Jerry Ropson, as spoken in tongues (2015), installation view of the artist creating a mixed-media drawing on wall. Commissioned for The Rooms, St. John's, NL
Very few have heard of Pollards Point. If you google it, you’ll find the Wikipedia entry for the Bay on which it is located is merely a “stub” revealing only that “White Bay is a large bay in Newfoundland, Canada.” If you trusted the Internet, you might wonder if some of the tiny communities on White Bay exist at all. But for artist Jerry Ropson, Pollards Point is very much alive, fuelling much of his creative practice. It is also the driving force behind a 45-foot-long mural he’s creating on the wall of The Rooms, St. John’s, NL, for the exhibition Folklore and Other Panics.
But the Pollards Point Ropson is mapping out is not a geographical representation of his childhood home — which Ropson describes as “about as rural as you can get” — but rather an abstract psychological terrain. It marks the importance of geographical place, as well as both personal and oral histories. Working in black-and-white, using ink and liquid vinyl paint, Ropson plans to depict the buildings along the Point. He is also including a series of flags, which have fascinated him ever since several rural Newfoundlanders told him that, in pre-Confederation days, people who needed to build a house would “just throw up a flag.” These nondescript flags weren’t a call to any nationalistic allegiance or political alliance, but to bring people together — precisely what Ropson’s hoping to do at the Centre. During the exhibition’s first week, gallery-goers can interact with Ropson as he works on the mural and transcribes text-based ephemera — such as snippets of conversations about communities and their subjective histories — in list form on the wall.
“With a title like Folklore and Other Panics, this exhibition undermines stereotypes surrounding folklore right from the start,” says curator Mireille Eagan. “The title seems to describe folklore as a form of panic, which equates it with an illogical, subjective, and often counter-productive response to a perceived crisis.” She hopes people will be prompted to consider just “why something seemingly benign and recursive (folklore) might be a cause for concern.”
Janice Wright Cheney, Coy Wolves (2010), textile over taxidermy forms, found fur
Often, our perceptions of folklore are tainted with elitist notions about who belongs to “the folk.” The controversial psychoanalytic folklorist Alan Dundes made an interesting point in his essay "Who are the Folk?" (In Interpreting Folklore, Indiana University Press, 1980), when he wrote that the problem with our understanding of folklore is that our definition of "folk" has historically been dependent on who “folk” are not. The “folk" were viewed as the opposite of "civilized" urbanites, he suggested, understood as “a group of people who constituted the lower stratum, the so-called vulgus in populo — in contrast with the upper stratum or elite of that society."
“This notion of a binary that exists between the general public and the elite is folly,” says Eagan. “It simplifies a conversation at the expense of reality and, to be frank, at the expense of meaningful and interesting conversation. At their bases, folklore and contemporary art are the stories we tell ourselves to find affinity with whatever and whomever we find around us.” Many of the artists exhibited in this exhibition bridge any perceived gaps between “folklore” and “contemporary art,” working, adds Eagan, “with the materials that are a tangible part of our everyday lives, re-purposing what is entrenched within a culture’s psyche.”
Michael Flaherty, Rangifer Sapiens: 1807–1884 (2012), ceramic. The Rooms, St. John's, NL, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador Collection, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador
For artist Mark Clintberg, whose work can be found in the National Gallery collection, it is the community-centric aspect of folklore that places it in dialogue with contemporary art today. “Folk culture,” he tells NGC Magazine, “remains important, because it is a form of cultural production that is, in general, created by people from the same community that is intended to consume or enjoy it.” Just as a folk dance is enjoyed by the community of people who participate in it, pieces of his work have been left behind for the enjoyment of the community with which he created them. “Considering the spike in contemporary art projects that involve working cooperatively or collaboratively with small communities, or that draw on the rhetoric of locality or regionalism,” says Clintberg, “it would seem that the logic of folk practices also makes an increasing contribution to how to talk about and frame today's art practices.”
Clintberg worked with a group of textile artists on Fogo Island — the Winds and Waves Artisan’s Guild — to produce a series of quilts subverting Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s motto to politicians, “Reason Over Passion,” which were famously transcribed by Canadian artist Joyce Wieland onto a quilt in the National Gallery of Canada collection. In an homage to Wieland, Clintberg says “Passion Over Reason,” and in the spirit of overthrowing Reason, his quilts present each piece of fabric “the wrong side” out. Rather than treating his quilts as precious objects, Clintberg has left several at the Fogo Island Inn. This offers a playful intervention into the lives of hotel guests, who become unexpected collaborators when they curl up inside one of the quilts, its message perhaps prompting guests to consider their own everyday priorities.
“I believe that feeling is a form of knowledge, and that knowledge is something that can have feeling attached to it,” says Clintberg. “The colloquial, introductory phrase ‘I think I feel . . .’ is suggestive of this tendency.”
Mark Clintberg, Passion over reason / La passion avant la raison (2014), fabric, thread, limited edition series of ten handmade quilts conceived and designed by Mark Clintberg. Made by the Winds and Waves Artisan’s Guild. Courtesy of Fogo Island Arts
Another important and often overlooked aspect of folklore, present in the works Eagan chose for this exhibition, is its questioning of established culture: the ability of “the folk” to be subversive. “I believe that folklore shows us that authority is something that shifts necessarily,” says Eagan. “It’s like a good dinner party, where we all have our chance to speak, where quirks and flaws are lovingly poked.”
Duane Linklater — an Omaskêko Cree artist, and a past winner of the Sobey Art Award — has a work in the exhibition highlighting the importance of subjective narratives and our need to question so-called objective authorities. Cape Spear is named after a geographical site in Newfoundland, once home to the Beothuks, an Indigenous people who had died out completely by the early 19th century. Some believe that the Beothuks died at the hands of European colonialists. This remains a controversial subject, however, as the historical record is relatively silent on both the Beothuks’ existence and their demise.
Linklater attempted to leave a historical record of his own journey to Cape Spear, writing "At 6:24 am NST 3/10/2011, Duane Linklater watched the sunrise. He traveled there to see the sunrise, to be the first one before anyone else.” Soon afterwards, his post was deleted by a slew of “editors,” who grew increasingly impatient with his repeated attempts to repost his entry. Linklater was ultimately blocked from the site by these same editors.
“Cape Spear is a popular place, and thousands of people have watched the sunrise there (myself included),” wrote one editor. “Please explain why it is notable that Duane Linklater saw the sunrise there.”
Lee Henderson, The Known Effects of Lightning on the Body (2014), video installation (video projector, stereo, copper, wood)
Much of the work showcased in Folklore and Other Panics (which also features artists Joshua Bonnetta, Kay Burns, Janice Wright Cheney, Michael Flaherty, Kym Greeley & Erika Stephens-Moore, Lee Henderson, Steve Topping and Michael Waterman) proves that it was indeed important that Linklater saw the sunrise at Cape Spear, because these subjective experiences are notable. Alternative histories are worth cultivating — not simply for their own sake, but because it can be dangerous to gloss over the pieces of our past that don’t suit our desired present. Rather than present folk art dealing in the idealized, squeaky-clean depiction of Atlantic Canadian lighthouses and seagulls that attracts tourist dollars, the artists Eagan features create complex works. They strive to open up uninhibited discussions, questioning the places we’ve been, where we are going, and just whom that makes us now.
Folklore and Other Panics is on view at The Rooms, St. John’s, NL, until April 26, 2015.
Lizzy Hill is an internationally published writer, Akimbo's Halifax Correspondent and the editor of Visual Arts News, Atlantic Canada's only magazine focusing on the work of visual artists.
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