Sometimes Artworks Have Lives of Their Own

Some of you may remember an artwork I made during the first half of 2020 called Terrēnus Paterna. I created this artbook about my ancestors and their geographical journey to Canada. Many of these lives I never knew, and yet were essential to my being here today. This rotating series of gouache paintings tell silent stories about celebrations and joy, struggles and deep personal losses. A suitcase of loose family photographs provided the majority of my source material for this project. In this jumble of photos were glimpses into the near and distant past. Cat eye glasses, vintage cars, wedding dresses, 1980’s perms, stiff corsets and funerals. These photos not only span time but also geography—from the Russian steppe to the Canadian prairies, the west coast and family holidays. While working on these paintings, I spent hours gazing into these eyes that stared back at me. Looking for connections or clues into their lives (and mine). Some faces were familiar to me… my parents, both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, others were not. Some photos had hand-written notes scrawled on the back with information like names, dates and places. Did the writers know these photos would one day end up in the hands of a future generation that would no longer recognize them? During this project my grandmother Clara, who was living with my parents, passed away at 99-and-a-half-years-old. She is dearly missed. During the same time, I was laid off work and the world slipped into the uncertainty of a pandemic. I poured myself into this project because there wasn’t much else to do. It brought me on a difficult journey, but also got me through a hard time. This artwork was destined for an exhibition in Russia—the birth place of my grandfather and the place where my family’s recent history began as fleeing refugees.

This exhibition was titled Biblio Nordica (book of the north). The original concept was twofold: it focused on the connections between countries that share similar geographical latitudes and asked artists to consider creating art within the open-ended framework of a “book”. I was surprised to be included in this show as I had not previously considered myself from the north as I live in one of the most southerly locations in Canada. However, I am from the north in a global context. The other artists in the exhibition were from Russia, Finland and Norway. When I was contemplating how to begin this project, I kept thinking about my ancestors’ connection to the north. Since leaving their native country about 400 years ago, and settling across three continents, my ancestors called many places home—but all between the 50th and 60th latitude lines. Books are among the most prized and treasured objects in history. Books have been stolen, burned and smuggled. They can be illuminated in gold, embossed, stamped, chiseled, typed or written by hand. But they can also be humble, everyday objects that tell personal stories and communicate ideas. I quickly came to realize that a “book” can be quite an open expression. Just think of the variety of forms: unfurling scrolls, loose tablets, bound into blocks and so on. The purpose of a book is to communicate, and that doesn’t have to be restricted to what is on the pages. Meaning can be incorporated into the form itself. I created my “book” so that when it is viewed from above, it’s form references a diagram of the northern part of the globe.

It soon came time to mail my artwork to Russia. However, I wasn’t able to mail it to the gallery because many countries were not accepting mail at this time. No to be deterred, I ever so carefully packaged these bound paintings and brought them to the post office. This is where my part of the story ends and Terrēnus Paterna begins a story of its own.

After traveling 7,723 km, my dear friend in the UK received my package, re-labeled it and mailed it on to Russia (Russia was only receiving post from a few countries, the UK being one of these locations). A further 3,165 km and my package arrived safely in Petrozavodsk, Russia.

The Biblio Nordica exhibition comprised a collection of work from twelve international artists from Russia, Canada, Finland and Norway. The exhibition was first held in Russia, and then traveled to Finland and Norway. After the shows finished, the artworks were mailed back to the contributing artists. In January of last year, I was excited to receive Terrēnus Paterna in the mail. I had it for a week when I received word that there was an opportunity for Biblio Nordica to be exhibited in St Petersburg, Russia. I re-packaged the artwork, went back to the post office and mailed it directly to the curator (skipping the UK step this time). My package again arrived safely and had now accumulated 32,664 km.

Unfortunately that exhibition never happened, and as the postal service was again suspended, the artworks are still in Russia.

As I sit here writing, it’s hard to distill my thoughts as I process the life Terrēnus Paterna has lived since its creation. I won’t lie, I was pretty nervous about mailing this artwork into an uncertain world, hoping it would successfully arrive at its destination. I spent an entire day packaging it. I even took a video explaining how to unpack it once it arrived and had a diagram included the box about how to pack it up again. I also researched the size specifications of official Russian parcel boxes so that it would be able to be sent back home.

Last month I received an unexpected email from the curator. A gallery in Moscow would like to show the Biblio Nordica exhibition. A thread of emails followed from the international artists involved, sending their enthusiastic agreements for the continuation of this show. It is encouraging to see the desire people have for art to be shared. Whether you are a creator or a viewer, art plays an important role in life. It helps us process thoughts, feelings, relationships and the world around us. Amazingly, a single artwork can speak to many people differently, reaching them where they are art. As I reflect on this opportunity to exhibit in the capital city of my ancestors’ homeland, I find myself thinking about a grainy photograph of my grandfather as a young boy, with his face a little blurred and over exposed. I painted that image of him for Terrēnus Paterna. I wonder what he would think of it. If it would speak to him differently than it did to me. It is my hope that this exhibition will encourage the people that go to see it. That they will find their own personal connections with the work.

I don’t come from famous or noble blood, but from a humble background of hardworking, determined folk. Many of them worked with their hands as farmers, craftsmen, carpenters and builders. The stories of my ancestors are universal: searching the globe for a place to raise their family and call home. Terrēnus Paterna‘s story is not over yet. It has already traveled far more than the people on its pages. Over the last few years I’ve learned something new about art—just because an artwork is completed, doesn’t mean its story has to be.

Biblio Nordica: Moscow

The following photos were taken a few days ago during the installation of Biblio Nordica in the MMOMA (Moscow Museum of Modern Art). This exhibition opened yesterday.

It is with great appreciation that I would like to acknowledge the vision and dedication of the curator of Biblio Nordica exhibition, Varvara, and the Russian artists whose efforts coordinated this forth exhibition.

6 thoughts on “Sometimes Artworks Have Lives of Their Own

  1. What an amazing story, Natasha! In honouring your family’s story, you are sharing it with the world. Congratulations.

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