Healing Through Creativity: Driftwood sculpture offers rebirth for North Hastings artist

Story and photos by Sarah Vance

Accompanying Ingrid Monteith through her garden is like meeting an archeologist at an excavation site or an athlete on her field. As she places her feet along the limestone slate, Ingrid’s steps are confident and precise, as if acknowledging there are slippery slopes but she likes it better that way.

“A landscaper once proposed that he could flatten the trees and hills to make a softer leveled lawn,” she says from her garden set atop the cliffs of Lavallee Lake, off Hackamatack Rd., near Wollaston Township. “I thanked him, but said no.”

Monteith’s garden set atop the cliffs of Lavallee Lake is a vibrant collage of hostas, daffodils, phlox and orchids, carved out of the Canadian Shield wilderness.

Monteith’s garden set atop the cliffs of Lavallee Lake is a vibrant collage of hostas, daffodils, phlox and orchids, carved out of the Canadian Shield wilderness.

Ingrid’s garden is a vibrant collage of hostas, daffodils, phlox and orchids, carved out of the Canadian Shield wilderness. The banks of Lavallee Lake are where Ingrid gathers the canvases needed for her driftwood sculptures and where many pieces will eventually find a home.

“I draw my inspiration from nature,” Monteith explains. “There is a coral reef in my shade garden and a hedge of herons overlooking Snow White’s temptation...come see.”

A painter and a lapidary jewelry designer, during her career Ingrid has developed a passion for working with rough and uneven driftwood canvases. And it is a passion that is bringing artistry to gardens in North Hastings.

Known as the decaying pieces of trees that have made their way back to shore, Ingrid’s rough driftwood canvases bear the imprint of water and time, with surfaces embedded by the tracks of wood boring isopods. This cycle of life and death is also a theme which emerges in the subjects that Ingrid chooses to paint, such as a butterfly chrysalis or a Phoenix coming out of the flames.

They are subjects rich with history, like the timeless fossils and local sodalite and gems Monteith uses in her jewelry and that date back more that 300 million years, in what has come to be known as the Mineral Capital of Canada.

“Fossils have existed for generations but we know very little about their dreams and aspirations,” she points out. “They tell of times when dragonflies were the only attractive insect in existence.”

Monteith’s life has been about embracing risk. In addition to moving her family from the city to North Hastings, she travelled to Tanzania and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro at the age of 57

Monteith’s life has been about embracing risk. In addition to moving her family from the city to North Hastings, she travelled to Tanzania and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro at the age of 57

Driftwood is considered to be naturally occurring debris, and is sometimes referred to as a by-product and categorized as a form of waste.

“Many people ignore driftwood,” Ingrid says. “They only use it to burn on camp fires.” But she has forged a career out of fishing driftwood from lakes; pulling it behind canoes or trekking it out of the wilderness and raw bleaching it in the sun.

Only after this long sun bath does Ingrid, sometimes several years later, use sand paper to gently exfoliate away pieces which may be flaking away.

“I don’t carve or change the piece,” she says. “I see what is there naturally when I pick it up. Once it has dried out, I enhance the piece by painting and inserting gem stones to bring out its original character. I select the driftwood myself from the lake. It is gathered wet and it is not light.”

With her driftwood sculptures Ingrid Monteith has taken what many people see as debris and turned it into an art form. 

With her driftwood sculptures Ingrid Monteith has taken what many people see as debris and turned it into an art form. 

Sometimes it is Ingrid’s husband Hugh or her son Jamie who salvage canvases by hauling them with ropes behind the canoe or the fishing boat.

When she sees a beautiful piece in a lake and the others are intent on fishing, Ingrid is known amongst friends to boast that she will just jump out of the boat and retrieve it herself.

In the centre of Ingrid’s garden is a sculpture of an eagle. It is at once predatory and vulnerable, composed of a delicate balance of raw and painted aspects, with knotted black talons and piercing eyes that grab the viewer’s gaze.

Monteith stops at nothing to obtain her materials, and has been known to jump out of a boat and retrieve a piece of driftwood that will serve as a canvas. This eagle sits in the centre of her garden.

Monteith stops at nothing to obtain her materials, and has been known to jump out of a boat and retrieve a piece of driftwood that will serve as a canvas. This eagle sits in the centre of her garden.

“I was canoeing through lakes in the Ontario wilderness when I tied this root around my waist as I was wearing a 40-pound backpack,” she recalls. “I carried it across seven portages, Hugh carried the canoe, then we both paddled our way out to the car with it.”

After displaying her find in the garden for many years and trying, to no avail, to get guests to notice the eagle she envisioned within the gnarled roots, Ingrid finally decided to paint the image onto the root.

“To me it was so obvious, but they just couldn’t see it,” Ingrid says. “So I went ahead and painted the head and talons....and now they see the eagle!”

Monteith has gone on to paint dozens of driftwood canvases, which are each unique and differently proportioned.

Ingrid embraces risk, like in 2006 when along with her family she packed up her life in the city, after purchasing a remote property in North Hastings.

An elementary school educator by trade, at the age of 57 Monteith travelled to Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.

“A friend asked me to help support her trip to Kilimanjaro and I agreed to sponsor her,” says Ingrid smiling. “But I promptly added, ‘I will be going too!’”

True to form 10 months later, after a training regime of yoga, hiking, dragon boat racing and canoe trips, Ingrid boarded a jet for two weeks in Tanzania, spending seven days on the mountain.

So it’s not surprising that she doesn’t bat an eye at hoisting a log out of a lake.

Ingrid has found resiliency in her artistic pursuits and her creativity has brought courage.

Monteith draws her inspiration from nature, an example being this coral reef that enjoys pride of place in her shade garden.

Monteith draws her inspiration from nature, an example being this coral reef that enjoys pride of place in her shade garden.

“Art is a human process... I had a very difficult marriage and an abusive childhood,” says Ingrid describing her 17-year marriage to an alcoholic and the heartbreak her first husband’s disease caused her. “A survivor is someone who has had to live at the end of their rope and I have survived. I know intrinsically why women stay in difficult relationships; their whole focus is surviving one day at a time, there is no way to even think about plans for tomorrow.”

Monteith has found reconciliation in art and the evolution of her career has been a testimony of a nurturing relationship between healing and creativity.

“At one point I underwent a five-week recovery from depression in Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital. I would not go to the cafeteria to eat, but there was a wonderful volunteer, Patricia White, who would bring water colours and paper to the dining room in the evenings,” says Ingrid. “I would leave my room for that, as she inspired me with her enthusiasm and kindness. I started painting for the first time since I was a teenager and it provided me with the spark that began my full recovery.

“I am not ashamed of having had struggles. It is important that people out there who are struggling know that there is hope for a complete recovery.”

One year after leaving Joseph Brant Memorial, Ingrid returned to the hospital, only this time she returned as an “artist”.

“The dining room had once been a very grey cold clinical space, certainly very desolate and uninspiring,” says Ingrid. “I wanted to repay the hope that Patricia had given me by changing this space for future patients.”

Over the next nine months Monteith proceeded to transform the in-patient cafeteria, by painting a 16 x 4 foot mural for the in-patient ward.

“I chose poppies and bluebirds, showing happiness, and monarch butterflies in their full cycle on the milk weeds sending out seeds of hope and recovery,” Ingrid explains.

Monteith spent nine months painting a mural for the Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital, where she had spent time as a patient. Poppies and bluebirds were meant to symbolize happiness.

Monteith spent nine months painting a mural for the Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital, where she had spent time as a patient. Poppies and bluebirds were meant to symbolize happiness.

The mural was framed and mounted on the wall in the dining room, only after Ingrid chose cheerful colours for the walls and bright silk poppies in wooden pots for each of the tables.

“I have been fortunate to have the support of a really good husband,” says Monteith, who remarried after her divorce. “We have just celebrated our 20th anniversary.”

Ingrid’s mural has been described in the Ontario Hospital Association Journal as a “catalyst for a complete renewal of the Joseph Brant Memorial in-patient unit.”

This is in part because it was initiated by “a survivor,” who is acutely aware of the issues -- which weaves a deeply personal message of hope and healing for patients and their caregivers alike.

“I have been back to visit twice and read the comments made by patients who have been given hope of recovery,” says Monteith. “The mural, called ‘The Journey’ tells the story of my life”

Ingrid compares the nine months it took to paint the mural to the gestation of a new life, with each moment providing opportunities for growth.

“In Ireland we always lived by the sea,” adds Monteith. “The lighthouse, the birds nesting in the new growth of spring time, there is a comfort I have drawn from the ancient stones of Ireland.”

Like a lighthouse, Ingrid’s mural lights up the hospital’s landscape and brightens the way for the many who find themselves adrift.

“I suffered during my [first] marriage,” says Ingrid. “I was made to feel weak and I believed that others were so much smarter than me.”

Through her artistic pursuits Ingrid began to develop opinions of her own. She began to notice her strengths and found confidence in herself.

“People feel shame and they feel they have to hide their struggles,” says Monteith. “It took me a long time to get there, but through my art I recovered completely and appreciate my happiness all the more for having had such sadness in the past.”

Ingrid is an active volunteer member of the Art Gallery of Bancroft, where she also facilitates workshops and children’s programs at venues like the annual Wings, Water and Wheels Festival.

In addition to her work with driftwood and painting, Monteith is also a lapidary jewelry designer

In addition to her work with driftwood and painting, Monteith is also a lapidary jewelry designer

Ingrid’s on-line gallery is found on the Cedar Grove Originals Facebook Page with works for sale at West Wind, The Tin House Woodworking, The Bancroft Art Gallery and the Old Hastings Gallery.

Monteith has taken a sabbatical after five years as a guest artist with the Bancroft and Area Autumn Studio Tour in order to devote herself to driftwood painting, with many of her sculptures being commission pieces for local gardens.

Ingrid’s work focuses on themes of transformation and renewal, she incorporates tones of humour, and her story of healing continues to inspire others.