Visually interesting, strikingly beautiful, cleverly assembled—these are not usually how we describe books. But if we consider them as art objects as well as text, their aesthetic qualities and their craftsmanship become manifest. Think of the uniformity of a library shelf of book spines. Then think of the colours, shapes and textures of different-sized hand-made books: sewn, glued, stitched, cut out or folded; hand written, rubber stamped or hand set.
In the current retrospective at the WAG, curator Rebecca Korn has chosen a sampling of the staggering variety of art books made by Lise Melhorn-Boe. Visitors will see pop-up books, shuffle books, accordion folds, flag books, buttoned books and zippered books, with pages made of paper created from fabric, pages of fabric itself, pages of literally garbage and, intriguingly, hand-sewn clothing as “pages” for text.
“Connection: Forty Years of Artist’s Books 1979-2019” is organized according to decades and follows Lise’s life trajectory, from her interest in gender politics, to the birth of her son and her interest in the socialization of children, to her breast cancer and concerns surrounding environmental degradation. The connection referred to in the exhibition title also includes Lise’s connection to family, in particular her mother Pauline, a painter, and her father Kurt, an electrical contractor.
Although many of the works on display reference aspects of her parents’ lives, Lise’s most striking “book” about Pauline and Kurt is actually an installation called Ghost Costumes (1996-1997). Made of curtain sheers and hanging in a semi-circle from the ceiling are a child’s blouse, a teenager’s dress from the 20s, various coats and suits, including an air force uniform, day dresses, and a simple wedding dress. They gently turn as viewers pass. Opposite, grounded against a wall of limestone hang a row of men’s muslin work clothes. Whereas the text inside the feather-light transparent pieces talks about Pauline’s unfulfilled aspirations (taken from a taped interview), Kurt’s belted overalls with hats and a linesman’s rope reveal only photo-transferred images of his work environment during a succession of projects. These are work sites that Kurt, proud as he was of his accomplishments, had professional photographers document. An expression of the yin/yang dynamic in Lise’s parents’ relationship, these costumes also reflect the gender norms of the early to mid 20th century.
Lise likes digging into themes, sometimes for years. In 1989 she conceived a shuffle book called Anything Can Happen, which plays with ideas surrounding gender and feminist beliefs. She began by making a series of 26 two-sided 5-1/2 by 8-1/2 cards comprising text collaged onto images, both cut from fashion magazines. These she photocopied in black and white. By rearranging individual sheets, love stories could be created. In 2010 she photocopied the same series in colour. With a multitude of verbs, conjunctions and phrases such as “It’s hard for him to resist”, “sexual dead spots”, “& the political woman”, the love stories have endless potential for today’s gallery goers. In Sleeping Beauty (2000), a clever and funny pop-up composed again of fashion images, Lise explores the role of the sexes through the well-known Grimm’s fairy tale.
Early in the first decade of this century, Lise overcame breast cancer, which left her wondering about the toxic effect of chemicals in our environment in general and, more specifically, in her own work space 20 years earlier at Wayne State University in Detroit, where she had been producing large editions of hand-set and hand-printed books in a non-ventilated basement room. Body Map (2007) is a revealing and deeply personal work in poster format, but a book when folded. In it we see a full frontal of Lise in what could be interpreted as a victory pose. Every inch of her body and the background is covered in hand-printed, different-coloured text, laid down in patterns that define the body’s shape and outlines. Perhaps shocking to some, but certainly visually pleasing, and not without humour (the white moustache), the piece chronicles the experiences of Lise’s body parts over time, health-wise and in an environmental context.
An accordion book called Homeless (2008) sits open along a shelf spanning the gallery’s dark grey wall. Lise took photographs of the houses on her block when she lived in North Bay, cut them into pieces from a template of shapes for a Little House quilt pattern, and then, using a blanket stitch, created a graphic representation of a row of similar-looking houses. The inspiration for this book and the contents of the text came from statistics citing the high number of people with chemical sensitivities who have been homeless at some point in their lives. In its cozy simplicity the book emits a sense of both security and lurking danger. Lise herself had to leave her home because it was making her sick. And she stitched this piece while she was in hospital with her son, who had sustained a traumatic brain injury in a car accident.
Diffuse Axonal Injury (2008), a piece I call “the egg book”, expresses Lise’s attempt to come to terms with her son’s injury, coma and five months in hospital and rehabilitation. The egg shape is, in fact, a mould of a brain that has been cracked open to reveal its inner workings—which were not working. The web of multi-coloured strings inside could symbolize confused neurons, while the pink silk ribbons used to pull the two sides together are a reminder of the brain’s fragility and preciousness, and perhaps Lise’s wish to make it whole again.
“What’s your favourite book in the show?” I asked Lise as we circumnavigated the gallery, me in green cotton mask following two metres behind Lise in pink seersucker mask. She pointed to a piece set along the gallery windowsill. Made in 2002, it comprises photos and cut-outs of clothing reminiscent of paper dolls. And it comes with a story. After her dad died, in his office Lise found a brown envelope marked “girls I have Known”, which became the title of the book. The envelope contained photographs of at least 15 women, singly and in groups, mostly not identified. One, living in Munich after the war, let Kurt know she was interested in marriage. Kurt was, apparently, a charmer and didn’t marry until he was 50. Lise knew he had had many girlfriends. In choosing to make this piece a flag book, she succeeds in creating a parade of women and fashion throughout the decades, from the 20s through the 40s, when shorter skirts and pants made an appearance, and ending in the Dior dresses of the 50s. The last woman is Lise’s mother, Pauline.
(Photo of Lise by Chris Miner)
“Connections: Forty Years of Artist’s Books 1979-2019” continues until June 24. There will be no reception, but Lise will be present every Sunday afternoon from 12 to 4 while the show is up.
Hand sanitize, don mask, exit car, maintain distance, hand sanitize, enter car, doff mask. This is my mantra as I cautiously venture into garden centres, hardware stores and pharmacies. Schools remain closed but retail outlets have been allowed to open. The WAG will soon be mounting its first mid-pandemic exhibition. Following is the third and final instalment in a series that asks instructors and artists associated with the gallery to talk about their current art practice.
WILLIAM CARROLL (Solo exhibition, August 2018)
“I am a fine art photographer and am currently working on a few long-term projects, the main one being dedicated to domesticating—or manipulating--the growth patterns of various crystals, such as those formed by borax and magnesium sulfate, among others. It has been quite a challenge to determine the exact amount of precision required to force the crystals into different shapes and patterns, while still allowing them to express naturally.
“My last exhibition at the Window Art Gallery, titled ‘Above & Congealed’, was both my first solo exhibition and my entry into conceptual photography. My last major project involved a series of Rorschach-like images created using liquid dish soap and food dye.
“I usually work from home and am a bit of a recluse, so there isn't much change in my work habits. However, I did have a few places I visited regularly for inspiration, and not being able to access my go-to places has definitely made staying creatively stimulated a bit more difficult. The COVID-19 pandemic has also made acquiring my crystal growing materials more difficult, due to international shipping restrictions and price increases. My biggest challenge has been my inability to connect in person with my peers. I greatly value the conversations I have with other creatives in the city and I find it hard to maintain the same level of relationship now that we are unable to see each other in person on a regular basis.”
FANNY CECCONI (KSOA French instructor; Hot Off the Press group exhibition, November 2019)
« La pandémie m’a permis d’arrêter de courir et de prendre le temps d’être en famille et d’en profiter. Je m’aperçois que mes enfants sont heureux de passer plus de temps avec leurs parents. Leur comportement est plus calme. Nous prenons le temps de faire des projets divers dans la maison, mais aussi des promenades en famille pour découvrir des endroits magnifiques de notre quartier. Ces moments en famille me permettent de relaxer et de recharger mon imagination.
« Je dois avouer par contre, qu’être à la maison à temps plein avec deux enfants au primaire change toute une routine. Enseigner les arts n’est pas aussi complexe qu’enseigner le français, les mathématiques ou d’autres matières à ses propres enfants. Je respecte encore plus le travail des professeurs qui enseignent tous les jours à mes moussaillons. Je suis contente que mes enfants aient eu la chance d’établir un lien de confiance à l’école avant la pandémie, car je ne suis pas certaine qu’ils seraient aussi contents de faire leurs cours en ligne.
« Ces moments durant les cours en ligne où je devais rester disponible et silencieuse, m’a permis de reprendre contact avec ma tablette à dessin et mes crayons. Je dessine de tout, des bandes (Strip) pour le Centre Culturel Frontenac, des paysages, des personnages, des animaux, des expressions des mouvements. Mon but est de faire une bande dessinée avec ma sœur et de la publiée éventuellement. Pour le moment j’encourage mes enfants à s’exprimer sur papier et à faire, eux aussi, des dessins pour se détendre et s’amuser.
« Mon cœur est en paix et mes idées débordent autant pour mes dessins que pour mes projets futurs qui n’attendent que mon retour après le déconfinement. »
ALAN CRAGGS (Upcoming exhibition)
“I am scheduled to have my first show at the Window Art Gallery in August, but that is now tentative. My work is a mix of surrealist scenes and realistic landscapes. The pictured works are recent oil paintings on canvas . None are yet completed or named.
“We are isolated in apartments housed in community shelters on two acres of forest outside Brockville. We are faring well and helping each other, which allows me and other artists here to continue our art practice. In order to exhibit our work I am considering drive-by shows put up in the woods. We can social distance in nature and show as a group. This will take work.”
LAYNE LARSEN (TIFAA group exhibition, March 2018)
“I just finished an experimental piece--fairly small, only 19 cm square. This work was done using the Flemish technique, which involves painting the image in six layers: imprimatura, two umber layers, a grey layer and two colour layers, so you are effectively painting the same piece five times. Each layer is supposed to look like a finished work. I used acrylic instead of oil, which makes the process much more difficult.
“I am primarily a watercolorist (specialty: birds) but do aviation work for museums in acrylic and airbrush. I also run a full-service framing business, which shut down, as did our gallery in Gananoque. Having delivered my last commission, I had time to experiment with a technique that I had always wanted to try.
“I started with a wooden panel and made my own gesso for the ground, using a mixture of gypsum powder, transparent acrylic primer, some polyvinyl acetate glue, and titanium white paint: three coats, each sanded to get the eggshell surface required. I plan on doing another one, this time a life study, which will require a lot more variation in skin tones. COVID has given me the opportunity to try these techniques. I am 79, so I don't have a lot of time left to experiment!“
“I have had no difficulty at all staying home, although my wife and I do miss our weekly ‘date night’ outing.”
DEBBIE OTTMAN-SMITH (KSOA instructor)
“I’m currently working on two commissions, which have subject matter I am truly interested in. The first is for a new client who wants a special wedding gift inspired by stars and galaxies. The second is a portrait for a person who loves my artistic magic (as she calls it). What really excites me is that I’ll be using my all-time favourite style: montage. I’ll be creating a collage of small candid action images surrounding a larger traditional close-up of the subject’s face. Although challenging, I think this approach truly captures all aspects of a personality.
“I’ve also managed to squeeze in time to finish a drawing that I’ve been working on in dribs and drabs each term for a few years now, as I teach my students about creating textures. The reference image (from ‘Rangefinder,’ a photography magazine, February 2008) is a portrait of a young girl playing dress-up, a favourite subject of mine. She is wearing an unbelievable array of textures that I have been challenging myself with. I’m in heaven, even if it isn’t my own creation.
“My art practice hasn’t really changed since the restrictions. The extra time at home has allowed me to create an online portfolio. But the longer the situation takes to resolve, the more difficult it is to concentrate, which is a vital aspect of what I do. Another difficulty is the availability of supplies. The mail has slowed to a snail’s pace due to social distancing. I much prefer to shop for brushes and paper in person anyway. An online image doesn’t convey the quality or true colour of an item. Tactility and optics are important when it comes to shopping for art supplies.
“I can honestly say that not being able to be in the studio space with my students has been by far the most difficult aspect of this isolation. I feed off their energy and I inspire them. How I miss those symbiotic relationships.”
LORI PARISH (Juried Exhibition, July 2019)
“I paint intuitively and noticed some new work emerging in November 2019. I had no explanation for the changes at that time. I now see that many of these works feel predictive of the pandemic that we became aware of in February 2020.
“I had started to create with acrylic ink on heavy watercolour paper. An abstract series emerged, with images that, oddly enough, could be interpreted as virus-like in their appearance. Also, I am not one to paint figures, yet, within an abstract painting, a young child appeared. My inner child, I suspect. She is holding compassion for the world in her big heart. This painting has now been named Little Did I Know.
“Without gallery shows to look forward to, and because of a general malaise that can be felt by us empaths, motivation has been challenging during the pandemic. Yet, I continue to paint and feel good about offering some sales proceeds and my time to local charities.”
MARTA SCYTHES (KSOA instructor)
“At the moment I am not making any "art for art's sake". Instead, my focus is on my much neglected house and garden; I am sewing masks for family, friends and Napanee hospital staff and patients; and I have created a couple of step-by-step spring flower watercolour demos for the KSOA site.
“I love being home with my husband, eating delicious meals, sleeping a lot, walking and biking in our beautiful village of Newburgh . . . and getting to know neighbours (at a distance)!
“The most difficult aspect of the COVID pandemic is the restrictions placed on me as an instructor. Teaching is my passion. The Haliburton School of Art and Design: Fleming College, where I have taught since 1981, has cancelled all summer programs. Likewise my last KSOA classes were cancelled. In addition to teaching, I do stroke rehab research at Providence Care Hospital. This too is, of course, on hold.”
Parks are open and there is talk of slowly lifting lockdowns in certain sectors. Will the WAG continue to function as before? We don’t know, but artists and gallery administrators are getting creative online and at home. Following is the second in a series that allows instructors and artists associated with the gallery to shed light, in their own words, on how they are adapting.
GARY BARNETT (Solo exhibition, August 2018; Honourable Mention, Juried Exhibition, July 2018)
“I’ve been staying true to my concept of using chemistry and energy, as opposed to traditional painting tools, to control the application of acrylic paint. I still add paint thinner, silicone and Floetrol, which determine how the paint will move. But I’ve been experimenting with different ways to physically move the paint around a surface using chains, strings, forced air and balloons. I’m also exploring new ways of pouring, as well as continuing my traditional style of dragging the paint with strips of plastic and paper.
“For many years I’ve been focussed on pure abstract expressionism, using basic principles of nature and aesthetics as the foundation of my compositions. In my work I believe the paint is the subject. Now I’m transitioning to figurative subjects--plants, flowers and landscapes--using the new pouring and dragging techniques. My paintings are moving in new directions while staying true to my concept of creating art the way nature does (Day at the Beach, Poppies in the Wind).
“I don't believe that my work habits have changed much due to the situation we are now in. I think I have always been very isolated while working. If anything, I find I have more creative energy and now have more time to create. I am, however, having a hard time getting certain art supplies. Luckily I was well stocked with paint and canvas before this all started.
“I'm actually a website developer, so I've just set up a new online store where I can sell my paintings and also canvas prints of my floral paintings. I had a store before but didn't sell much. I think, given the situation now, the time might be right.”
CATHARINA BREEDYK LAW (TIFAA group exhibition, March 2018)
“I had been teaching drawing to a senior’s group that was part of 50 Plus, which offers activities in this area. With the help of one of my students I set up a Facebook group called Art Play. It allows me to share drawing worksheets with anyone who would like to play with art materials. Everyone is welcome, we share and encourage each other, and we hone our skills. I post twice a week, which keeps my head in the game, gives me purpose and helps me develop new ideas for my own work. We now have 85 members. The whole idea is that we are Alone Together.”
“I had also been teaching children every couple of weeks. Now, twice a week for about an hour, using FaceTime, I demonstrate simple activities, we chat, and the kids practice their skills. They are on an iPad and I am on an iPhone. Lots of fun. I am not able to visit my little grandson, as he is in Toronto, but having some kids in my life is great.
“Once a week I join other members of my TIFAA group to have a paint-in from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. We work and share what we are doing on Messenger.
“These ways of connecting through art have really helped to get my creative juices flowing again. I am painting pretty much every day--Time, Summer Tree (in progress). Projects that were started months ago are now nearing completion. For me, a daily routine, which also includes self care, is essential.
“First there is hope and then you see a future. It may be different from the one you first thought it would be, but there is a future out there for all of us.”
MARY LOU JAANSALU (Solo exhibition, February 2019)
“I’ve been living in Brussels since July 2019. The COVID lockdown started here in mid-March, and once my family settled into a routine, the time came for me to focus on my studio practice. I decided to build momentum by experimenting with some materials I want to use more. And I decided to explore subject matter I don't usually work with, so that I would have no expectations. Inspired by the blossoms that were emerging, especially the Star Magnolias, I created multiple renditions of these flowers in a few different media. My next set will be in acrylic, but I must wait for the delivery of a paint order. I was unhappy to discover that many of my paints had dried up since the move.
“Being restricted in my trips to the art supply store is a small annoyance. More importantly, I very much miss my visits to galleries and museums, as well as other outings, which were becoming part of my routine. Last fall I started a life drawing class with an instructor educated at the Beaux-Arts in Paris. He had me working in a way I was not used to—small, about letter size, with an emphasis on close observation and getting the entire figure on one small page. Of course, that class has stopped too.
“I know that the move, along with all my experiences in Belgium, are propelling me toward my next big project. I haven’t quite formulated it yet. I’m hopeful that the momentum of the COVID-19 studio practice will keep me moving in a positive artistic direction once we are allowed to get out more. I also foresee myself establishing a web presence some time in the future.”
MARK WILLIAM LAUNDRY (Solo exhibition, October 2017)
“This February I completed what I call “the purple one.” I haven’t given it a clever name yet. It’s the first work with curved panels. Just before I stopped going to my shared studio space this March I was working on another curved-panel piece. It’s patiently awaiting my return to the studio to be completed.
“The works in my show from 2017 were based on the idea of arranging multiple panels, all with the same design, in a grid to generate a secondary design. This secondary, or overall, design was not preconceived. It could change depending on the arrangement. The only thing I planned was the design of an individual panel. I made sketches to see if a panel design worked. Some didn’t.
“My new works continue the same idea, but the grid has become less rigid, and the panels have changed shape, both in two and three dimensions. Because it’s hard to sketch a three-dimensional panel, I’ve had to rely on experience to decide if a panel design will work when repeated in a grid.
“The multi-panel works I’ve been doing for the past several years require the use of power tools and many visits to stores to buy supplies. Recent self-isolating has put an end to both these activities. No longer constructing, I’ve been reduced to sketching. I’ve returned to the fixed grid with rectangular panels . What I can do is play more with colour.
“The upside to the current situation is that I get a break from going compulsively to the studio every day. Another upside is that I get the chance to reset my ‘inner gestalt’ as it pertains to my recent works. When I do return to the studio, I’m sure I’ll see them in a new way and hopefully see more possibilities for new works.”
ANDRÉE LÉVESQUE (Solo exhibition January 2018 and September 2019)
“I am making more art now because, apart from my daily drawings, I often make paintings of these drawings. It is easy working at home because I am accustomed to being housebound—I have no car and few friends. I watch the birds a lot. They are my life-line.
“I post my daily drawings on Facebook and get some feedback. Sometimes I sell a couple of pieces.
(KSOA instructor; Honourable Mention, Juried Exhibitions, July 2018, July 2019; Winner, Paint the Town, December 2018)
“A painting that I am working on now is called Porch Party. It’s a collection of musicians playing at Chris Brown’s Wolfe Island Records studio in Marysville on Wolfe Island. These are musicians that I have sketched many times and people that I know and whose work I greatly admire. What is different for me, because of isolation, is that I am using visual references from recorded videos that I have been able to find on the Internet. What I am finding fun is that I can paint from these recordings and at the same time listen to the musicians on my CD player. I am being drawn to work on portraits of people that I am missing now in my life because of COVID-19. I am also intrigued by the play of several opposing perspectives in one painting. The canvas size, 12” x 36”, allows me to explore this.
“As always, getting my work completed and out to people interested in viewing it, seems to be my constant mantra, especially during the time of COVID restrictions.”
Ulrike Bender is a former graphic designer, art director and ESL teacher who, in retirement, has ventured into photography. She is currently a volunteer gallery assistant at the WAG and a docent at Agnes.