PODCAST: The art of reclaimed wilds in Canada’s oil sands

Is the oil sands destroying Alberta’s northern forests? Artist Shannon Carla King points out no, using landscape paintings of the wild beauty developing at former oil sands sites.

Oil sands producers have faced concerns they are devastating the boreal forests of northern Alberta through development. The truth is that the amount of lands disturbed are small relative to the landscape, and all lands disturbed by oil sands development are or will be reclaimed back to a natural habitat. As a professional who’s worked in oil and gas, Shannon Carla King has seen this key environmental work with her own eyes. As an artist, she’s decided to correct misinformation about what’s happening in an unusual way: she paints landscapes of the Canadian outdoors with a focus on the wild beauty of reclaimed lands developing at completed oil sands projects.

suncor wapisiw lookout 2 alberta courtesy suncor energy inc.
Photo of Wapisiw Lookout. Photo courtesy Suncor.
initial exhibit from shannon carla king wapisiw lookout courtesy shannon carla king
Shannon Carla King painting of Wapisiw Lookout, a reclaimed oil sands site. Courtesy Shannon Carla King.

In this video podcast, Shannon discusses with Energy Examined host Tracy Larsson why she’s taken this on, how she hopes to change perceptions about oil sands sustainability, and the kind of response her work’s received to date.


Tracy Larsson: Hello and welcome to the podcast, I’m Tracy Larsson and this is Energy Examined. For today’s podcast, you also have the option to watch. We wanted to give you that video option because we are talking with an Alberta artist today, Shannon Carla King, and we want you to have the chance to check out some of her amazing artwork. Shannon, welcome to the podcast.

Shannon Carla King: Thank you for having me, Tracy.

Tracy Larsson: Do you want to start by telling us a bit about the connection between your art and your professional work, which has been in the natural gas and oil industry?

Shannon Carla King: Great question. Art has always been a way to address spicy issues, movements and sometimes even revolutions. Cesar Cruz said once that art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. And I think North America right now is getting too comfortable with the negative narrative on the energy industry. The idea to connect landscape paintings to the oil and gas industry has an appeal that can engage people in new conversations. And so my wish is to connect a general audience to the facts about oil and gas reclamation.

Tracy Larsson: OK, so you are a professional artist, obviously, and you have that experience in the industry. What have you been working on in the industry specifically?

Shannon Carla King: In the industry, from an art perspective, has been a series of paintings called the Green Series, and I started that in 2020 lockdown, helped me reflect and focus on having a greater purpose for my art. I had to ask myself, what do I have to offer that no one else can offer? And with 30 years in the industry, I needed to act on the lack of information on reclamation, on reclaimed lands. Oil and gas companies have a habit and I guess by design, to kind of communicate in a format that’s suited for shareholders and investors.

But I see a shift happening now with the ESG, the environment, social and governance initiatives, and the accountabilities that come with them. And that will mean that the oil and gas industry will need to find new ways to communicate, to communicate successes on reclamation to all members of society, not just the shareholders. Members who might not enjoy reading a sustainability report. By connecting people to information in a more traditional way and by using more advanced technology, we can look at better ways to inform the general public.

So I guess it would have been an exhibit in 2020 that triggered the first of the Green series. I’m seeing more activity around this type of approach. There’s actually an article by JWN Energy published just recently on April 5th that it supports this idea by stating that our industry has never been terribly proficient at communicating in a way that constructively changes people’s minds. The article also reinforces the need to communicate complex ideas in social spaces, and this includes an art exhibit. My first show with the series was in Vancouver in 2020, and I’m so grateful to the jury members who chose to include my works because it was a choice. My works were included with a collection of pieces that let’s just say it focused on more of the devastating results of climate change. So 2020 was a year of finding purpose for me.

Tracy Larsson: So that was a really interesting exhibit for you to choose to kind of start this collection of paintings. I guess I’m wondering what was going through your mind in, first of all, entering your works and then when you were accepted into that exhibit, what was your ultimate goal, I guess, in approaching that particular audience?

Shannon Carla King: The motivation to enter it was knowing what was going to happen. The exhibition took place in Vancouver and I knew that there would be paintings of the Earth on fire and it was a motivation to offer the balanced conversation. I wanted to make sure that we weren’t just giving that negative narrative on what is happening to the planet. We are doing so much to innovate and to advance our industry, and that voice needed to be heard.

Tracy Larsson: Can you tell us a little bit about some of the paintings then that were in that exhibit? What were they specifically about? What were the stories behind those paintings?

Shannon Carla King: There were three paintings in the exhibit. One was “No Net Loss Lake”, the other one was “Wapisiw Lookout” both from Suncor, and the third one was “Settling Pond Two.” And it was the demonstration of what we do as a standard in industry to make sure that we’re releasing clean water to the environment and that we’re building back to a state where we see native vegetation, we see wildlife returned to the area, and it’s not something that happens overnight. It’s a very long process. So people forget that that work happens after we go into an area and we are mining the resources.

Tracy Larsson: The paintings that you did, are all landscapes right? They’re beautiful. So I’m wondering what sort of feedback you received from that initial exhibit.

Shannon Carla King: The type of feedback that I’m getting, it’s been very supportive and quite overwhelming. I posted an article that was written on that exhibit and received about ten thousand views on social media. And for me, that’s a good start. It does take time to create awareness. And it was important for me to do that. The story that I’m trying to tell is, you know, as a listener, if you’re listening to this podcast or you’re watching it right now, I just want you to close your eyes for a minute and imagine being in an art gallery. You see a beautiful landscape painting on the wall across the room. It’s full of sunlight, trees. Maybe you see water in the distance or cattails and you walk over to view it. You scan the code. There’s a little barcode beside the painting and you scan it. And all of a sudden you realize that the scene in front of you has a history. I want to show how far we’ve come, and I want to tell a story of successful innovation and evolution of the oil and gas industry.

Tracy Larsson: Why is that so important to you to tell that story?

Shannon Carla King: That’s a great question, Tracy. Putting these reclaimed sites on display for the general public is an important part of our industry’s journey because, guess what? Buffalo Hills behind me, it’s not really a vacation destination. Many of the sites are not accessible to the general public. And it’s important for people to educate themselves on the story of Canada’s responsible development policies. Why? Because we’re a world leader in innovation and caring for the environment.

Tracy Larsson: So I know you have about 30 years of experience in oil and gas. What has that experience been in the industry?

Shannon Carla King: I’ve had many different roles in oil and gas, including from my family, lived off of an income that supported the oil and gas industry, and my roles have always the roles outside of the art world have always pushed me to be authentic, to ask tough questions, sometimes making people uncomfortable and to connect people to resources, information and tools. And that kind of in a very broad perspective, describes the different roles that I’ve had. And so because of that, I am comfortable challenging the status quo and it shows in my art and what I hope to achieve in this series.

Tracy Larsson: You have expanded the series now since that exhibit. How many pieces are in your collection now?

Shannon Carla King: There are over a dozen pieces, many of them have been sold, actually, and so the idea is to keep going. There are so many sites out there that are unnoticed. The funny thing about reclamation is that when it’s done really well, nobody notices it because you have the vegetation returned to the area, you have the wildlife presence. And so it becomes invisible to the average person.

Tracy Larsson:  Would you say you’ve had more success telling this story through art than you would have had otherwise? I’m wondering what do you think is the difference? Because it is a more difficult story to tell, as you’ve been saying.

Shannon Carla King: In any one of my roles, we learn that you have to communicate seven times seven different ways, and it is now my passion to use art and my connections in the industry to gain a little bit of momentum, to try to use a method that is unconventional to us in the industry. And if we continue to write white papers and publish articles in oil and gas journals and speak at oil and gas symposiums, we’re missing the audience out there who really I think they want to learn more about the industry and about the good things that we’re doing, but we have to find a different way to do it.

Art is unsuspecting. If you go to an art exhibit, you’re expecting to hear about the artist’s emotion or the artist’s life experience. Sometimes you go there just because the pictures are beautiful. And what I’m trying to do is demonstrate that you can have both. You can have a beautiful painting and use it to send a very strong message that there is another side to the conversation that we’re not having in our regular lives, where we’re responding to a narrative that we see on the news with angry protesters. And we’re not taking the time to have the conversation about, hey, what good things are really happening out there. We’ve come a long way in the energy industry. I’m really proud of it.

Tracy Larsson: Shannon, where can people go to see more of your art and to learn more about the reclamation pieces that you’ve done?

Shannon Carla King: In a normal environment, there will be some exhibits. So stay tuned for that. In the meantime, you can go to ShannonCarlaKing.com on the Whiskey Jack Gallery tab and you can see the collection of Green paintings there. And please subscribe and I will keep you up to date on events in the future and where this might take us. I would love to be able to have pop-up exhibits to be able to get this art into shared public spaces, possibly universities and colleges across the country. People who are interested in the arts and also would like to read a little bit more about oil and gas.

Tracy Larsson: I can see it being a really good educational tool in that context, too, right? Is that something that you’ve already started working on is to get it out there more in those different environments?

Shannon Carla King: It’s trying to balance the conditions that we’re in right now, the restrictive conditions that we’re in right now, with finding something that’s appropriate. So if you’re listening and you are interested in having a reclamation exhibit in your venue, please contact me and let’s see what we can do about spreading some good news stories. The Canadian energy industry is a good news story, and it would be lovely if we had more support in different ways to get that message out.

Tracy Larsson: One thing I wanted to ask you is if you have a favorite piece from the collection.

Shannon Carla King: The pieces that were entered into the Vancouver Crisis exhibition are obviously that first step. You know, when you have that epiphany of ‘I can do this and I have unique experience to do this,’ the piece behind me and the “Faster Forests” piece are nice because there’s some pretty comprehensive video associated with them. Now, of course, the information that those QR codes are linked to, I’m not writing them. I’m not publishing them. They’re articles or videos that already exist. The “Faster Forests” painting, when you scan it, if you’ve got the VR goggles, you can look above you, below you in a 360 degree view to see how they used a certain type of mounding to grow trees faster and more successfully. And COSIA has been very supportive in providing data and information like that that I can link to. So I’m just piggybacking on other people’s published information to be able to create this immersive experience when viewing art.

Tracy Larsson: That’s excellent. Good luck with it. Shannon, is there anything you wanted to touch on that we haven’t covered already?

Shannon Carla King: I don’t think so. I think that it’s really about understanding, there are many perspectives. If you’re reading something or you’re talking to a friend or a colleague or a loved one about something that makes you upset or passionate, make sure that you take the time to look at both sides of the conversation and that you find unique ways to do it. Constantly going to the same source or the same feed on a social media site is probably not going to give you a balanced perspective. So make sure you do that work so that you have a better understanding of the topic that you’re discussing. And you might be surprised.

Tracy Larsson: Shannon, thank you so much for being on the podcast today.

Shannon Carla King: Thank you for having me, Tracy,

Tracy Larsson: And for everyone listening or watching today, thanks for tuning in. This has been Energy Examined. Again, if you’d like to see more of Shannon’s arts and learn more about the reclamation paintings in her collection, you can go to ShannonCarlaKing.com. Thanks for tuning in. Please subscribe to the podcast, share with a friend and tune in again next time.