A set of connected exhibitions opening at the MacKenzie Art Gallery are offering a window into a “critical moment” of Saskatchewan art history in the 1950s.
Following a week-long canoe trip on Morning Lake in June 2021, where they spent time sketching and painting. La Ronge Artists Caron Dubnick and Hilary Johnstone created a show of their finished work, which opened Oct. 3 at Mistasinhk Place.
Funding for the canoe trip came from an Independent Artist grant Johnstone received from the Saskatchewan Arts Board. The two artists developed their work over the next year to create the pieces included in the joint exhibit, which is open until Oct. 30.
Dubnick welcomed people to a reception in honour of the exhibit opening on Tuesday, Oct. 4.
She spoke of her art, which is mostly watercolour. The past year she’s moved into watercolour batik.
She has a mentorship relationship with a woman in Saskatoon and experimented over the past year with many techniques with several different materials.
“I’m happy to tell you what the process is … the short version – it’s on paper but it’s very like the textile batik process where you wax where you do not want the paint or the dye,” Dubnick said. “I’ve tried to sort of combine the watercolours techniques where you have a lot of soft edges with the batik process where you have a lot of harder edges. You try to make them work together.”
The two women were able to work and “keep our art materials dry for a week” thanks to Henry Ratt, who has a trapline on Morning Lake.
While they did some canoeing, the largest part of the time on Morning Lake was spent concentrating on their art.
“We did at least three sketches every day, each of us,” Johnstone said.
The exhibit includes both the sketches and finished work.
Johnstone creates “vibrant fabric collages based on her northern experiences.” Both artists are inspired by the northern boreal forest environment where they live.
With COVID restrictions lowered, she expressed appreciation for the La Ronge Arts Council’s chance to host a variety of exhibits and meet in person once again in the gallery space at Mistasinhk.
Exhibits, three annually from Organization of Saskatchewan Arts Councils (OSAC) and the rest local artists, are hosted at the gallery most months of the year, Dubnick said.
A set of connected exhibitions opening at the MacKenzie Art Gallery are offering a window into a “critical moment” of Saskatchewan art history in the 1950s.
The two shows, titled Anthony Thorn: A Portrait, 1927–2014 and Ten Artists of Saskatchewan: 1955 Revisited, have been curated in tandem by head curator Timothy Long and open at the gallery on Thursday.
Long began conceptualizing the retrospective on Thorn first, after receiving a large number of works from the private collection of art dealer Tony Colella, including art and essays from Thorn’s later years.
“It’s one of those opportunities we have to look back and observe a lifetime of achievement, from very early days to a painting that was sitting on his easel at the time when he died,” Long said.
Thorn is a nationally renowned abstractionist whose career began in Regina, where he was born, before continuing in B.C. as he forged a path through the evolution of Canadian contemporary art.
“He was an artist who was attached to his studio, attached to representational practices, at a time when abstraction was in its ascendancy,” Long said.
“His independence of thought really went against the grain.”
Conceptualizing Thorn’s ties to his home province led Long to thinking about the show that introduced Thorn to Saskatchewan audiences as an emerging artist: an exhibition in 1955 titled Ten Artists of Saskatchewan.
The show debuted just two years after the MAG opened, as the first public art gallery in Saskatchewan, including Thorn and other artists who would go on to similar successful prominence like Dorothy Knowles and members of the Regina Five Ken Lochhead, Arthur McKay and Douglas Morton.
Long has revived this past show, re-collecting works as close to those featured in the original show as possible, to “recreate the feel of that exhibition” in Ten Artists of Saskatchewan: 1955 Revisited.
“I’m always thinking about how to tell the story of art in this province,” Long said, about the idea.
The collection partners with the exploration on Thorn’s career, tethered by a painting titled “Moses Diptych,” which was included in the original 1955 Ten Artists show.
“Moses” is from a period when Thorn worked under Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, before it became part of a travelling art show program in Regina the 1960s. Long had it restored specifically for the exhibition.
“It’s like a time capsule of art in Mexico City in 1955. The image of Moses — he looks like Che Guevara holding the Ten Commandments in one hand, but that hand is a fist that’s punching into the future. It’s an incredible painting.”
The MAG is approaching 70 years since opening doors, and Long said these shows are an “opportune time” to consider how contemporary art in Saskatchewan has evolved.
Historically, the ’50s were something of a precursor era, as many artists from this time are better known for works from the ’60s and ’70s, the later years of their careers.
It’s a decade that “hasn’t received a lot of attention, in terms of our history,” but Long feels offers insight into how these artists existed and grew together, as a group.
“Saskatchewan artists weren’t breaking new ground, at that point, but this was an important foundation for what they would explore in future years,” he said.
“Artists don’t work in isolation; they look at what each other and others are doing in their community, and so you get a sense of the shared effort to become modern, in terms of art in the province.”
In tying together the shows, the hope is audiences will get a sense of the province’s history, through the lens of Thorn, who revelled in the craft and had a penchant for retrospection.
“He really was an artist who followed his own internal vision, and spent more time looking back than forward,” Long said. “As we’re looking back at history, we’re looking at an artist who himself is always looking back, seeing what can be recovered, what can be brought forward from a very long history of art.”
The shows will be accompanied by a free talk on Thorn’s life and career with art historian and curator Ihor Holubizky on Saturday afternoon.
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When customers enter the Dawson Creek Cannabis Company store to buy marijuana, some are stopped dead in their tracks by what looks like a full-sized, glowing coffin in the middle of the store.
Illuminated from within, it looks like a stained-glass casket.
But it’s actually a work of art crafted from cow placentas, created by local rancher and artist Emilie Mattson.
“It raises eyebrows,” said Mattson in an interview with CBC News about creating art from afterbirth. “It makes a bit of a spark. Some people are totally disgusted and walk away, horrified. Some are amazed.”
Mattson said she was first inspired to use the unusual artistic medium during calving season at her ranch near Rolla, B.C., more than 20 years ago.
Helping to deliver a calf in her barn in bitterly cold weather, she slung the placenta over a light at the edge of the stall.
“We’re helping this cow because she’s having trouble, and I look over and with the light behind it, the placenta looks like stained glass,” she recalled.
At the time, Mattson was running 300 head of cattle and raising a family on the farm, but was already an artist working in paint and sculpture.
She soon began to experiment with adding preserved placenta to her repertoire. Preserved in a special brine, she says placenta dries like parchment or leather, preserving dramatic colours.
Calving season gave her a plentiful supply. While she said her neighbours in ranch country were dismissive at first, they eventually started saving the placentas of their own animals and “brought them over in buckets” to top up her supplies.
Even the local veterinarian contributed, she said.
Mattson has since used placentas in many of her multimedia pieces.
For the coffin-shaped work she calls The Treasure Box, which took her two years to make, she stretched placenta across a metal frame that’s held up by a well worn chassis.
Now it’s been given pride of place in a cannabis dispensary a 20-minute drive from her ranch.
Dawson Creek Cannabis Company owner Matthew Rivard, who promotes local artists in his store, says Mattson’s artwork is “captivating, breathtaking, and with brilliant colours.”
He says the piece is eye-opening for locals who come in to buy a pre-rolled joint or THC gummies.
“You definitely see customers come in, people that are just getting off of work. Maybe they’re working down at the tire shop and they come in and they stop and they look at the piece and say, ‘Oh my God.’ Everybody has a reaction.
“They think it’s stained glass, and then they take a closer look. They see a little fleck of straw in the placenta. Some are like, ‘Oh yeah, I can see life and death.'”
Mattson’s art, including more conventional painting, has been exhibited in juried exhibitions for years.
Her art has been reviewed in publications as wide ranging as Beef in B.C. — a B.C. Cattlemen’s Association magazine — and the culture periodical Espace Sculpture.
“These brilliantly coloured afterbirths are both a symbol and a chore,” wrote art critic Paula Gustafson in Espace Sculpture in 2001, reviewing one of Mattson’s placenta pieces at the Artropolis 2001 show held at the CBC Vancouver studios.
“[They represent] … the miracle and mystery of birth and the sacred and violent act of labour.”
For Mattson, the placenta, which nourishes the baby in the womb, is “the beginning of everything.”
“It’s life sustaining. … If it wasn’t for the placenta, we wouldn’t exist,” she said.
The Orillia and District Arts Council (ODAC) has married dance, visual art, and art history in a comprehensive new arts program created specifically for local seniors.
The HeARTS (Helping Elders with ARTS) program is held every Tuesday and Thursday at St. James’ Anglican Church; the goal is to get participants’ bodies moving before trying their hand at various disciplines of art.
The 26-week program began in September after ODAC secured federal government funding earlier this year, and each lesson includes a dance component, supplementary lectures on the session’s artistic theme, and — of course — the opportunity to create art.
Organizers offer a wide-ranging variety of programming and artistic styles for the participants to learn about, ranging from Picasso-inspired self portraits, to re-creations of Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’, Japanese Suminigashi marbling, and more.
An “intelligent” approach was brought to the program, organizers say, adding they hope to give seniors legitimate opportunities to explore their artistic sides, as well as the opportunity to self-reflect.
“It (isn’t) juvenile, like arts and crafts. We wanted to do something intelligent and fresh, and have something that seniors could be excited to come to weekly,” said HeARTS art facilitator Sukhi Kaur.
“They’re taken on a journey of self-reflection that they get to explore through different art techniques, and different artists and activities,” Kaur said. “By the end, they’ll hopefully create a small body of work that represents their time here, as well as connecting to the memories that the art prompts are supposed to bring up, and they have the opportunity to share that with new people.”
Each session’s programming is designed to tie into a specific theme, Kaur said, noting those themes are guided by participant feedback. For example, a dance session based in mirroring was included with a lecture on Picasso before participants painted their own self portraits.
A variety of guest artists — and even a harp player during the Vincent Van Gogh session — have been brought to the program to enrich its sessions.
Above all, however, the program offers the opportunity for seniors to have fun and socialize.
“We were hoping that it would be an opportunity post-COVID for seniors to socialize,” Kaur said. “They come here for art, and they come here for dance, but they get to talk about their week. There’s been some new friendships made here that I’ve got to watch flourish over the weeks.”
The idea is catching on.
“Our board made a decision some time back that we wanted to be more socially involved with vulnerable or underrepresented groups, and we thought seniors would be a good fit,” said ODAC board secretary Christine Hager.
“It was a slow start … but now it’s catching people by word of mouth. They are telling other people what’s going on here, and they’re having a lot of fun — that’s the main thing.”
So far, the program has been a success, with one participant celebrating it as “an amazing get together for seniors” that got her out of a rut through COVID-19.
“It gives us something to look forward to, shows us our cognitive abilities, and motivates us to do better than we thought we could do,” said Donna Howlett.
“I love the dance class — just hearing the music has brought me back to my childhood, and the art class is so interesting. I did not know that I had some talent there,” said Maryann Van Arem.
Miriam Goldberger, the program’s dance instructor, said she enthusiastically joined the program when she learned it would incorporate multiple styles of art, and highlighted the importance of movement for both physical health and creating the right mindset to engage with art.
“Movement and physical activity prevent serious physical and mental and emotional decline of seniors,” she explained. “It also really lubricates all the creativity and the social goals that happen with the other part of the program.”
“They’re relaxed, they’re comfortable with themselves, they’re feeling positive,” she said. “They’re open to new things.”
Beyond offering arts programming to seniors, the HeARTS program also serves as a placement opportunity for Georgian College Social Service Worker students.
Program volunteer Joan Berndt said the addition of these students is “incredibly beneficial” to breaking down stigma surrounding seniors.
“The addition of social work students is incredibly beneficial because they don’t get frontline experience when they’re in school,” Berndt said. “They learn about seniors, (and) there is a discrimination in some younger people, that they don’t want to work for seniors, but they’re meeting some fabulous seniors, and it’s working.”
The HeARTS program is offered to local seniors free of charge. It takes place at St. James’ Anglican Church, every Tuesday and Thursday, with a drop-in session from 11 a.m. to 12:45 p.m., with dance and arts programming taking place from 1 p.m. to 3:45 p.m.
Organizers are hoping to secure funding to continue the program following its current 26-week run.
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