Black Gold Tapestry

By Jess Sinclair

Imagine completing a project that absorbed nine or more hours of your day, every day, over a three-year period and required a further six years to conceive. Imagine trying to tie together palaeontological, dynastic, and industrial history using only the visual. Imagine trying to tell a story that spans nearly 146 million odd years, from the Cretaceous period right up to our present day.

This is the challenge that Calgary-based artists Sandra Sawatzky took on when she decided to tell the story of oil through the monumental Black Gold Tapestry, currently on display at the Glenbow Museum. The piece, modelled after the epic eleventh century Bayeux Tapestry, is truly a juggernaut. Like its forbearer, it is a full 230 feet long and tells the monumental tale of an event that shaped modern society. In the case of the Bayeux piece, thought to be commissioned by English Bishop Odo, the creators documented the events that led up to the Norman invasion of the British Isles, culminating with the Battle of Hastings in 1066. This story essentially represents the cornerstone of the foundation of modern Britain. William the Conqueror and his heirs radically altered the area’s political landscape, and the conquest set the stage for the foundations of the English Parliament and subsequent creation of the Magna Carta Liberatum, the legal consequences of which resonate to this day.

One of the most historically significant and hotly-debated pieces of art still in existence, the Bayeux tapestry is tough to top in terms of scope and sheer size. Sawatzky’s Black Gold Tapestry tells the different, but no less compelling tale of the profound impact of oil and gas resources upon 5000 odd years of human history.

“The story of oil touches on everything,” Sawatzky says. “Often when something [in this case petroleum] becomes ubiquitous in our daily lives, we tend to think about it less. But, especially living in Calgary, one only has to look outside to appreciate the effects of oil and gas on the landscape, on architecture and on technology.”

Sawatzky previously worked in film and television, and she has produced training videos for drilling and pipeline companies, so she had some sense of the contemporary story of oil and gas. However, she wanted to tell a more fulsome story, one that would connect a modern audience to the more primordial origins of much of the technology we take for granted today.

“The earth sciences grew up with the Industrial Revolution [and our increased need for energy products],” she says. “Much of what we know about the universe in a modern context evolved from what we discovered about things that happened long ago.”

Things like the study of the earth’s fossil records and the concurrent exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels—see From Paeleo to Petroleum on page 22.

Some of the popularity of Sawatzky’s piece among children—the initial viewing party for the piece at the Glenbow included people of all ages—can be attributed to the inclusion of brightly-coloured dinosaurs throughout the piece. The 4343 dinosaurs stitched into the Black Gold Tapestry serve as mascots of sorts for the piece. They add levity, colour, and a sense of play to the more somber scenes depicted within the tapestry. The creatures also provide a visual reminder of the notion that the only constant in much of natural and human history has been change.

Sawatzky notes that “from the industrial revolution onward, coal and oil and gas have been [the dominant forms of energy around the globe]. They’ve been kingmakers and drivers of so much innovation and human potential. We are potentially entering a period of transition, but that transition will be long. [Many] of the products in our homes that are made from oil cannot presently be effectively replaced by others.” She cites cellulose, a plant-based plastic, as a prime example of a product that has been markedly improved upon. Oil-based plastics are more durable, hygienic and less flammable than the alternatives.

Beyond science and technology, the story of oil also serves as a reminder that our ancestors were much more like us, and like each other, than we sometimes give them credit for. “Many of the first artifacts found of early human societies across the globe involve the use of bitumen as a glue [where it was available], says Sawatzky. “It’s well-known that Indigenous Canadians used the substance to waterproof their lodgings and canoes, but Mesopotamians [in present-day Iraq] did the same, and later used bitumen as mortar for building brick houses.”

Those of us in the drilling and service rig industry should also be humbled by the fact that—top-drives, walking rigs and horizontal methods notwithstanding—drilling technology has not changed demonstrably since intrepid inventors in second century China built the first drills to access salt brine formations. This practise evolved that of exploiting methane gas for use in home heating and warfare, and the development of the world’s first energy pipelines, built by inhabitants of China’s Sichuan Province region. All of these developments are chronicled in the Black Gold Tapestry.

The sheer amount of research necessary to complete a project like the Tapestry also absorbed a significant amount of time for Sawatzky, who notes that she was consistently surprised and somewhat amused by the winding paths taken by some of history’s most prominent innovators. Vaunted industrial pioneer Rudolph Diesel was concerned that the world would run out of oil and gas, which motivated him to present an engine that ran on peanut oil at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. “Diesel could not have known about the abundant reserves of oil and gas that would be discovered in the next century and beyond,” says Sawatzky. “He was preoccupied with the idea of finite resources, something we are still concerned with today.”

Other trailblazers of industry had different preoccupations that nearly kept them from achieving greatness. Engine designer and automobile engineer Karl Benz, the first to patent a motorcar, was loath to let his initial design out of his sight. Benz was a notorious perfectionist who wanted his internal combustion engine to be flawless prior to being seen by the public. Sawatzky notes that Benz’s wife, Bertha, had to abscond with his vehicle—driving it to her mother’s house in August 1888—in order to expose its brilliance to the public. “Bertha was a resourceful and outgoing woman who proved to be the equivalent of [Apple Computers’] Steve Jobs to her husband’s Steve Wozniak. She managed to use items she had on hand, her garter and hairpins, to fix minor issues with the automobile, and thus the Patent Motorwagen managed a 60 mile trip, the first of its kind.” In essence, the trip represented the first beta test for a vehicle, and Bertha’s suggested improvements launched a company that would change life for ordinary people the world over.

Naturally, the tapestry dedicates space to both Diesel and Benz.

Along with the innovators and entrepreneurs who make up so much of the history of oil and gas around the globe, Black Gold tells the story of some of the more troubling chapters in terms of the commodities’ rise to prominence. Air pollution created by early diesel engines is depicted, as well as the tragic Deepwater Horizon incident that killed 11 off the coast of Louisiana in 2010.

Sawatzky takes a nuanced perspective when it comes to the place of oil and gas in the contemporary word. She acknowledges that we are collectively experiencing a transition from the nearly exclusive use of fossil fuels to a broader energy mix, “but the transition will be a long one.”

“Ultimately, as human beings, we are all trying to sort through all of the information in front of us and to figure out what to make of it,” she says. “Art helps with that process.”

The Black Gold Tapestry is on display at the

Glenbow Museum until May 21, 2018.