Thursday, 30 November 2017 11:57

Art exhibition reflects on the lives of ordinary Canadians

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Regina artist Heather Cline speaks about her exhibition at the Art Gallery of Swift Current, Nov. 17. Regina artist Heather Cline speaks about her exhibition at the Art Gallery of Swift Current, Nov. 17.

The personal memories of ordinary Canadians about their home and community was the inspiration for Regina artist Heather Cline's exhibition Quiet Stories from Canadian Places, which is currently on show at the Art Gallery of Swift Current.


She visited Swift Current from Nov. 15 to 17 to do interactive group tours, and she also spoke at a public reception, Nov. 17.
She created this national touring exhibition as a response to Canada's 150th anniversary celebration. It presents a contrast to the traditional role of painting to document history through portraits of historical figures and artworks depicting key historical events. The scenes in her paintings represents places that are significant to everyday people, and her goal was to treat these ordinary places with the respect of a serious historical painting style.
“We may think that people live these very simple lives, but small moments and events test you,” she said. “These happen to anyone and they’re very interesting and compelling to me. So first off, everyday people have extraordinary stories and also I was thinking a lot about history. Painters have often been documenters of history, both with formal historical painting, but also with just the fact that they capture their time and place, and I was thinking about why aren’t everyday spaces just as important as those big historical moments.”
The exhibition is the end result of a 10-year project that started with the collection of stories from people in different communities, including Swift Current. The other places are Moose Jaw, Regina and Yorkton in Saskatchewan, Strathcona County in Alberta, the Okanagan in British Columbia, as well as Inglis, Manitoba, and Oshawa, Ontario. She used these personal stories about life as inspiration for the paintings.
“I had a series of public engagements and residency programs where I was in the community and interviewed people in a couple of different ways, and then those stories compelled me to paint the places,” she said. “That’s where the audio pieces come into this exhibition, because I also share people’s actual voices and stories as part of this celebration of everyday people.”
The audio stories that are part of the exhibition help to create an interactive experience of images and soundscapes for gallery visitors.
“I almost think of the audio pieces as a form of poetry, because I can layer one voice next to another voice, next to another voice, next to another voice and create a sound arc where it maybe starts out funny and it becomes sad and then it becomes serious,” she said.
She has created over 400 stories, but not all of them are on the players in the gallery. The audio stories will change for the different exhibition locations to ensure that there are local stories.
“I do have a website that also features this exhibition and the content,” she said. “So people can come and visit the gallery and then they can go back and look at the online version of the show and revisit the audio content and the paintings.”
The paintings and audio stories in the exhibition are arranged to reflect some broad themes, for example house and home, work life, farm life, leisure, and arrivals and departures.
“I think what’s important for people visiting the show, is to see the show as almost like a collage,” she said. “So sometimes there is a story that’s directly related to a painting, but sometimes there’s just a group of stories on a theme and a group of paintings on a theme and sometimes there’s audio stories that don’t go with an image, but it’s just the story itself that’s very powerful and evocative. So there’s that mix of ways to experience the dialogue between yourself and the exhibition.”
Cline asked questions during her interviews to make people think about their own history and important moments in their lives. She used stories that struck a chord with her as an artist to decide what to paint.
“I think often the stories that really grabbed me were sometimes either unexpected from that person or I was just really engaged in it, like I couldn’t believe it or I was charmed by it,” she said. “Often they were very visual stories, so stories that had me thinking in my head of a place, and as the project went along I started asking people exactly where the place was and going to that exact place and documenting it quite thoroughly with photographs and video and then painting the exact place.”
Visitors to the exhibition might be able to identify the location of some scenes in the artworks, but she did not include those details with the paintings.
“Something that’s been great about the exhibition is that often people will think it's a place they know and I never correct them, because I want the geography to be open to any interpretation,” she said. “I like the fact that in Canada there is a lot of commonality between geography in different cities and different kinds of wilderness locations. So it’s kind of nice that the geography is open to interpretation.”
Art Gallery of Swift Current Director and Curator Kim Houghtaling is impressed with Cline's approach to collect stories that are then expressed in her paintings.
“The exhibition of paintings themselves is quite marvellous,” he said. “The method she uses to paint make the images quite believable and really get at that memory of a place, and many of them talk directly about the communities that they are from.”
He noted that the pieces in the show from Swift Current and Moose Jaw might be familiar to viewers, but even paintings of scenes in other communities have a sense of familiarity.
“As an exhibition we feel so many of the pieces are familiar to us anyway, which reminds us that these memory stories are actually working together to remind us all that we’re part of one culture called Canada, which I think is quite intriguing.”
For that reason he believes this exhibition is very appropriate and timely during Canada's 150th anniversary celebration, because many people have been thinking about how to interpret and recognize the occasion.
“They’re exploring it from the celebratory side, but it's also an opportunity to question and challenge how our history has come about and where we’re at and what kind of pride we should really have in what we are doing,” he said. “This exhibition is interesting because she is exploring quiet stories. ... The quiet stories are the individual people, that really are citizens, that really are common folk of Canada, and when they start to talk and tell the little story that they have, it’s not part of maybe a major recognition, but it is actually quite powerful and interesting and when you really explore it, it speaks to the overall history of our country and how we have formed and developed.”
The exhibition Quiet Stories from Canadian Places will be on display at the Art Gallery of Swift Current until Dec. 30. Exhibition viewing hours are Monday to Thursday, 1-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m., as well as Friday and Saturday from 1-5 p.m.

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Matthew Liebenberg

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