‘Petrolia’ explores Central Lambton’s industrial heritage


Andreas Rutkauskas loves looking at ruins.

So the Montreal artist spent two years discovering the “industrial ruins” of the oil industry in Sarnia-Lambton and Pennsylvania to create his exhibit “Petrolia” which is now on display at the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery in Sarnia.

In 2011, Rutkauskas asked residents of Lambton to go for walks and take pictures of areas which interested them. Then he set out to see what the people found.

What he discovered was the history of the oil industry in Oil Springs, Petrolia and Sarnia as it grew and changed and then, in some cases, declined. That history also took him to Titusville, Pennsylvania, where the US oil industry developed. There he found a similar pattern and noticed the landscapes at the historic fields in the US were very similar to Oil Springs’ traditional fields. In fact, in the exhibit Rutkauskas says many people mistake the two places for each other.

“It is fascinating to me how it has been regenerating” (of the Pennsylvania fields),” he says. “It happened here and happened there.”

That return of industrial land to the original landscape can also be seen in Sarnia he says. A photograph of the Dow wetlands is proof of that. “It started a little bit because of the Dow project…you see the vegetation starting to reclaim the property around Dow. Hopefully the viewers can make the connection with what is beginning to happen there and what has happened in Oil Springs and Petrolia how the landscape has changed and is regenerating,” he says.

Rutkauskas doesn’t see deindustrialization as a negative thing but as part of the cycle of life. His exhibit portrays that continuity with a three-screen display of a traditional US oil well in action.

The artist hopes others will see his exhibit in the light of history instead of as a story of decay. “Sometimes it takes the perspective of an outsider to know what the insiders don’t,” he says. “I hope this opens the eyes of the community as well.

“How can you maintain a tie and acknowledge your history but at the same time maintain this kind of authenticity but go on with life and be a productive center.”

The JNAAG is hosting a double feature exhibition tour of Petrolia, and bus trip to the Oil Museum of Canada on September 29. Learn more about the cultural landscape that inspired Rutkauskas, the excellent display at the Oil Museum of Canada, and explore the historic oil fields that have operated in our area for generations. The cost for the bus trip is $30.00 per person for non-members, $25.00 for members (including tax). Visit www.JNAAG.ca for more information or to register your seat.

Petrolia runs at JNAAG until Oct. 13.