A portrait of Robbie Waisman, by artist Carol Wylie. Part of the exhibit They Didn’t Know We Were Seeds, at the Zack Gallery to Jan. 4.
Even via a wobbly Zoom-led tour, the impact of Saskatoon artist Carol Wylie’s portraits – nine of Holocaust suvivors and nine of residential school survivors – can be felt.
The title of the solo exhibit at the Zack Gallery until Jan. 4 is They Didn’t Know We Were Seeds. It is taken from the proverb: “They buried us … they didn’t know we were seeds.” And the choice of 18 portraits was deliberate.
“It was quite quick and early in the process I decided that 18 had to be the number,” said Wylie at the exhibit’s virtual opening Nov. 19, “because there’s so much darkness in the stories but there’s so much light and life in the survival… [T]here’s three of the Holocaust survivors who are involved with the March of the Living and to actually go back to the camps, to Auschwitz, and to make that walk when you were there; I can’t imagine the courage it takes. And they do it so that others are educated. That’s the rising above it and making something really powerful out of a black, dark experience.
“And I see the same thing with residential school survivors, like Gilbert [Kewistep] and like Eugene [Arcand], who spend so much of their time going around to schools and speaking in public about their experiences to make sure people are educated about that. And, again, reliving what they went through every time they tell it, I’m sure.
“So, the 18 and the connection to chai, to life, came really early in the process. It had to be 18, because that validation of life that these people represent … had to be present.”
The scale of the paintings was also chosen purposefully. “I want these portraits to take up space and to be very present and, for when you’re standing in front of them, to have them fill up your field of vision, so that you can’t wander past, uninterested and unengaged,” said Wylie.
The project started several years ago, she explained. “I saw Nate Leipciger speak at the Holocaust memorial service in Saskatoon and, it’s ridiculous, I’ve been [attending] for lots of years but, for some reason, that year, it hit me for the first time how elderly all these people are getting.”
The firsthand experience that is so powerful is soon to be lost, she said, and “I felt there was something that I had to do to help to preserve that.” And she would do it with the best tool she had, her passion and ability to create portraits.
“What I have learned over the years,” she said, “is that, when you capture the nuances of a person’s face, you really reflect who they are and much of their history and how they’re made up of that history. Even though it’s not like hearing a verbal story, it’s seeing a story in a different form.
“I started this idea to do a series of portraits of Holocaust survivors. And then, as I entered into it, little things started to pop up that were connecting the Jewish survival to the residential school experience. It started with a community seder at our local synagogue, where our rabbi, who is very forward-thinking, always has elements on the tables that recognize other groups … and, that particular year, he had made special mention of making sure that we understand – especially in Saskatchewan, where we have a really dark history of residential schools – the experience of the Indigenous people that we live with.
“And I started thinking, it’s not a parallel experience, but it’s an experience that is shared in terms of pain and suffering and then survival and rising above it…. And, because I live in Saskatchewan, this is part of the history of the land that I call home, that I’m a settler in, that this is a time of truth and reconciliation, it’s a time of trying to address these issues, so, as a personal step towards reconciliation, I can sit down, listen to the stories of some of these residential school survivors and bear witness to them and bring them in to be part of this project, so that they can converse through their portraits, as a group of survivors.”
It was only after making this decision that Wylie discovered that people like Vancouver’s Robbie Waisman – who is among those featured in the exhibit – were already meeting with residential school survivors to share ideas and experiences.
The project took about three-and-a-half years to complete. Waisman is the only Vancouver-based subject. “All the other Holocaust survivors were from Toronto, Edmonton and Saskatoon, and all the residential school survivors are from Saskatchewan,” said Wylie in an email interview with the Independent.
“I had to be really careful,” she noted at the exhibit opening. “There’s a very, very fraught history of non-Indigenous artists and non-Indigenous photographers representing Indigenous peoples and I knew I was stepping into this murky ground. All the way along, I had to keep asking myself questions about my own integrity around this, what are the reasons for why you’re doing this and does every single survivor that you talk to understand fully what this project is about and [are they] fully on board with it. At the end, I thought, if there are people who are criticizing it, that’s fine, but, I feel, after conversations I’ve had with many residential school survivors, that it’s more important that we raise this issue and more important that I make this step towards reconciliation than be fearful of doing something that maybe I shouldn’t be doing or that the art world might perceive that I shouldn’t be doing.”
When the work was completed, Arcand and Kewistep “smudged the work before it went off on its first exhibition. Then they gave me a smudge kit that I could use myself, if I wanted to, in the future. It was extremely meaningful to me; it was almost like they’d given it their stamp of approval, as well as imbuing it with these good graces and these good thoughts and this positive energy before the work went anywhere and anyone had a chance to see it.”
The exhibit has been shown in various places and will travel elsewhere after its time at the Zack.
Wylie’s general process in doing portraits is to speak with her subjects first.
“I think that, in order for the mask that we all wear in the world to protect ourselves, in order for that to drop, there needs to be time spent talking,” she said. “There’s this very strange artificial intimacy that happens when you’re sitting two feet – before COVID times – away from somebody that you’re drawing, and you’re talking and you’re looking intently at them…. So, I always wait until that couple of hours of conversation and visiting is over and then I pull out my camera.
“I need to work from photographs because I like to get a strong resemblance and I can’t have people coming back endlessly to sit for me…. But that’s when I take them, is after that time has been spent, that conversation has happened, and their mask has come down and they are open.”
The openness that is seen in the subject’s faces, stressed Wylie, “is not something that I put there, it’s something that they had. Seriously, I paint what I see… And that captures what they have, what they are, because it’s all within there, it’s all in their face.”
Given the caveat that there is something intangible about what makes a good portrait, Wylie said in an email, “I believe a portrait should bear resemblance to the subject. But, in addition, it should feel like the portrait is inhabited; like it contains the spirit of an individual. You often hear people comment about the eyes in a portrait following them. I think that’s the sensation of some element of the person, and not just their resemblance, being present. I also like to see evidence of the artist in the work in the form of brushstroke, colour choices, etc. This trace of the artist distinguishes a painted portrait from a photo.”
She described her need to create portraits as “a compulsion I’ve had since I was a child. Even then,” she said, “I drew people, made my own paper dolls. In my grad school investigations I discovered, I believe, that it’s because of a fascination I have with the mystery of consciousness, and the fact that we can never share another’s consciousness. We learn about ourselves through our interactions with others and these connections enrich our being.
“The face is a major part of how we communicate and is strongly connected to our identity,” she said. “Yet, we cannot see ourselves the way others see us, so there’s this mystery around faces. What do they hide? What do they reveal? How do you feel as ‘you’ wearing your face? How do I communicate as ‘me’ wearing my face? I am just never tired of painting a portrait, but am always excited when I begin a new one.”
The exhibit opening was hosted by gallery director Hope Forstenzer, who credited her predecessor, Linda Lando, for bringing this show in. The exhibit is open by appointment and via onlyatthej.com. A commemorative book, being prepared with Wylie’s help, is in the works, as well, said Forstenzer.
On Dec. 9, 6-8 p.m., the gallery is having a Zoom event with Waisman and Wylie, as well as Lise Kirchner from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and Shelley Joseph from Reconciliation Canada. Readers interested in attending should email Forstenzer at [email protected].