|These two shows are up at the Craft Council Gallery until Nov. 10th|
The Craft Council Gallery in St. John's presents two women's stories in textile art and metal art. Working independently, textile artist Rachel Ryan and metal artist Michelle Chaulk each draw from their life experiences as contemporary women as the basis for their art. The stories they tell are their own but they have a resonance across generations and social strata. Together they intertwine to form something of a feminist cautionary tale.
Michelle Chaulk explains, "Over the last few years, most of my work has centered around humanitarian and social issues. I've recently been inspired by a revitalization in the women's movement specifically in the area of equal work for equal pay. I spent several years after graduating from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in the jewelry industry." Her day-to-day experience was hardly one of wage equity. She describes the frustration of asking for the same wages as her male colleagues at the jewelry bench. "I would be laughed at for asking for the same starting salary as the men…and they had less experience than I did. So, I would go home broke as usual."
Chaulk has dubbed this wage inequity and the body of work it has inspired as "The Game". The word game is ripe with irony. Understood as a noun it refers to an activity governed by rules that judge skill, strength and perhaps luck. Being "game for anything", the adjective describes a bold individual ready for a challenge. However, taken as a verb, game can have more sinister connotations. Instead of something that can be played fairly, game suggests manipulation and the unscrupulous, as in "it is easy for big companies to game the system." All three uses of the word game have a consistent feature: games are artificial but have a quantifiable outcome–like a score or money.
|Left to right: Michelle Chaulk, Rachel Ryan and myself.|
Money is inevitable in a discussion of wage equity. But in the art of Michelle Chaulk it takes on multiple functions. She uses currency in the creation of her wearable art. Look carefully at the card-shaped pendants and you will notice that the coins with the male heads always have a higher value or denomination. Female-headed coins fulfill the same aesthetic function, as would a gem or precious item, but always with a lower value. These are three-dimensional and double-sided. They are displayed on armatures also crafted by Chaulk, which are in effect, miniature ladders. You can decide who is winning the game of "getting ahead" as your eyes climb the ladder.
Rachel Ryan's body of work is titled "Holding Patterns" and it echoes another dilemma familiar to women, that of putting your life "on hold" while meeting the needs of a family. Ryan is a daughter who has mourned the loss of her mother, became an ex-military wife, and is a mother to a young son, with whom she lives on an airbase in Annapolis Valley. The wall-mounted, autobiographical textile art on display is drawn from over eight tumultuous years of change. She states," I am keenly aware of the sensation of living in a “holding pattern”. I balance the desire for escape and excitement with the awareness of the need to stay grounded and stable."
Ryan's mini-retrospective blurs the boundaries between quilting and textile art. It progresses from disparate pieces and tangled threads to a composed, lyrical world that is nearly ephemeral. It reflects not only her experiences and emotions but also her conceptual growth. Ryan concludes, "In the past I have been thrown off kilter by the swiftly changing tides; I have now learned how to flow with those changes rather than fight them. I have also learned to stop asking for permission to land; I have landed."
The domestic act of waiting has special significance for military families as well as those associated with the fishery. For centuries, it was the woman's role to not only work alongside the men but to keep the home fires burning and constant while the men were away at war or up the coast, or in the woods, or on ice. Ryan says that she considers "these feelings and ideas in my work, and think about how it links me to other women present and past." Then as now, these women occupied themselves with stitching as they waited–cutting apart, sewing together and making something that would last another day. Holding home and family together with the quiet act of repair.