Sm{art}: Vanessa Renwick

print of a woman driving a car. text reads Oregon Department of Kick Ass

Founder and janitor of the Oregon Department of Kick Ass, Portland-based artist Vanessa Renwick has made over 40 films and installations.  Her work ranges from towering gold-leaf BMX bike sculptures in front of Powell’s Books to super 8 shorts of her hitchhike sojourn to the Native American reserves in South Dakota during a two and a half year period spent barefoot, her wolf dog by her side, a pair of tweezers to pick glass out of her feet in her pocket. In an interview with the artist, Renwick talks about her affinity for nature and repair stores, her inner voice that says: “stop walking on concrete,” local history, getting shit done, and the great grey wolf.   


The first time I saw Renwick’s work was at Signal+Noise 2009 in Vancouver, BC.  Hope and Prey is a collaborative installation between composer Daniel Menche and Renwick.  Inside, the gallery rushes with sounds, patrons pinned to the walls or packed in chairs as three projected images literally race, roar and fluctate between sky and ground in a chase-off between deer and wolf, eagle and raven—the hunter and the hunted.  Ear-damagingly loud galloping hoofs and wind rushing through feathers are supplies via live sound composition by Menche, a wild animal snuff score. The deadpan Menche says in the Q&A afterwards, “People chase each other around in films all the time,” so it only seems reasonable within his framing to watch animals do the same. The serene Renwick has studied and filmed wolves since the late 1990s in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and parts of Canada.  When asked about her work she recalls a life-directional breaking point when she decided: “I’m not going to school, I’m going to make films and hang out with wolf biologists.” An turning point in her passionate interest in wolves that began with dogs at a young age.


“The land piranha” is what Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition president Ron Gillette calls the North American grey wolf. Vanessa appropriated the phrase as the title for her 16mm musical documentary feature exploring the 1998 reintroduction of the grey wolf into the modern West—she calls the film New Western. Back in mid-70s Chicago during high school, sitting in front of the barbed wire fence surrounding the cement wolf enclosure at Lincoln Park Zoo, Vanessa got stoned and decided whether or not to go to school, often staying to watch the “horrible tiny cement box cage with seven wolves in it” and write poems in her journal.  


With the return of the Northern Rocky Mountain grey wolf to protection under the federal Endangered Species Act in August 2010, followed by a puzzling legislative push to remove wolves from the endangered species list entirely, experimental video artist Renwick’s homage to the Canis lupus is enough to make conservationist and author Farley Mowat proud.

by Mel Mundell
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