Sunday, 2 December 2018

More Than The Sum...

“Wholeness is the goal, but wholeness does not mean perfection.
It means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.”
- Parker Palmer, Quaker Philosopher and Teacher

Now that “Heart & Soul: Two Men Tell Their Stories” has closed, it’s time to reflect on the exhibit and the impact it has had on my photography. Sharing this exhibit with my husband’s quilts was a peak experience – how gratifying it was to observe the show’s impact on dear friends and new acquaintances alike. It was not unusual to see people in tears, especially as they were contemplating Bill’s quilts.

Susan Holland, the gifted curator of the John M. Parrott Art Gallery, did a superb job of hanging the show. Her sense of colour, flow, and theme never ceases to impress me. She made the collection of Bill’s quilts and my photos look both simultaneously convergent and divergent.

Not too shabby at all.

The photo above, “More Than The Sum...”, garnered attention from adults and students alike. The image haunts me and compels me.

Here is the story behind the photo:

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fascination with mannequins. My collection of mannequin photos continues to grow.

Which brings me to Labour Day Sunday of this year. Bill and I were driving in Prince Edward County and were just leaving Consecon. Suddenly, Bill stopped and turned the car around. “Just saw something you’ll want to check out.”

And indeed I was a yard filled with female mannequin parts, all spread out randomly. A woman was sitting in the middle of the mannequins, washing them.

The impact of seeing these mannequins was a gut punch. I teared up immediately – they reminded me of the haunting photos from Nazi concentration camps – grotesquely dismembered bodies, obscenely angled limbs, blankly vacant faces. I could barely speak.

Bill, thank goodness, had the presence of mind to start talking to the woman who was washing the mannequins. It turns out she is Janet Battaglio, a talented Consecon artist who had bought the mannequins with an eye to using them in her art. She is also a fabric dyer, so she and Bill adjourned to her studio while I photographed the mannequins, with Janet’s permission.

My tears continued, as did the eerie silence that had fallen over the yard. I don’t know how long I spent photographing that afternoon, but the experience felt sacred – as if by recording these images, I had been given the responsibility of witnessing. Because for me, these mannequins were symbolic of women’s suffering in our culture: the hateful violence; the literal and figurative dismemberment; the profound anguish.

I dedicated 24 years of my teaching career to the education of young women, during which time my awareness of the brutalization of women in our culture became embedded in my soul. Photographing these mannequins became an act of testimony for me – my way of saying, “Look at this! It must stop!”

And then I saw her – the mannequin pictured above. One of the few that was actually sitting up. The look on her face told me she would prevail. Yes, she was wounded. Yes – unlike so many others – she had survived. And, yes, she would never let what had happened be forgotten.

This photograph takes my breath away. I am gratified it has found a home in Toronto, where its impact will continue.

Below, I’ve included more photos from that September day. They are troubling images, but they need to be seen. The camera as witness is a powerful tool for social change.

Many thanks to Janet Battaglio for allowing me to photograph her very special collection of mannequins.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Turn, Turn, Turn...

 “To everything – turn, turn, turn.
There is a season – turn, turn, turn.
A time to every purpose under heaven.”
 - Music and Lyrics by Pete Seeger

“To everything there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under heaven...
A time to get and a time to lose,
a time to keep and a time to cast away.”
- Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3, Verses 1-8

“We are doing all we can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.”
- Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister

“My sins...I do not deny, but I trust that it may be said of me in the ultimate issue, ‘Much is forgiven because he loved much.’ For I have loved my country with a passionate love.”
- Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister

I have been an amateur historian all my life: reading history; studying history; teaching history; reconsidering history. One of the things that has always fascinated me about history is the way it morphs and transforms over the years, depending on one’s point of view, moment in history, and political agenda. “Winners” and “Losers” tell very different stories. To insist that there is only one way to interpret history is dangerously naïve.

Which brings me to the current debate about Sir John A. Macdonald’s place in Canada’s history. For decades, there has been pretty much one version of Sir John A.’s contribution to our history: respected Father of Confederation; skillful first Prime Minister; builder of our country. Yes, he drank too much, and there was that nasty Pacific Scandal, but he was an immensely powerful and enlightened force for good in our country.

Except....not everyone is buying that narrative any more. Many voices, especially those from Canada’s Indigenous communities, are now saying, ‘Hold on...this is the man who was responsible for passing the infamous Indian Act of 1876 that institutionalized racism in our country and paved the way for forced assimilation, residential schools, broken treaties, and unfathomable suffering.’  They say that the traditional version of Sir John A. reflects a white/colonial/settler bias that is fatally flawed.

Personally, I am pleased by the emergence of alternate narratives. They turn history into a living, breathing presence in our lives, rather than a musty museum piece. Bring on the controversy, say I, especially in the name of justice and reconciliation.

Which brings me, circuitously, to the Prince Edward County Photography Club, the Book of Ecclesiastes, and Pete Seeger.

Let me explain: the County Photography Club issues a monthly theme challenge to its members. One of the highlights of each meeting is seeing the imaginative and skillful ways that club members interpret these themes. Certainly they have sharpened my photography skills over the last three years.

The theme for the November meeting was “Turn, Turn, Turn”, a seasonal riff on autumn’s wondrous colours. However, I decided to take the theme in a very different direction. I looked up the Pete Seeger song of the same name, and then went back into the King James Bible to read Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season...”, the Biblical inspiration of Pete Seeger’s famous folksong.

And a light went on – surely these words describe what’s happening with the debate about Sir John A. Macdonald’s place in Canadian history.

“A time to keep and a time to cast away,” indeed.

With that inspiration in mind, I spent an October day in Kingston and Prince Edward County photographing evidence of Sir John A’s considerable presence in our area: signs, statues, museums, locomotives, etc. What great fun! I then sat down with my trusty Photoshop software to create various collages and ‘reinterpretations’ of the photos. The five images below grew from that process.

Upon seeing these images, a friend said to me, “Aren’t you afraid you’ll offend someone?” My response: “Well, I certainly hope so. Otherwise, I won’t have done my job!” After all, when people get outraged and offended, they reveal what they truly care about. With passion and good will on all sides, a productive – albeit lively – conversation can begin. And that, my friends, is how society evolves. Much better than a collective shrug of resignation.

Thank you for reading my rant. I hope you appreciate my images, even if you don’t like them.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Le Salon des Refusés

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are.”
- Dumbledore, Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets

The concept of the ‘Salon des Refusés’ has been a long-standing artistic tradition since the mid-1800s. The story goes that it started in Paris (but, of course...) when the Académie des Beaux Arts made its annual choices of which artists would be exhibited in the ‘official’ Paris Salon – and which would be rejected. Being chosen for the exhibit meant an artist had ‘arrived’, resulting in sales, commissions, and adulation. Being rejected meant, well, being rejected. Cue La Vie Bohème.

As an act of defiance, many of the rejected artists would hold their own alternative exhibit – Le Salon des Refusés – a lovely flip of the finger to the art establishment.

I can’t make any such boldly principled claims about the photos that didn’t make their way into HEART & SOUL – the exhibit that Bill and I have jointly mounted at the John M. Parrott Art Gallery here in Belleville. However, I did enjoy trolling through my reject files and choosing a few to include in this blog post. I hope you enjoy them too!

Seating, 1976 Olympic Pool, Montréal

Empties, Bay of Quinte Golf Club, Belleville

Sun Rise, VIA Station, Belleville

Abandoned Chair, Memory Junction, Brighton

Bank of Montreal, Toronto

Boaters, Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra, Australia

St. James Park, Toronto

Construction Signs, Montréal

Yonge and Dundas, Toronto

Royal Bank of Canada Headquarters, Toronto

If you’re in Belleville, please visit our exhibit – Bill’s quilts; my photographs. The exhibit runs until November 29. The gallery is closed Sundays.

There are two more artists’ talks scheduled:

Thursday, November 22, 6:30 pm-7:30 pm – I discuss my photographs
Thursday, November 29, 6:30 pm-7:30 pm – on the last night of the exhibit, Bill and I plan to discuss our joint and separate journeys.