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O Canada and beaver perfume: Joyce Wieland's art still helps us understand our national identity –



Ideas53:59O Canada: Joyce Wieland and the Art of Nationhood

“Canada can either now lose complete control — which it almost has, economically, spiritually and a few other things — or it can get itself together.” 

Artist Joyce Wieland spoke these prescient words in 1971. They could just as easily have been spoken today. As Canada reckons with questions of national identity — about our languages, Indigenous reconciliation, U.S. relations and the environment — the artist’s work and words form a clarion call. 

Wieland, who died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1998 at 67, was a celebrated and courageous Canadian multimedia artist who worked in paint, film, sculpture, textile — and everything in between.

“I think Joyce Wieland is one of the most powerful forces that this country has produced in the 20th century,” Art Gallery of Ontario curator, Georgiana Uhlyarik told IDEAS. “She created, in some ways, the most joyful, hilarious, powerful, biting, difficult works of art.”

‘True Patriot Love’

Wieland’s work takes on new meaning as Canada’s identity continues to shift, and Uhlyarik is planning an exhibition to highlight the artist’s relevance once again. 

The AGO will mount a Joyce Wieland retrospective in 2024. In 1987, Wieland became the first living woman to have a solo exhibition at that gallery.

She was accustomed to firsts.

She was already the first living female artist to have a solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, held in 1971.

The opening on Canada Day, then known as Dominion Day, was an extravaganza — there was a 100-piece marching band, live ducks and a giant Arctic Passion Cake, a 1.67-metre iceberg-shaped cake.

Impossible to miss were Wieland’s signature Canadian flags. Then still a nascent symbol, Wieland stuffed, stitched and stretched the red maple leaf and its meaning. 

Wieland at work on pieces for the quilted cloth assemblage ‘109 Views.’ (York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC34400. Used with Permission)

The exhibition was called True Patriot Love, and the theme was Canada itself.

On the surface, some of the works could be misconstrued as fluff. In truth, this was Wieland tackling the most pressing questions of nationhood and what it means to be Canadian. She did so with her signature humour, going so far as to create a fragrance for the occasion: Sweet Beaver, the Perfume of Canadian Liberation.

What she does is insist upon viewers realizing that here is Canada presented through a distinctly feminist and feminine lens. She made Canada female.– Brian Foss, art history professor

Reactions in the press were divided. Some critics saw the perfume-infused event, with its cake and ducks and hanging quilts, as an egregious, childish watering down of the esteemed National Gallery.

“Some of the newspaper critics were quite vicious and misogynist,” noted Johanne Sloan, art historian at Concordia University. “One of the Ottawa papers had a headline that was something like, ‘Joyce the housewife brings her cushions and blankets into the gallery.'” 

What the naysayers failed to recognize was that by incorporating what were considered women’s craft practices into her work, Wieland was doing something revolutionary — and radically transforming Canadian art. 

“It was a challenge to the ‘Old Boys Club’ in a very profound way,” Sloan said.

Feminist nationhood

Among the many artworks mounted on the gallery walls was Wieland’s iconic 1970 lithograph, O Canada. The gridlike work, with its 68 repeated red lips, highlighted at least two of the artist’s major themes: womanhood and nationhood. To create O Canada, Wieland applied red lipstick to her lips and proceeded to press her lips to the lithographic stone again and again as she sang the national anthem. 

“She is quite literally stressing the physicality of nationalism — that it’s not some abstract concept, but that it affects real bodies in real time,” explained Brian Foss, professor of art history at Carleton University. 

“And more specifically, I think what she does is insist upon viewers realizing that here is Canada presented through a distinctly feminist and feminine lens. She made Canada female.” 

Journalist and friend to Wieland, Judy Seed says the artist held tremendous pride in being Canadian. She suggests ‘the environmental realities we face and how to launch Canada into a new version of ourselves would have been [Wieland’s] preoccupation now.’ (Michel Lambeth / Library and Archives Canada)

Wieland created her ’60s and ’70s flag and anthem-inspired works at a heady time in the country’s history. Both the red maple leaf and O Canada were new official national symbols.

In 1967, Canada celebrated its centenary with Expo 67, the world’s fair, in Montreal. Yet public expressions of Quebec nationalism, growing since the early 1960s, came to a head with the FLQ crisis in October 1970 and Pierre Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act. Questions of national identity swirled across the country and Wieland responded to all of these in her art.

Wieland’s works were also a stark warning: Canada needed to be protected from the encroaching influence of the United States. It needed to protect its distinct national identity, culture, environment and natural resources. Two of her most well-known works brought these subjects into stark relief.

Her much-lauded experimental film, Rat Life and Diet in North America (1968), tells the story of a group of rats (in fact, pet gerbils) held as political prisoners in a highly militarized United States by their cat oppressors. The rat-gerbils eventually escape to Canada where they become farmers. Wieland created the work during the Vietnam War, and the references are evident.

A still from Wieland’s 1968 film, Rat Life and Diet in North America, Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Many art critics see Wieland’s art as a call to preserve Canada’s distinctness from the United States. (Courtesy of Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre)

Wieland’s 1970 work, Water Quilt, pulled viewers in with its surface beauty — a large quilt consisting of 64 small square pillows, each covered by a finely embroidered Arctic flower on a cotton flap. Hidden beneath each delicate flap was a darker message: an excerpt from James Laxer’s 1970 book, The Energy Poker Game, which warned against selling off Canada’s natural resources to the United States.

“It’s this suspension of tension that Wieland is able to bring to her work,” Uhlyarik said. “On one hand, it’s a beautiful, almost decorative patchwork of flowers … And yet underneath it is such an urgent, critical message about water.” 

Water. Women. National identity. Wieland’s messages continue to hold power. The Ottawa convoy protests of January-February 2022 took over Elgin Street, where Wieland’s flag-filled exhibition opened in 1971.

Person with flag.
Truckers and supporters wrapped in Canadian flags continue their so-called ‘Freedom Convoy’ protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates, in Ottawa, on Feb. 11. (Lars Habgerg/Reuters)

“I think that Wieland’s meaning and importance in the wake of the so-called Freedom Convoy, her lessons are really germane,” said Foss.

“Her insistence on inclusivity as a core element of Canadian citizenship or Canadian-ness was at odds with this convoy idea. Joyce Wieland wanted a Canada in which everyone was valued. Where difference was a good thing, not a bad thing.”

A call for active citizenship

Wieland offered Canadians a vision of what the country could be. Her works were at once celebratory and a warning — a gesture for Canadians to embrace a nationalism that was neither chauvinistic nor militaristic, but inclusive and beautiful.

“I think it’s up to every individual,” said Sloan, “to try to determine what it is that they are standing up for when they salute the flag or when they sing the anthem. And Wieland was calling that into question. She was not taking it for granted that if you make those sounds with your mouth that you’re necessarily buying into the officially sanctioned governmental version of nationalism.

“And it’s a genuinely utopian idea that by citizens seizing hold of the flag themselves, that they can be part of that process of building a new Canadian nation. It’s a way of encouraging, in a sense, other Canadians, too, to not be passive in their citizenship or in their nationalism. 

“And 50 years later, we see that this kind of critical thinking about nationhood is as necessary as ever.” 

Guests in this episode:

Brian Foss is professor of art and architectural history at Carleton University in Ottawa. His research and teaching focus on the history of Canadian art, as well as on the representation of war in the visual arts. He is the author of the Art Canada Institute e-book, Homer Watson: Life & Work and War Paint: Art, War, State and Identity in Britain 1939-1945. He is also one of the three editors of Canadian Art in the Twentieth Century.

Mayo Graham was the founding director of the Ottawa Art Gallery (1988-1993), chief curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1993-98), and ultimately, associate director (national outreach and international relations) at the National Gallery of Canada (1998-2009) until her retirement. In 1975, she curated the exhibition, Some Canadian Women Artists at the National Gallery of Canada.

Luis Jacob is a Peruvian-born, Toronto-based artist whose work destabilizes viewing conventions and invites collisions of meaning. He has achieved an international reputation with exhibitions in 2019 at the Museum der Moderne Salzburg, Austria; Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, Germany; and the Toronto Biennial of Art.

Johanne Sloan is a professor in the department of art history at Concordia University in Montreal. She is the author of numerous texts about Wieland, including the book Joyce Wieland’s The Far Shore (University of Toronto Press, 2010), and the Art Canada Institute e-book Joyce Wieland: Life and Work (2014). Most recently, she co-edited a special issue of the Journal of Canadian Art History (2020) on the artist.

After working with Wieland, Judy Steed was a feature writer at the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. She is the recipient of four National Newspaper Awards and one National Magazine Award, and the author of five books, including the national bestsellers, Ed Broadbent: The Pursuit of Power and Our Little Secret: Confronting Child Sexual Abuse in Canada. She currently leads ongoing mindfulness meditation sessions.

Georgiana Uhlyarik is Fredrik S. Eaton curator of Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario. As co-lead of the AGO’s department of Indigenous + Canadian art, Uhlyarik’s area of specialty is the work of 20th-century women artists. She has co-curated exhibitions of the work of Kathleen Munn, Georgia O’Keeffe, Suzy Lake, Kenojuak Ashevak and Rita Letendre, among many others. Along with Anne Grace, curator of modern art, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, she is co-organizing a career-spanning retrospective of Wieland for 2024. 

*This IDEAS episode was produced by Alisa Siegel. 

Special thanks to the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections at York University Library for the use of two images: ASC34381 | Joyce Wieland ‘O Canada Animation’ and ASC34400 | Joyce Wieland ‘109 Views”; the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, Patrick Alexander, Bob Rempel, and Kate Zieman at the CBC Research Library.


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Montreal exhibit Parle Moi d'Amour celebrates art therapy creations –



After a lifetime as an elementary school teacher, 71-year-old Diane Major would never have imaged seeing herself in an art exhibit, but she says she’s discovered a whole new side of herself ever since a burnout led her to art therapy. 

A sculpture of a clown and prints of abstract art seen in an exhibit.
The piece by Claude Tousignant, top left, already has a bid of $1,550. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

For a third year in a row, her artwork is being featured in the exhibit Parle moi d’amour, where creations by participants in art therapy workshops run by the organization Les Impatients are being presented alongside that of some of Quebec’s top artists.

“It’s been such a rewarding experience for me, because we can come together and share what’s going on inside,” said Major, whose work in the exhibit is available to purchase. 

About one-third of the exhibit comes out of the workshops, offered for free across the province to Quebecers with mental illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

Major says it was a diagnosis of major depression and generalized anxiety that led the retiree to a workshop — and ultimately changed her life. 

“I had so much trouble living,” Major said.  “I told the psychiatrist, I have no more will power to do anything. Nothing interests me anymore.”

“In our society it’s always about how well and how fast you can perform. The final product is the most important. But with Les Impatients, it’s the steps you take that matter, and that’s what makes all the difference,” she said. “Each step counts and each one you take has its value, regardless of the end result, whether it’s positive or negative.”

The workshops draw more than 800 each week, with children represented by youth protection also in attendance, said Frédéric Palardy, the general director of the organization. It provides all the material needed to create the art.

“It goes from ‘It saved my life,’ to ‘That’s the only place where I feel good,'” Palardy said about the artists who attend their workshops.

WATCH | Frédéric Palardy explains Les Impatients’ art project:

Montreal exhibit highlights art therapy works

13 hours ago

Duration 0:41

A free exhibit downtown features work by participants in art therapy workshops alongside creations from some of Quebec’s top artists. 

“It’s a very safe space. Everyone respects each other, everyone knows around you people are suffering,” he said. “But when you look at their work, there’s not much suffering.”

All works are given an equal place in the exhibit, whether they’re by one of Quebec’s famous abstract artists like Jean-Paul Riopelle, or someone who’s just started painting.

The organization calls itself Les Impatients since participants are “not thought of as patients” but rather “as creators impatient to heal,” according to its website.

A man in a blazer stands in an art exhibit.
Frédéric Palardy say there’s only two criteria to be eligible for their art workshops; a willingness to work in groups and a willingness to try. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

“They’ve experienced difficult things in their life, and they need to express that,” said artist Marilyne Bissonnette who leads workshops in Montreal, Joliette and Repentigny, also featured in the exhibit.

“When they come to visit the show and see all the people that have come, they receive a lot of love, they are so proud.”

Professional artists and private collections have donated the rest of the pieces in the exhibit.

Art-lovers who want to take their favourites home can bid on all the artworks featured, with all proceeds going to the organization. Bids started as low as $50 on most, and can be placed online or during the live auction set for Wednesday night.

The free exhibit is on display at 200 Sherbrooke Street West at the Université du Québec à Montréal until Thursday.

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Why We Must Amplify Artists And Embrace Art In Wartime (Putin’s Invasion Of Ukraine Erodes Culture) – Forbes



“To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling—this is the activity of art.” _ Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? (1897)

As Vladimir Putin’s senseless invasion of Ukraine ignites global fury, the clamor to vilify all people and all things Russian rages at levels unseen since the height of the enduring Cold War. Everyday Russian people are suffering, alongside their Ukrainian and Belorussian siblings, trapped in the domestic prison built by sanctions, living in constant dread that Putin will exhort his minions to pluck them from their desks and factory production lines to become soldiers fueling his bloodthirsty aggression.

Extending justified abomination for Putin to all Russians harms our collective humanity and undermines the cultural fabric that serves to comfort, inform, and enlighten us in times of strife. Putin doesn’t own the legacies and lives of the masters of visual and performing arts living and working in Russia or those of Russian heritage. Erasing Russian culture in a misguided protest against Putin only underscores his ownership of all things Russian.

Celebrating artists living and working in Russia or of Russian heritage is a powerful affront to Putin. Recognizing their vast contributions to humanity demonstrates that the creative force of the 144 million people living in the motherland and another 30 million ethnic Russians living abroad is more powerful than a warlord who oppresses his own people along with innocent victims in Ukraine. Feeding anti-Russian hate empowers Putin’s criminal agenda. Russophobia is inherently problematic, as it theoretically homogenizes an ethnic identity comprising more than 160 peoples inhabiting the territory of contemporary Russia, including 40 groups who are officially recognized as indigenous.

Artists chronicle and decode our collective joys and struggles, triumphs and failures, and the fungible, frustrating space between. What better way to undercut Putin’s faux Russianess than to amplify the contemporary artists who subvert every Putinesque erosion of creative consciousness? February 24 marked the escalation of the bitter, simmering eight-year Russo-Ukrainian War, and hurled it into the global spotlight, as if the centuries-long strife was breaking news.

Embrace flamboyance over neo-feudalism. Envision a future Russia where outrageous imagery, installation, and performance eclipse Putin’s outrage.

It’s soul-affirming that more than 24,000 people visited the Cosmoscow International Contemporary Art Fair earlier this month, the highest turnout since it launched a decade ago. Seventy-two galleries from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Voronezh, Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, Kaluga, and Vladivostok presented more than 1,600 works of contemporary art.

“According to our feelings, the atmosphere at the fair this year was very lively. At the same time, for us, this fair turned out to be one of the most difficult in our practice,” said Marina Gisich, founder of Marina Gisich Gallery and winner of Cosmoscow 2022 Stand Prize. “In difficult times, you want to look for new sources of inspiration and survival. And in that sense, Cosmoscow has probably become such an island of emotional stability.”

Art is an expression of the human condition which enables and encourages us to experience the range of emotions and perspectives of other people throughout history, including the creators, the subjects depicted in artworks, and anyone we interact with through discussion of art. It helps us work toward cultivating empathy and acknowledging the collective human struggle. Only then can we work toward effecting social change that can foster the western construct of peace, which is elusive to many people around the world.

As western media turns its gaze firmly on its decades-long favorite source of disdain — Russia — it’s essential to recognize that wars continue to rage around the world, threatening and subjugating everyday people everywhere.

It’s easy to turn our focus away from the world’s longest civil war, because its rare to spy a western headline. Conflict erupted between various ethnic groups in Myanmar in 1948, the year the country gained independence from the United Kingdom. An estimated 13,646 casualties have been reported so far this year, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Civil war and terrorist insurgency persist in Afghanistan and Mali, civil wars continue in Colombia, Ethiopia, Libya, Syria, Yemen, terrorist insurgency won’t let up in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Tunisia, and South Sudan remains embroiled in ethnic violence.

Honor the work of artists everywhere, in spite of the governments that oppress the people.

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Art across the water – The Recorder and Times



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As the summer winds down, there are still plenty of opportunities heading into fall for some art-related excursions. Keep your eyes open for autumn studio tours as the fall colours brighten the landscape, but be sure to also cast your gaze over the water for a slightly different outing. Hop on the ferry and head over to Wolfe Island to visit the Wolfe Island Gallery, which is open on weekends now until Oct. 8 (it is open more frequently during the summer).

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The WIG is an artist-run collective comprised of creatives who live on, or have some other connection to, the Frontenac Islands — Wolfe, Simcoe and Howe. This is the main criteria of membership for artists in the WIG, another being that works produced for exhibition must be original fine art, sculpture or fine crafts. (A yearly call for artists goes out on the WIG’s web page and socials in early spring.) Given the emphasis on the island connection, it should come as no surprise that much of the artwork on display is closely tied to the islands themselves, whether the work reflects the landscape, community, fauna or lifestyle. The artwork and crafts at the gallery include paintings, photography, stained glass, sculpture, jewelry, drawings, art from found objects and quilts, among other types of work.

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While most artwork has the stamp of its creator on it that in some way identifies it, with a gallery such as the WIG, it is also interesting to speculate on whether the artwork within it also reflects a certain specificity of Place. This idea of Place can be interpreted in a variety of ways. It may refer to representation of the actual geography and population of a particular region; it may refer to the character, ambience or “vibe” given by a locale; it may refer to a sense of identity. The possibilities, while not quite endless, are many. Historically speaking, for example, the quality of light in and around Venice was well known by painters, who sought to reproduce it in their landscape and city-scape representations. And this particular quality of light (if successfully captured in paint) served to identify this particular Place even if the subject was not made plain by the title of the work or by distinctive architectural or other features.

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So when you’re looking at the artworks on display at the WIG, are there aspects that speak to the work having been produced on one of the Frontenac Islands? You might consider whether Nancy Steel’s figural paintings evoke a sense of community, or if her landscape vignettes offer a sense of a slower pace of island life. Or perhaps the willow bark bowls made by Patricia Howes and enhanced by found objects suggest quietude and long rambling walks of discovery. The black-capped chickadee of Jan Fitch’s carving or the owl in Kathy Schwab’s stained glass may be frequent visitors to their respective gardens or just passing through, with their own stories to tell.

It is the stories, of course, that drive artistic creation, with those stories supported and imbued with the influence of Place. Go and experience some island time and discover the stories being told in art by this very particular place.

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Kamille Parkinson earned a PhD in art history from Queen’s University, and is presently a copywriter, writer of fiction and art historian at large. You can find her on LinkedIn, at, and can contact her at

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