28 April 2013

Lighting Up History With Contemporary Art

A few months ago I connected via Twitter with Jennifer Lyons, the head curator at Museums of Prince Edward County. She sent me an article about a historic house in New York City that had invited contemporary artists into the house to create work to be displayed on site. Jennifer and I got together soon afterwards to discuss how we might be able to collaborate on a project at Macaulay House, built in the 1830's, and located just a few minutes away from Small Pond Arts.


At this time I was heavy into planning for the Firelight Lantern Festival, and as the museum’s Doors Open event was happening the week after our festival, I thought it might be interesting to create lanterns in response to the historical objects on site. Made of bamboo, tissue or rice paper, masking tape and glue, these simple materials are extremely flexible, and can be used to rather quickly create sculptural art pieces. Jennifer was game, so I invited three other artists to come on board, Chrissy Poitras, Nell Casson and Hri Neil.


On a cold day in early April we met up at Macaulay House. Jennifer took us on a tour of the house, and there was no shortage of inspiration to be found. We sat down and discussed what approach we would take. We spent the rest of the day in the cozy kitchen, making lanterns. This is what we came up with.

Teapot and Teacups by Nella Casson
Artist statement - Nell Casson
We began our tour of Macaulay House through the door of the servants’ kitchen; a warm fire was brightly burning and the vessels and objects were lined neatly on the shelves. We continued into the main house, where the fine objects similar to those owned by the Macaulay family were displayed in the grand rooms. I was instantly aware of the difference between the two classes that had lived in the house. Although their lives were obviously different I looked around for objects that both classes would have handled and used. The ceramics and fine china in the cabinet in the main dining room are preserved perfectly. The patterns on the teacups and teapots are so ornate and precious - some even in gold, I was instantly dawn to the pattern and the design of these objects. While working on my lanterns I began to think of these fragile objects as a kind of bridge between the classes. These teacups would be handled by both the lady of the manor and her staff. This teapot would be presented to guests and cared for by the kitchen help. It amazes me that these artifacts have survived. Their fragility is reflected in the fragile nature of the lanterns I have created.

Inspiring inkwell 
Artist statement - Krista Dalby
I was drawn to focus on objects in Reverend Macaulay’s study because this room is a private one, devoted to personal work and reflection. Being a writer, I was easily charmed by the quill in the inkwell; I’ve often thought that you would have to be very serious about writing to use such tools. I chose to create a Bible because it was an object which would have figured prominently in the reverend’s life. I thought it would work well as a lantern, being lit from within, as I imagine his belief in God might have done for him. As my final object of inspiration I chose the clock on the mantle. Wandering through the house you are struck by the sense of time, the lives that have lived in these rooms and handled these antiquities. As the clock was so ornate I couldn’t hope to emulate its details, opting instead to add the Latin phrase Tempus Fugit, “time flies,” a poignant inscription often found on clocks.
Bible, Inkwell and Clock by Krista Dalby
Detail of clock by Krista Dalby, "Tempus Fugit"
Chrissy Poitras with boots
Artist Statement - Chrissy Poitras
We entered through the back door into the winter kitchen. A fire was built and a pop-up studio was created. Memories of class trips and Christmas visits with my family came back to me while we walked through the house and peeked in all the rooms. There were so many objects to appreciate and spaces to inspire, but I was quickly attracted to the two-tone leather children's boots, with the tiny little buttons, sitting on the trunk at the foot of the bed. These boots inspired me to focus on fashion, including the top hat that could have belonged to Mr. Macaulay and the bonnet, perhaps similar to one owned by his wife or daughter. As we sat by the fire, drinking coffee, chatting and building our lanterns I started to realize that these accessories also spoke about family. This association seemed fitting as it related back to my nostalgic feelings upon entering the house. Once the structures of my lanterns were completed I brought them home to my studio on County Rd. 5 where I hand-painted and printed monoprints onto Japanese rice paper for the covering of the lanterns. I appreciated being able to interact with a space that was part of my past in a way that truly connects to my present.

Chrissy Poitras with boots, bonnet and top hat lanterns
Detail of top hat by Chrissy Poitras
Hri Neil outside Macaulay House
Artist Statement - Hri Neil
My piece, Tree House, is a meditation on the relationship between the grandeur of the Macaulay House in juxtaposition to the majesty and isolation of the natural world where it was situated. Set and setting, it's hard for us to imagine the sense of isolation the early settlers would have felt as they engaged the wilds of Canada, struggling to establish an outpost of civilization in what was primarily raw forest at the time. Winds rattling the windows and the shadows of trees dancing in moonlight. Tradition and the vestiges of God and culture holding fast with only a thin skin of wood and brick as a bulwark against the quiet mystery of nature. A home amongst the trees.

Tree House by Hri Neil (click to play video)

Having the opportunity to work in this beautiful historic home was really wonderful, and as artists we appreciated this unique challenge of merging the historical and the contemporary. Our lanterns should be on display for at least the next month, so if you're in the area, stop by Macaulay House and check them out!

Breakfast at Macaulay's by Milé Murtanovski
We weren't the only artists to hone in on this beautiful spot; Milé painted a door depicting both the exterior of the house as well as a scene in the dining room. The door was auctioned off yesterday, with the proceeds supporting the Museums of Prince Edward County.

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