The drive up into the hills north of Enderby is blasted with colour –– Douglas maple, Western larch, Black cottonwood dot the landscape as the road twists and turns.
For Stephan Bircher who calls this area home, it’s a perfect burial landscape for creatures large and small to find their final resting place. He has spent many hours digging through the dirt and lifting up rocks to uncover these delicate remains among other treasures that nature has left behind.
The glassy wings of butterflies, feathers, shriveled leaves, abandoned shells, even road kill, have all entered the realm of Bircher’s mind and eventually into his studio.
A sculptor, lighting designer, theatrical wunderkind, and alchemist when it comes to fusing nature with human-made objects, Bircher could be considered a kind of mad scientist or a post-modern Jim Henson.
Far from being a “Muppet” lab, his studio is a fantastical place where lit up skeletal creatures spin like whirling dervishes and play musical instruments, their intricate parts held together by magnets, springs, cogs and cranks, and run by small motors.
“I like to take the magic out of my surroundings; that’s how my sculptures develop,” said Bircher. “The bones in my work, and whatever else I find out here, come from my youth of always going out into the wilderness. When I was walking around I would always see things a little differently, of what could be made from nature.”
Growing up near Basel, Switzerland, Bircher says he was always tinkering when he wasn’t rebelling.
The son of a surgeon, he says his parents had high hopes for their son, but Bircher preferred drawing cartoons in his sketch book than attending to his academic studies.
“I had an endless struggle in my school days,” he said. “I found what I wanted by myself, sometimes it was negative. I was not always matching what was expected of me. But I was always drawn to creativity.”
On family holidays, Bircher would go to the house of his aunt in the mountains, where he would make fantasy villages out of things he would find.
“They were more abstract, while my brother made functional steamboats,” he said.
After high school, Bircher travelled to India on what was supposed to be a short holiday. He ended up staying two years.
India was everything Bircher’s upbringing wasn’t: crowded, noisy and chaotic.
“I think it’s this experience, out of my family who were open-minded but always tried to make things organized, that shaped me. I loved it.”
After returning home to Switzerland, Bircher would eventually go on to teach at a day school. His subjects were handicrafts and sports. He also helped his students with numerous extracurricular projects such as hand-building a unicycle.
His skills eventually led him to being asked to join an independent theatre company in Basel. He learned all aspects of theatre from building sets and props, as well as lighting, something that would serve him well into the future.
In Switzerland, he was also enlisted by the World Wildlife Federation in 1991 to design and construct an underwater seascape inside a bus, which served as a moving, hands-on educational experience for school children.
(Bircher continues to return to Switzerland every two years to create his masterpieces, and has so far designed and built a subterranean world, a rainforest, and even a diorama of the Swiss Alps.)
It was around the time he was asked to make a display on climate change in 2003 that his wife, Suzanne, moved to Canada after discovering the area around Enderby.
Bircher followed the year after.
“It was our luck to come to this spot and be around nature… We had the chance to get our own property and house,” he said.
It was also by chance that he stumbled upon the puppet museum in nearby Grindrod. After approaching its founder Cathy Stubington, Bircher started working with Runaway Moon Theatre, which Stubington also runs, on a shadow play that was staged at Enderby’s Starlight Drive-in.
His aptitude for lighting design caught the attention of Caravan Farm Theatre’s then artistic director Estelle Shook, and Bircher soon began working on both winter and summer shows for the outdoor theatre near Armstrong.
His first production was as the lighting assistant on Caravan’s summer production of Macbeth in 2006.
“I was so keen to work with all the trees on the property, putting lights from back and up into the trees… It was amazing to play with options out there, and an amazing challenge,” he said.
Bircher has continued to light up the forest and field for Caravan shows, and his skills have been used by other theatre companies such as the Electric Company and Leaky Heaven Circus in Vancouver, as well as Dunster’s Wishbone Theatre which has brought shows to Spallumcheen’s O’Keefe Ranch and the Enderby Drill Hall.
In one of those cosmic coincidences, it was while Bircher was working on one of Wishbone’s shows that someone presented him with a mummified mouse they had found at O’Keefe Ranch.
The mouse was in a sitting position, so Bircher built a wood table and chair for it, and made a lamp lit by an LED, then he glued the mouse to the chair reading a book.
His first “creature” was born.
“That’s when I started building from skeletal bones. I started finding more bones here and picking up road kill: cats, raccoons, coyotes. Even friends started bringing me remains,” he said, “At first, I had a sad feeling, humans running over animals, but then I would clean the animal of its flesh by putting it in the ground to decompose… that process would surprise me, on how life evolves.”
With all his findings, both natural and man-made, laid out in front of him in his studio, Bircher says he doesn’t work from any conceptual plan.
“It’s how I deal with the world around me,” he said, looking over his series of dancers, who actually spin and dance on dowels, with rare earth magnets and springs acting as joints.
“There’s quite a bit of humour in my work. It’s also an interesting experience to see how people react… Kids usually love it!”
Bircher’s creatures have been making the rounds, showing up at various galleries around the area including in Armstrong, Vernon, as well as at Headbones when it was located in Toronto.
More recently, Bircher has created a band, featuring a guitarist, keyboardist, drummer, and harpist, who actually “play” their instruments.
They were created for The Barr Brothers, a band out of Montréal, who used the sculptures in a video for their newly-released song Beggar in the Morning.
Filmmaker Sebastian Lange visited Bircher’s studio in the summer, and spent a week filming the creatures dancing, with moody lighting, thanks to Bircher’s skills. Bircher can be seen in the shadows operating his creations.
The video can currently be seen on YouTube, and Bircher has been in Montréal this past week for The Barr Brothers’ official CD release party.
Bircher was connected with The Barr Brothers through a mutual friend, and the band also has a connection to Caravan Farm Theatre as lead guitarist, Brad Barr, plays an electric tackle box guitar made by Kim White, of Hobo Nation Guitars, who lives at the farm and worked on this past summer’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
(A show by The Barr Brothers is being tentatively planned at Caravan, with details to follow.)
In the meantime, locals will be able to see Bircher’s “band” in action, along with some of his other creations, at the Sculpture and Arte Funktional exhibition, hosted by Ashpa Naira Gallery, in the Marie Fleming room at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre this week.
The exhibition features 25 Okanagan artists specializing in three-dimensional contemporary artwork such as ceramics, textile, metal, jewelry, wearable art, glass and furniture.
The show opens Thursday, noon to 5 p.m., and continues Friday, Oct. 28 to Sunday, Oct. 30 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Bircher will be in attendance Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. Visit www.ashpanairagallery.com for more information.