The Black Gold Tapestry

March 15, 2021

Joan Sullivan

Sandra Sawatzky, a multidisciplinary artist based in Canada’s energy rich province of Alberta, has created an epic narrative embroidery, 67-meters long, that chronicles how the discovery, exploration, use and abuse of fossil fuels has profoundly impacted human civilizations throughout history—both positively and negatively. It is, quite simply, a magnificent work of art.

Nine years in the making, Sawatzky’s The Black Gold Tapestry begins with the shifting tectonic plates of the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods, and ends with a surprise cameo appearance by Janus, the two-headed Roman god of transitions, who ushers in the 21st century’s renewable energy transition in the final panel of this massive opus. 

Photo by Don Lee at the Banff Centre for the Arts.

According to Sawatzky, The Black Gold Tapestry was inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry, a historically significant narrative embroidery created 1,000 years ago. Sixty-eight meters long, the Bayeux Tapestry is a masterpiece of 11th century Romanesque art. It tells the story, in humble woolen thread on linen cloth, of the 1066 conquest of England by the Duke of Normandy. It has miraculously survived the ages and is currently preserved and displayed under dim lights in its own museum, the Bayeux Tapestry Museum in Bayeux, France.

While the Bayeux Tapestry focused on a single military event – the Battle of Hastings – the Black Gold Tapestry takes us on a magic carpet ride across the millennia. Each of the tapestry’s eight panels (averaging 9 to 9.5 meters in length) tells a part of the story of our complicated relationship to oil, gas, and coal. The stories that Sawatzky selected to include in her tapestry, based upon more than a year of meticulous research, range from the well-known to the obscure. Among the well-known, we witness the sudden disappearance of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago and relive the more recent catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Among the obscure stories, Sawatzky included the mysterious death of Rudolph Diesel and the bamboo pipelines built in the second century by Chinese salt merchants to transport gas to cooking stoves for evaporating brine.

Photo by Don Lee at the Banff Centre for the Arts.

It’s these unexpected colorful anecdotes that are so captivating. They broaden our understanding of humanity’s 5,000-year relationship with fossil fuels, shifting the focal point away from the polarizing debates so common (and unproductive) today.

Completed in 2017 for the 150th anniversary of Canada's confederation, the Black Gold Tapestry was honoured with a prestigious nearly eight-month inaugural exhibition at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta. In October 2018, one of the tapestry's eight panels traveled to Europe for a reception at the Canadian High Commission in London. Starting March 22, The Black Gold Tapestry will be on exhibit at the Esplanade Arts and Heritage Centre in Medicine Hat, Alberta, through September 11, 2021 (COVID permitting). Future exhibitions are currently being planned, including two in 2023: one in Saudi Arabia and the other in Sawatzky’s home province of Saskatchewan.

Sawatzky credits her background as a writer, producer, and director in film and television—e.g., writing scripts, designing costumes, choreographing movement—for her seamless transition to imagining, designing, and creating a 220-foot "film on cloth". For example, the tapestry's original pen-and-ink drawings (aka "master cartoons")—sketched onto eight 30-foot rolls of cartridge paper—resemble storyboards from her filmmaking days. And, in true filmmaker mode, Sawatzky stitched out of sequence, beginning with the third panel instead of the first.

Photo by Don Lee at the Banff Centre for the Arts.

Speaking by phone from Calgary and via a series of follow-up email conversations, Sawatzky described the joys and challenges of committing one-sixth of her life (17,000 hours!) to the herculean task of all that went into hand-embroidering the social history of oil, using the same stitches as the Bayeux Tapestry. Over the nine-year project, Sawatzky estimates that she spent approximately four years on the research and drawings, and approximately five years on the embroidery. But once the project progressed to the embroidery stage in 2012, she often had to revisit her research in order to either confirm or modify some of her original drawings before continuing with the embroidery. The last three years of stitching were the most challenging, requiring a grueling schedule of 80-95 hours per week to complete all eight panels in time for Canada’s sesquicentennial in 2017. To get there, she allowed herself only one “off” evening per week: Friday evenings.

For a better understanding of how Sawatzky managed her time during the final push to finish the Black Gold Tapestry, see her blog post here. She adopted a similar routine for her second embroidery project (nearing completion), The Age of Uncertainty, which takes up where the Black Gold Tapestry left off.

Photo by Don Lee at the Banff Centre for the Arts.

Sawatzky says that The Age of Uncertainty adopts a more satirical tone than The Black Gold Tapestry. It looks more broadly at “the repercussions of global economies, fossil fuels, and capitalism when mixed with human nature’s proclivity toward the seven deadly sins buffeted by the eight karmic winds.” The Age of Uncertainty is currently scheduled to be unveiled at the University of Calgary’s Nickle Galleries in the fall of 2021, COVID permitting.

One final anecdote about the Black Gold Tapestry: the four wind turbines in the last panel were added in the last year of the project, 2017. Seven years earlier, in 2010, Sawatzky had completed the original drawings for the eight panels as the environmentally disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill was unfolding. It goes without saying that the story of the largest oil spill in history—which killed 11 oil workers and countless millions of birds, fish, sea turtles, cetaceans, crustaceans and invertebrates—found its way into Sawatzky's original 2010 drawings for the final panel of the Black Gold Tapestry. But seven years later, in the afterglow of the Paris Climate agreement and with increasing global commitment to a renewable energy transition, Sawatzky revisited her original drawings and found enough space to squeeze in four wind turbines. With these final modifications to the eighth panel, the Black Gold Tapestry ends on a more hopeful note. But the big question remains: what lies ahead in the next chapter of this epic story about humanity's long and ambivalent relationship to oil?

Photo by Don Lee at the Banff Centre for the Arts.

Sandra Sawatzky is a visual artist traversing life one marathon project at a time. Check out the Black Gold Tapestry website for more information.

Joan Sullivan is a Québec-based Canadian photographer and writer focused on the energy transition. She is currently working on a long-term photo project about the men and women who are building Canada's clean energy infrastructure.

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