Friday, February 19, 2010

Collecting Cultures: Q&A with Helen Gregory

Sometimes I must admit I feel a bit perverse in my story planning. All eyes are on Vancouver and where do I focus an artist interview on? The other end of the country, in St. John's. Ah well. Art does happen everywhere, even (gasp!) during the Olympics.

I have to say I did enjoy my chat with Helen Gregory, a well-regarded Newfoundland artist currently exhibiting at the Rooms in a show curated by award-winning novelist Lisa Moore. Where I thought our conversation would focus on death--Gregory includes a lot of skeleton imagery in her work--it ended up being more about collecting, both personal and institutional. Here's an excerpt from our condensed chat published in today's National Post:

Q [You say you were inspired by 16th-century wunderkammer, or cabinets of curiosity.] What were cabinets of curiosity?

A They were predecessors to the modern museum -- basically accumulations of objects meant to inspire wonder in the viewer. Things were displayed quite crammed together, with the theory that if each object was awe-inspiring individually, the effect would be even more so when things were displayed together.

A lot of these cabinet collections were started by the very wealthy, and they were more about a display of wealth than about education. They weren't divided scientifically -- that came later. A lot of the stuff in my paintings is from natural history collections at the Rooms, the Redpath Museum in Montreal and the Canadian Museum of Nature near Ottawa.

Q But a lot of your paintings conjure death, not just collecting. How do you account for that?

A Well, some of these items, especially in earlier paintings, are from my own collection. In one painting, there's a sparrow skull that still has a ball of feathers attached -- this is something I picked up on a walk, and kept. A lot of people might find it disgusting, but I see the beauty in decay. And I like to collect these types of objects as a result. I used to think about my tendency to collect things as a personal impulse. But in my recent studies -- I'm doing a doctorate right now -- I've been looking at collecting as a global and social impulse, an institutional impulse, too. Granted, some of my images are very personal -- of sentimental souvenirs like dried roses, for example. But I can also recognize that it's a general human impulse to collect.

There's also a nice bit in the interview about a mollusk with body issues and a legendary giant squid.

Image of Helen Gregory's Blue Tanagers courtesy of the artist and the Rooms

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