Posted by: bluelanternstudio | June 2, 2011

The Alberta tar sands: a fairytale

In my experience, fairytales are dark. Scary, witchy things happen, usually in strange, dark forests. Children go off on their own and often save their parents by breaking evil spells.

It was with all this in mind that I decided to write and illustrate a fairytale about the darkest foresty thing that I could think of: the Alberta tar sands. Not only do the tar sands cover an area larger than all of England, they require the boreal forest (home to an amazing array of animals) to be vaporised.  Who could allow this to happen?! Why only a king who had been put under an evil spell…

My fairytale begins with a little boy, Leo, whose mother is painfully ill with a disease the doctors have no name for.  As she becomes sicker and sicker, Leo starts having dreams. In his dreams, the forest animals tell him about the evil spell the King has been put under and how he is cutting down all the forest to dig up the tar sands. If Leo can make the journey into the remaining forest, the animals will give him an elixir that will wake up the king and make him see the errors of his ways. Leo is their only hope.

Leo's dream (Robi Smith, Acrylic on canvas, 20" x 16")

After many nights of the same dream, Leo gathers his wits and some supplies in his favorite backpack, and sets out on his journey to the forest. Over days, Leo crosses the tar sands, avoiding the tailing ponds and trying not to get stuck in the muck or be seen by the workers in their enormous trucks.

Eventually, Leo meets a beautiful white owl who shows him the rest of the way into the forest. The owl brings him to a clearing where Leo meets the other animals: a black bear, a deer, a family of snowshoe rabbits, a woodchuck, a gray wolf. They bring him the ingredients to make a magic elixir, which he carries in a bottle placed carefully in his backpack.

Entering the forest (Robi Smith, Acrylic on canvas, 20" x 16")

Leo travels back out into the tar sands and across days of bleak landscape before he finally arrives at the king’s castle. The castle is surrounded by a moat which Leo has no way of crossing. As instructed by the animals, Leo empties the elixir into the moat. The elixir transforms the toxic sludge into crystal clear water. The clear water surprises the guards so much that they bring  a sample to the king. When he places his hands in the water, he is overcome by memories of what the world was like when he was a boy and the land was covered  by forests and the people were happy and healthy. He immediately sees the errors of his ways and decrees that the natural order be restored.

Of course, Leo’s mother gets better and everyone lives happily ever after. It wouldn’t be a fairytale otherwise!

My fairytale about Leo and the tar sands is part of an exhibition of fairytales remixed at the Seymour Art Gallery. Details here!



  1. Thanks Robi,
    Knew I’d love and of course it is crystal clear that things need to be restored to their natural order.
    Love your artwork very much

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