Soirée: A social gathering held in the evening; an evening party or social gathering, especially one held for a particular purpose.
It wasn’t quite evening, but the Outdoor Summer Soiree hosted by be contemporary art gallery in Stroud on Thursday certainly had a purpose – a gathering to talk about Women in Sculpture, and view the new exhibition at the gallery, LUSH: Fabrications in Yarn and Fabric.
Lush features the sculptural photographs and installations of Marlene Hilton Moore, and Jill Price’s found porcelain/reconstructed yarn sculptures. In the smaller BHCV Project Gallery, sculptor Regina Williams’ show, 470 Days could easily be subtitled “Postcards from COVID-19.”
All three artists share more than a passion for challenging, rethinking and co-opting stereotypes. All three approach sculpture from a shared perspective: repurposing materials and their own histories, to create compelling works.
There is a kind of balance to Lush, a symmetry. The carved sconces that support Jill Price’s witty and thought-provoking porcelain and yarn creations mirror Marlene Hilton Moore’s architectural elements. Even the colours of some of Price’s works harmonize: the yarn ‘cake’ of “Overindulgent” echoes the colors and curving lines of Hilton Moore’s photographic compositions.
The balance was deliberate, Price says. She studied Hilton Moore’s large photographs, life-size installations, and fabric art, including the Peony dress central to the Paeonia Beauty series of photos, and the Crazy Quilt dress modelled by an enigmatic white mannikin, before choosing her own works for the show.
“It was so much fun to install. It’s like a puzzle – I love that,” she says.
“To me, it’s a surprise that the weights are equal,” says Hilton Moore. Her works are large, sweeping, colourful – yet they don’t overpower Price’s smaller-scale sculptures.
“As a sculptor, it’s all about how mass balances,” she says. “I was thrilled.”
At the outdoor soiree, the artists talked freely about their inspiration and the creative process, in informal conversation.
Hilton Moore spoke of starting with a concept, but then discovering the ways in which the elements can interact. “You can never, ever pre-judge. You have to wait. Although you must charge towards the goal – the concept – you can allow the work to unfold.”
Her own work has unfolded in unexpected ways. Leaving sculpture for photography, she now uses the human body as the armature for sculptural dresses that are a key component of each of her series of photographs.
“The body is the armature. The human body is everything,” she says: each dress is unique to the model, expressing some aspect of their essence.
The setting, too, is critical to the overall meaning of the composition. “All of the photoshoots have a woman, a dress, a place and an idea.”
She first started working with fabric at the age of 12, learning to sew. “I loved the structural quality of taking a flat piece of fabric, and making a 3-D structure that fits the body,” Hilton Moore explains.
She now uses traditional domestic arts to create contemporary art, like the black Peony Dress that stands in front of a Paeonia Beauty photograph.
“I made the peony dress because I was just consumed by the peony flower. They are so elaborately structured.”
The peony itself resonates with symbolism: it’s tough enough to overwinter in Canada, finding its way into many pioneer farm gardens, yet “it is as exotic as any flower you find in the deep south,” says Hilton Moore - so elaborate that the challenge became, “Can I make it? Can I get the sensation?”
She took apart a peony flower, to see how it could be reconstructed in fabric. Her first effort was made of pink silk, but it was too fragile, just “too freakin’ feminine” – so she chose “the counterpoint to pink,” and created the black sculptural dress worn by her Paeonia Beauty, photographed in front of an abandoned farmhouse that might have had peonies in the front yard.
The Crazy Quilt dress on a white porcelain mannequin reaches even farther into her own heritage.
“The mannequin has sort of become me. What do I do about my whiteness, when I think about the cultural context of today, and the Residential Schools?”
She was inspired by the intricate beaded headdresses of Indigenous artist Dana Claxton. “They were so delicious, they were so edible – amazing!” She looked for something equivalent in her own cultural context and East Coast farming roots, and found the Crazy Quilt, with its over-the-top extreme beauty made from scraps of rich materials, and hand embroidered by its creators, so often farm women.
“The women made beauty out of what they had. The idea of the tactile-ness of the quilt, the luxuriousness of crazy quilts – the velvet, the embroidery… I really respect the culture of the rural existence, where you’re close to the land, and you don’t use excess,” Hilton Moore notes.
Like First Nations women, the farm wives would “transform portions of their functional objects into objects of beauty, of resonance… To me, it was interesting to pull a domestic skill into a contemporary art skill.”
“Everything becomes precious again,” agrees Price. Her own works are comprised of porcelain figurines found in thrift shops, and wool “reclaimed from the earth.”
She searches for what she calls “Groundlings” – woolen hats, scarves and mitts lost and left behind as the snow melts.
“I would find them, take them home, wash them,” Price says. Anything good enough to wear is donated; the rest is deconstructed, and then reworked, to cover over the “eurocentric esthetics” of her found porcelain figurines - “Not continuing to extract, but reusing. Unmaking, as a creative art.”
Her works are playful, yet challenge gender and culture. “How do we re-dress these little tokens of privilege and beauty? The whole idea of covering them in textiles so their identity is covered – their identity is undone, a sort of unmaking.”
Price has also rediscovering traditional women’s domestic skills - knitting and crocheting – through her art.
Her grandmother was a knitter, but she never learned to knit herself. After her Grandmother passed, Price found herself reevaluating the knitted objects left to her. As she began reworking yarn in her sculptures, she gradually learned to knit.
“I took it on as meditative play,” she says, using a crochet hook as tool to draw and formulate shapes, but as her works evolved, the approach became more intentional.
The artist and the material “now have formed a deeper relationship,” Price says, and she has been inspired to learn the rules and skills of knitting, recycling tradition as well as materials.
Regina Williams’ 470 Days, “from the lockdown to my first vaccine,” she says, also embraces the theme of reworking and reusing the fabric of her own roots.
“I grew up in a town of 2,000” in the U.S., Williams says, only coming to Canada when she married a Canadian. She still has extensive family ties south of the border – family members she was unable to visit, during the pandemic.
Williams uses personal items, including photos, postcards, old books and family letters to create her collages – like Price, “unmaking” and recycling her own mementoes and family treasures to build the layered postcards that reflect her days of isolation.
It was no sacrifice to cut up the family photographs and books, she says. “Who’s going to want them, ever? I thought, this way, they would live on.”
LUSH: Fabrications in Yarn and Fabric, and 470 Days are at be contemporary art gallery, 7869 Yonge Street in Stroud, until Sept. 4. The gallery is now open for in-person visits by up to 5 persons at a time to maintain social distancing. Masks are required. Groups of 5 or more should book a private viewing. Click here to visit the website.
“I think it’s a wonderful exhibition,” says Hilton Moore. “It just wove itself together in a very organic way.”