Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Forget Me Not

Thanks are due to my co-curator on this show the resourceful Sharon LeRiche.

This is not a typical show about war.  Its perspective favours the personal above the political, the feminine over the masculine, and the sensual over the sentimental.  It is about memory and loss and what that can teach us.  It is a group show of 14 women artists and one male artist who responded to the theme of Forget Me Not.  Some of the artists have a deep family connection with WW1 and others do not.

Susan Furneaux did not have a direct connection but turned to the Rooms Provincial Archive for inspiration.  As a parent she empathized with the mothers earnestly seeking information about their sons and one handwritten letter hit her especially hard.  You will see it echoed in the background of Furneaux's embroidered and beaded piece.  Most eye-catching in the embellishment is a heart with a blank white sash that suggests the heartbreak and silence of a missing son.

For her subject matter, Frances Ennis chose the unknown soldiers who lost their lives on July 1, 1916, including two great uncles of her husband, whose bodies were never found and buried.  She created 3-dimensional hooked figures of young soldiers; tellingly they are faceless.  This is a story of profound loss of identity and a lack of closure.  When Ennis writes about them she resorts to poetry rather than stark facts.

Janet Davis based her textile art on a treasure trove of mail from the Great War period that she discovered in a cardboard box in 1996.  Davis mined these personal mementos of the Kean family– previous owners of the shop that became her studio. Davis has embellished her version of the wartime cards with details almost as an act of healing.  Like a bandage wound over and over or a multiplicity of stitches, Davis uses repetition in her art.

Now, think about the contrast of The Caribou, those proud bronze sculptures that celebrate the bravery of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and the little delicate flower that with surprising resiliency just keeps coming back.  Donna Clouston in her watercolour painting integrates the two symbols but the flower is the dominant.  If you look very carefully you will notice at the heart of one of the blossoms is a tiny caribou head and the word Newfoundland as it appeared on the Regiment's brass pins. Alexe Hanlon also integrates both caribou and forget me not flowers but her chosen sculptural medium of soft felt is a far cry from hard bronze.  It is an inversion.

Donna Cluston's watercolour.  Zoom in to find the brass pin.

It is difficult to make good art that is based on an experience of war.  Perhaps that is because war can be so painful and we wish to protect those we love from pain.  Many soldiers who returned to Newfoundland never spoke of their horrific experience overseas.  Silence was one way they had of coping.  Kevin Coates' wood carving depicts the lone widow at a gravesite and is titled Forget You Not.  Coates never heard of his grandfather's experience in the war.

It requires a rare balance of skill and insight to avoid clichés in discussing war. Without literalism, Lisa Downey uses her skills as a pattern maker to evoke the presence of nurses during the war, while Katelyn Dobbin used recycled military sheeting for her deceptively simple dress embroidered with forget me nots.  Celeste Colbourne used the palette suggested by the flower for her painstakingly woven shawls.  There is a recurring theme in these works, the gesture of giving comfort.  But not all of women's roles around the war were so benign. 

Although it was not a common practice in Newfoundland, ceramic artist Wendy Shirran introduces us to "white feathering", which was encouraged by the British military.  Her art alludes to the custom of a woman giving a man a feather as a form of public shaming for his lack of active, military service and apparent cowardice. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Mitzi Pappas Smyth chose to tell her grandfather's story.  He was turned down for active military service overseas due to the fact that he was deaf.  Undaunted by the rejection to fight at the front he was accepted into the Newfoundland Forestry Corps which served their time during the war cutting down trees in Scotland to support the men at war in the trenches.  Notice the trees that represent him among the blue flowers in her work.

Family is a recurring feature in this exhibit.  Margaret Walsh Best memorializes her grandmother who was originally a lace maker and came to Newfoundland as a war bride.  She suggests her grandmother's importance by the roots of a flower and the impression of lace.  Best has fond memories of sharing time and knowledge in the garden with her grandmother and it is not by accident that Best would grow up to become a painter of flowers.

Families challenged by the divide of space and time is another connecting thread.  Miro Davis carved a piece of rock native to the Eastern shoreline.  It has a natural cleft down its centre or "symbolic scar" as she puts it.  Davis invites us to imagine a community divided between home and battleground. The rock is solid although it looks like it might split in half.  She was inspired to carve one side with puffins, those sea birds noted for their rookeries along cliffs.  The other side is carved with a likeness of the forget me not flower.

Margaret Angel lost family members from both her maternal and paternal sides.  She also had a nurse in the family, and five others, who served overseas and returned.  Moved by letters she tracked down in The Rooms, Provincial Archives, Angel represents those she lost with two pockets. Inside them she has tucked hooked artifacts that might have been personal effects–a watch, a photo or pay book; she observes that these might have been the last tangible connections between a parent and lost son.

Janet Peter takes the most abstract approach in this show.  Her work in paper maché is loose, highly textured and interpretative.  It combines references to both the forget me not flower and barbed wire fencing.  At its top section is a sky the colour of fresh blood, lit up by a setting sun or perhaps bombs.  It is both ambiguous and haunting like the perennial threat of war.

The work in this exhibit taps a visceral and emotional response to war–just as textiles, be they clothing, a bandage or a comfort blanket– are often described as our second skin.  Narration in fine craft and art can take many forms.  A significant portion of the work in Forget Me Not is textile based but all of the works be it stone, wood or paper maché tells a story.

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