Donald Lawrence:

Portable Lighthouse – Fiddle Reef Remembered

Curated by Phyllis Reeve



Tent or Bivvy Sack
Coleman lantern

A checklist: paraphernalia for an archetypal Canadian vacation?


A checklist: materials for a Donald Lawrence work of art? Works with titles like

The Beach
Portable Landscapes
Outdoor Bound
The Sled and the Storm Kit
Vehicles of Exploration
Kayaks and Caissons
The Underwater Pinhole Photography Project
Ice Follies (One-Eye Folly)
Fiddle Reef Remembered and
The Portable Lighthouse

Subject =object, ingredients=product, work=play.


 above: Polaroid Pinhole Camera, 1998, from The Underwater Pinhole Photography Project

right:   "Survival Kit" from Romantic Commodities and the Underwater

Flotsam and jetsam, scavengings of yard sales, thrift shops, albums, attics, archaeological digs, and odd bits of hardware. The ingredients of Lawrence’s art do not disappear into the object. “Collectively these assembled items are somewhere between a very careful representation of the site and the random abandon of a flea market.” Those are his own words. Others have agreed, describing his work as “obsessive mastery and utter dysfunction” and “absurd technology and luminous images.”*



Donald Lawrence with “Fiddle Reef Remembered,” sculpture, during construction, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 2006


Donald Lawrence salvaging raft (abandoned dock), Paul Lake, Kamloops, 2008

 As in any Canadian wilderness excursion, the journey away from home and into the wilderness is part of the adventure. Every time I have met Lawrence he has had at least one kayak strapped to the roof of his vehicle. True, I have met him only on this island where he has a cabin and future studio, so in a rural, semi-wilderness context. But the kayak travels atop both the battered pickup and the urban compact. Lawrence’s search for the “Exotic Close to Home” takes him through the city en route to the beach.   (Compare the video of Terrance Houle and Trevor Freeman portaging a canoe through downtown Vancouver.)

I see the kayak as analogous to the brushes, boards, and tubes of acrylic which typically accompany artists. One never knows when one might require a kayak – perhaps, for instance, to tow a portable lighthouse. Wherever he is - tidal waters of British Columbia, the Thompson Rivers, the Alberta “Good Lands,” Lake Nipissing, the Newfoundland coast - Lawrence carries with him the subject and the object of his art, the commodities associated with our landscape.

Fiddle Reef Remembered. Who is doing the remembering? The Lighthouse at Fiddle Reef was already automated, the people who had manned it had gone and taken their memories with them by the time the young Lawrence became aware of it. (See Donald Graham, Keepers of the Light, 1985.) When he returned to Victoria as an adult, the lighthouse too had disappeared, replaced by the present inhospitable cylinder. His reconstruction of Fiddle Reef lighthouse began in 2006 with a project for the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. How that project took on a life of its own, with a past as a sculpture, a model based on an ironing board –  and a future as – what? – a lighthouse kit, a portable lighthouse, a reconstituted lighthouse placed in its original location – remembering and referencing the found and invented materials of life on the coast – is the topic of this exhibition, and a story to unfolded by the artist.

left: “Fiddle Reef Remembered,” sculpture (detail)
Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 2006

Fiddle Reef Remembered bears some relationship to other follies and eccentric personal museums which Lawrence affectionately tracks down and describes.** But his project is more than a personal creation. The lighthouse, manned, unmanned, deconstructed or reconstructed, is a public site – and one that will never again be the same or ever again be imagined in the same way.



“Fiddle Reef Remembered,” first drawing for project, 2006


"'Lighthouse Kit,' with Hammer folding kayak and Necky 'Rip'" watercolour drawing, 2006

On Gabriola Island, where I live and Lawrence sometimes lives, local historians tell of a floating lighthouse, identified as the light at Entrance Island, wonderfully appearing to witnesses on the Sunshine Coast, across the Salish Sea. {Flying Shingle, Oct 31, 2008 }  But at the time, the mid 1950s, no one seems to have reported this to the press; no one took pictures. The floating lighthouse remains in a few memories. A mirage? The light at Entrance Island is solid enough, though about to be unmanned. How long before nothing remains but bleak uninhabited automated towers? and memories? and one day a lighthouse effigy, still in its kit of recyclables, towed behind a kayak paddled by an artist who will reassemble it in its natural habitat?

Phyllis Reeve

right: “Fiddle Reef Journal,”  topographical drawing, view to east, 2006


below: "Fiddle Reef,"video, 2007




*Susan Gibson Garvey, Katy McCormick in Donald Lawrence: the Underwater Pinhole Photography Project, 2002]

**“Dwelling, Display and Vernacular Practice in the Personal Museum: Study and Play in Elsinga’s Planetarium, Hille van Dieren’s Wrakken Museum,and Sir John Soane’s Museum”, The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum V.1, 2008


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