This Woman’s Work

In West­ern Canada, women sculp­tors ren­der vis­i­ble the weight of hid­den labour with in­dus­trial ma­te­ri­als

Canadian Art - - Contents - by Gin­ger Carl­son Cather­ine Burgess Echo 2012 Steel and gran­ite 2.03 x 1.6 x 1.88 m over­all

Women sculp­tors use in­dus­trial ma­te­ri­als to ren­der vis­i­ble the weight of hid­den labour by Gin­ger Carl­son

Van­cou­ver-based Vanessa Brown’s 2016 body of work The Hand of Camille calls into ques­tion the vis­i­bil­ity of women and their era­sure from art his­to­ries and in­sti­tu­tions. Brown’s ex­hi­bi­tion—ti­tled af­ter 19th-cen­tury French sculp­tor Camille Claudel, whose work was largely over­shad­owed by her lover Au­guste Rodin and re­mained in rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity un­til the mid-20th cen­tury—re­flects on the of­ten-in­vis­i­ble labour that com­prises art- and ex­hi­bi­tion-mak­ing through a se­ries of sculp­tures fab­ri­cated pri­mar­ily in steel. Ex­e­cuted in del­i­cate geo­met­ric and fig­u­ra­tive forms, the works push their thin ar­ma­tures to stretch be­yond the con­ven­tional semi­otics of steel—which at­tribute weight and di­men­sion as in­di­ca­tors of suc­cess—and in­stead evoke the sub­tleties and tac­til­ity of the medium. A si­mul­ta­ne­ous ex­plo­ration of form and of the gen­dered idio­syn­cra­sies in­volved in work­ing with in­dus­trial ma­te­ri­als, The Hand of Camille po­et­i­cally rein­serts the fe­male hand that pro­duces as a counter to those other hands that have of­ten ap­peared more vis­i­bly.

The sub­ject of vis­i­bil­ity is of con­sid­er­able rel­e­vance to women artists work­ing in sculp­ture with in­dus­trial ma­te­ri­als. In some cases, women are highly vis­i­ble, by virtue of the anx­i­eties of work­ing in mostly male spa­ces or with mostly male fab­ri­ca­tors. In oth­ers, they are hardly vis­i­ble at all. They ex­ist as prepara­tors and artist as­sis­tants whose labours and hands fade into the back­ground, or as artists in their own right, whose works are none­the­less un­ac­knowl­edged or un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated. While Brown’s prac­tice op­er­ates within a unique set of his­tor­i­cal, po­lit­i­cal and so­cial cir­cum­stances, her in­quiries into ma­te­rial and artis­tic sta­tus also have great bear­ing on sculp­tors work­ing in Al­berta, where the oil and gas in­dus­try has made steel and scrap met­als, as well as heavy in­dus­trial and me­tal fab­ri­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies, more read­ily avail­able than in other art cen­tres. In Cal­gary and Ed­mon­ton, two coun­ter­points in the Prairies cat­alyzed by ac­cess to in­dus­trial ma­te­ri­als and deeply en­trenched Mod­ernist art his­to­ries, there have been many im­por­tant and in­flu­en­tial women artists work­ing with th­ese ma­te­ri­als who have re­mained only mod­estly rec­og­nized and ap­pre­ci­ated out­side of the prov­ince.

Katie Ohe was one of the first artists to work in the field of ab­stract sculp­ture in Al­berta. She has lived and worked in Cal­gary for the ma­jor­ity of her ca­reer since grad­u­at­ing from the Al­berta Col­lege of Art and De­sign in 1957. Ohe has es­tab­lished her­self as an icon of con­sid­er­able gen­eros­ity, while men­tor­ing and teach­ing at Mount Royal Col­lege, the Univer­sity of Cal­gary and ACAD over

the course of her nearly 60-year ca­reer. Th­ese prac­tices will con­tinue at the Kiy­ooka Ohe Arts Cen­tre, a char­i­ta­ble so­ci­ety ded­i­cated to the pro­mo­tion of con­tem­po­rary art, which, in ad­di­tion to hous­ing an art gallery and a sculp­ture gar­den, will be a men­tor­ing and re­search cen­tre, pro­vid­ing stu­dio space, a res­i­dency pro­gram and ac­cess to Ohe and her hus­band Harry Kiy­ooka’s li­brary and sculp­ture fa­cil­i­ties.

Recog­ni­tion of Ohe’s work came grad­u­ally. While she has par­tic­i­pated in ex­hi­bi­tions, pri­mar­ily in Al­berta and out­side of Canada, and has com­pleted many high-pro­file pub­lic-art com­mis­sions, her vis­i­bil­ity has not yet reached the level be­fit­ting an artist of such re­gional im­por­tance and in­flu­ence. On the Univer­sity of Cal­gary cam­pus, gen­er­a­tions of stu­dents have touched and ro­tated her seven-foot-tall steel-and-chrome Zip­per (1975) in the hopes that it might ren­der luck and magic. At ACAD, Janet’s Crown (2001), a trib­ute to Al­berta artist, ed­u­ca­tor and men­tor Janet Mitchell, over­looks the city and spins gen­tly among a con­stel­la­tion of stain­less-steel stars.

In Ed­mon­ton, where ab­stract for­mal­ist steel sculp­tures have a dis­tinct re­gional tra­di­tion, Cather­ine Burgess has sim­i­larly forged a path into the medium, a gen­er­a­tion af­ter Ohe, as one of only a hand­ful of women artists work­ing in steel. While Burgess ini­tially cre­ated for­mal­ist work in line with her male peers, moth­er­hood acted as a cat­a­lyst for re­ex­am­in­ing the nar­ra­tive and sub­con­scious po­ten­tial of her sculp­ture. Like Ohe, Burgess was a men­tor and teacher to emerg­ing artists, in her case, at the Univer­sity of Al­berta. Burgess’s pub­lic sculp­tures wind through the down­town core and into the sub­urbs, with large-scale projects in Ed­mon­ton and sub­ur­ban Sher­wood Park along­side col­lab­o­ra­tors San­dra Brom­ley, Wal­ter Jule and Roy­den Mills. Her most re­cent pub­lic sculp­ture, Re­turn (2001), lo­cated on Jasper Av­enue, grace­fully twists and turns up­wards from its base, three spi­ralling stacks of 393 in­di­vid­u­ally cast alu­minum rings.

Like Brown, Ohe and Burgess per­form and un­fold their sculp­tural forms to en­com­pass and ex­pose the ma­trix of steel’s mu­ta­bil­ity and its po­ten­tial for in­ti­macy. Ohe’s sculp­tures re­spond and move with the viewer, invit­ing touch and par­tic­i­pa­tion through tac­til­ity and per­for­mance. Push­ing against the static mon­u­men­tal­ism of­ten im­pli­cated in large steel sculp­tures, her works are forged with in­ter­ac­tion in mind and in­vite us to ex­pe­ri­ence the po­ten­tial­ity of form in space, through spin­ning, rock­ing and lever­ag­ing pre­cise weights to­ward con­tin­u­ous mo­tion. Burgess’s sculp­tural forms po­et­i­cally ar­tic­u­late philo­soph­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal con­cepts, con­struct­ing ob­jects where thin steel, bronze and other me­tal ar­ma­tures frame a coun­ter­weight of voids and spa­ces. In her ex­hi­bi­tion “Ab­sence / Pres­ence” (2012), for ex­am­ple, steel and met­als con­verse with stone while thin pla­nar steel shapes open up the walls and floor space of the Art Gallery of Al­berta, like ab­sences that en­ter into the un­known and in­vis­i­ble.

Ohe and Burgess, along­side other pi­o­neer­ing artists work­ing in sculp­ture and in­stal­la­tion—brom­ley, Lyn­dal Os­borne and Isla Burns in Ed­mon­ton, Rita Mck­eough and Shel­ley Ouel­let in Cal­gary and Kainai-blood artist Faye Heavyshield, to name a few—have con­trib­uted much over the last 40 years to the forg­ing of space and the min­ing of vis­i­bil­ity for women artists work­ing in Al­berta. The pre­vail­ing theme, here, is of a mul­ti­plic­ity of hands work­ing to­gether to­ward greater cel­e­bra­tion and ex­po­sure of di­verse prac­tices; the ex­pan­sion of net­works, re­source shar­ing and men­tor­ship; and un­set­tling di­chotomies to make space for new read­ings, new counter-his­to­ries and new sys­tems of eq­uity. They prove that the process of mak­ing vis­i­ble is not a mono­lith, but a mul­ti­plic­ity. ■

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