You didn’t tell me so i thought it was okay

December 11-30, 2015,


MAWA Mentorship Showcase Essay

Courtney R. Thompson


            The MAWA Foundation Mentorship Showcase presents an opportunity to speak to a culmination of a year’s worth of engagement: a program that supports a rippling of exchanges, a rattling of ideas, and perhaps a rumbling of work. For me, it is just as exciting to think about what is not visible in the Showcase than to write about what you see before you. This is not to say the artworks in You didn’t tell me so i thought it was okay do not deserve thoughtful superlatives, poetic turns of phrase or critical considerations. They do. However, the Showcase is a sliver of what has happened for both the artists and mentors over the program and the timeline for these relationships is wonderfully less defined. Additionally, some mentees chose not to exhibit—this is another opportunity of the program. An exhibition is sometimes perceived as the end of a something: a series, a period of time, even a visualization of an idea. Rather than ends, I prefer to think of beginnings, or better yet continuums: of conversations, of introductions to wider practices, and of communities. The Foundation Mentorship Program celebrates other ways of learning with a model gleefully outside of traditional art school pedagogy but still emboldened with rigor and discovery on its own terms. I am grateful to the cohort for introducing me to their work, sharing their thoughts on process and taking the time to talk through their feelings about being artists in Winnipeg.


            When I met Alison Davis to talk about her experience in the program I made the observation that it was slightly provocative to have an artwork that alluded to parasites and hosts in a mentorship environment. After laughing at my claim, she explained that the program offered a time to act on some of the research she had been reading on parasites and a focused opportunity to reengage with her work in animation. Her previous films were project based, visually distinct, and portrayed both personal and fantastical subjects through a range of techniques. The hand drawn Not that it does any good presents a moment to consider the gestures that mark the feeling of something unseen but with the sensation of having something on you. Microscopic creatures frolic on us all the time, snacking on our epidermis. Some have even succeeded to elevating their activities to mind control. Davis is keenly interested in both the destructive and beneficial relationships between parasite and host. The animation is an effective study and repeated viewing may incur similar gestures and feelings of suspicious sensations.


            Approaching Wendy Seversen’s glass studio I noticed bright, pleasing objects winking at me from the storefront window. I expected to enter a place where I would be nervous about my movements and conscious of holding my bag tightly to my chest for fear of breaking anything. What I registered was more akin to a creative lab with an organized chaos of tools, window glass, a stacked library of books and wired experiments displayed throughout; this frenetic interior complements Seversen’s shift in her practice toward capturing movement in forms. Her previous work with traditional vessels conveyed a technical accomplishment and bold use of color. The newer pieces in the series Float Stretch contrast with a different dynamic: the sculptures are now arrested rather than static. Fixed in a moment of transformation they unfurl and undulate, while iridescent color illuminates a complexity within the material revealed through her careful firing techniques.

            Arrangements of kilns sit expectedly in a back room waiting to transform Seversen’s window scraps into nearly biomorphic objects. Recognizing formal nods to the work of other unconventional glass artists such as Mary Shaffer and Pipaluk Lake, Seversen is interested in experimenting with her material. By creating metal armatures that produce structure there is an opportunity for unexpected play in the firing process. Experimentation continues beyond form with other metal components and encaustic adding texture to the glass. As a continuum the work feels poised to shift dramatically and it is telling that Seversen benefitted from a mentorship pairing with curator Daina Warren in thinking through new modes of installation, lighting and display.


            Katrina Stock’s The Space Between is a thoughtful rumination on narrative materiality, subjectivity and the fluid possibility of archives. Stock’s work offers an intimate collective mythology based on her personal notebooks and family letters. Added to her narrative are letters from a character in Sara Tilley’s novel Duke (Pedlar Press, 2015). In her acknowledgement, Tilley reveals that the story was inspired through a real world archive of familial letters, documents, and narrative ephemera woven into a fictionalized account that involves a character in the story also named Tilley. This layering of histories speaks to the meaningful possibilities between archives in how much they can reveal or how little is revealed in a documented history. Furthermore, the presence of this absence of knowing a complete or true history is echoed in Stock’s thoughts on the gaps left behind in her own unwritten memories. How much do we learn about Stock’s history or her interpretation of her own history through the words of others? While the transparency reveals snippets of private thoughts and correspondence, the whole is productively unsatisfying as an accurate record. Encountering the installation, we are able to physically and emotionally enter other histories that may resonate with our own.


            Sitting down with Shimby over coffee one evening we spoke about other models of art education and the role of artist run centres in that education. This kind of exchange reveals more about Shimby’s work than might be immediately apparent. Over the past year Shimby was enrolled in both the Mentorship program at MAWA and in the inaugural session of aceartinc.’s Cartae Open School. Cartae’s peer based model bills itself as “…an alternative, self-directed, collaborative learning space to explore contemporary art modes, ideas, criticality, and their applications to individual practices.” This overlap was strategic. Shimby’s commitment to community building is generous, personal and open. She maintains this openness while celebrating her position as a queer godmother; one who shares stories of love, compassion and lessons learned through empathy and shifting subjectivity. Her films have spoken to a distinct experience of seeking and identifying with community but the tenderness and curiosity of her narrative feels universal.

            On our walk home after leaving the coffee shop I commented that I was wistfully envious of the narrative in her 2010 film yaya/ayat. In it, she speaks to a longing and connection to a past and history that is simultaneously innate and unknown in her grandmother, “This divided culture, this wonder, this wanting and untranslatable identity.” While my own identity bears little resemblance to the cross-cultural/generational connections across her oeuvre, I have a kinship with this desire: to seek out, activate, invest, and to be kind to communities; and respect their potential for fruitful exchange.


            In writing this I am content to not speak for the mentees’ work over the past year but to our conversations about what the time has meant to their development as artists and to their respective practices. I appreciate the opportunity to be reminded that these exchanges exist outside degree granting institutions and the white cube of the gallery space, that they are messy and sometimes hard to articulate. In this way, other histories are developed—they are discovered through newsletter photos, through online platforms sharing recorded talks or text and image, and through ideas scattered across dinner after an opening. I encourage you to approach the work in You didn’t tell me so I thought it was okay in the spirit that it was made: on its own terms and by each artist.