduced from the 500-page, hand drawn bookwork titled Book of 19 Nocturnes which Holyoak has been working on for over 20 years. There are also two walls full of field sketches from the last several years, created in situ at artist residencies around the world. Echoing through the gallery is a lush and atmospheric soundscape created by sound artist Nick Kuepfer, whose practice involves research in acoustic ecology.

Holyoak received a BFA from the University of Victoria, an MFA from Concordia University, and studied as an apprentice to master ink-painter Shen Ling Xiang, in Yangshuo, China. Along with his own prolific drawing practice, he has carried on a 23-year collaboration with Montreal-based artist, Matt Shane, with whom he has created numerous large-scale drawing installations. Holyoak has attended artist-residencies in New York, Los Angeles, Mumbai, Banff, The Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, England and throughout Norway. His work has circulated widely, including at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham, the GEM Museum in the Hague, the Drawing Association in Oslo, the Carnegie Mellon International Drawing Symposium in Pittsburgh, the Museum of Drawings in Sweden, and Open Space Arts Society in Victoria. Holyoak’s work was featured in the We Are Monsters issue of Border Crossings Magazine, the Feminisms issue of Esse Magazine, and will soon be published by Thames & Hudson in the book, Drawing in the Present Tense. Jim presently lives in Nelson, BC, while teaching remotely at Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

[1] Suzanne Simard, from her TED Talk of 2016

[2] Jim Holyoak, from installation video produced by Foreman Art Gallery, Bishop’s University

The soundscape heard in the exhibition is the work of sound artist Nick Kuepfer. A link to his work can be found here. 

The artist would like to encourage everyone to write and phone the
government of BC, and ask that they defer logging of all at-risk, rare
and ancient forests, including existing cut blocks, and provide First
Nations with funding for the conservation of ancient forests on their
lands. Here is a link to a worthwhile petition: