Arts cuts, HIV and chicken in a can

The HIV-positive blood-soaked paper towel wouldn't have made it to Whitehorse if Prime Minister Stephen Harper had his way. It's part of the Yukon Arts Centre gallery's most recent show De L'Ecriture/With Writing -- one of...

By Genesee Keevil

Senior Reporter

The HIV-positive blood-soaked paper towel wouldn’t have made it to Whitehorse if Prime Minister Stephen Harper had his way.

It’s part of the Yukon Arts Centre gallery’s most recent show De L’Ecriture/With Writing—one of the first touring exhibits hammered by Harper’s arts cuts several years ago.

“We had 10 venues lined-up across the country,” said Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal touring exhibitions head Emeren Garcia, in Whitehorse to hang the show.

But requests for funding fell on deaf ears.

“We got a lot of support from Quebec,” said Garcia.

Two years later, some federal funding finally trickled through.

The show wouldn’t have made it to Whitehorse without it.

“It would be impossible for any museum to work with you,” said Garcia.

“We shouldn’t be penalized because we live in a wonderful huge country.

“Funding is essential.”

Jana Sterbak’s book, written in the HIV-positive blood of a now-deceased friend, is just one of 23 pieces by “international, Canadian and Quebec artists,” according to the exhibit description.

Separating Quebec artists from their Canadian counterparts is “definitely political—French nationalist,” said gallery curator Mary Bradshaw.

“But it’s also because the show was generated out of Montreal,” she said.

“If there was a show with lots of Yukon artists we would say, ‘By international, Canadian and Yukon artists,’” she added.

Almost every piece in the exhibit incorporates words, whether they’re subtly stitched into white linen, blurred through sensual photos, or pasted over gruesome, two-metre tall collages.

Artist Owen Williams, working quietly in the next room, has stuck with the theme.

The local calligrapher is drawing 10,000 variations of the letter S.

“When they asked what I would like to do for the show, of course, the first thing I thought of was drawing 10,000 variations on the letter S,” said Williams at the gallery opening.

He went on to consider other possibilities, but kept coming back to his original idea.

“I find working within the restraints of the discipline the interesting part of the practice,” said Williams.

Stacked on 10 carefully measured white pillars, Williams has piled rough, white paper in stacks of 1,000.

A long, narrow, white rectangle beside the pillars is where he does his work, sweeping through more than 300 variations on the letter S in a day.

“The whole thing should take about four weeks,” said Williams.

Unlike 4th Century illuminated manuscripts with ornately gilded letters forming animals, plants and geometric shapes, Williams letters are like haiku.

The simple S shapes slide across the page like a snake track in sand.

In one, a streak of white shows under the charcoal-coloured Japanese ink. In another, the ink is dark, tapering off with the brush stroke.

The differences are slight.

The letter S has three strokes, said Williams.

“I’m using this method to propel myself forward.”

The letters are only altered subconsciously, he added.

“It’s a contemporary expression of the classical discipline” of calligraphy.

“I regard contemporary art as more of a tactic to explore this and present it to the public,” said Williams.

Next to Williams’ austere letters, Jen Williams’ gilt-framed photos are a carnival of colour.

Hanging in the community gallery, the canvas-backed pictures in Taking Stock are an ode to Riverside Grocery.

There’s a whole chicken in a can, topless plastic dolls for decorating cakes, Tofurkey mock-meat sausages and a lone, somewhat worn purple sock. The list goes on.

Jen Williams grew up in Whitehorse, and has seen a lot of changes since she was a little girl in the ‘70s.

“And Riverside represents the Whitehorse I remember growing up,” she said.

“With the big-box-store culture we’re starting to lose the specialness and diversity of our hometown, and it’s important to draw attention to the mom-and-pop stores that are still here.”

Jen Williams’ inspiration was chicken in a can and satirical American writer Tom Robbins.

Not everything in the exhibit can be found at Riverside, she said.

The purple sock was inspired by Robbins’ quirky tale of inanimate objects, Skinny Legs and All.

“I think of it as a surrealist portrait series,” said Jen Williams.

Printing the photos on canvas gives it that surrealist look, she added.

Jen Williams got the idea after talking with a local framing guy.

Apparently there’s a trend Outside to print portraits on canvas and then have an artists touch them up—“for people who want their portraits painted but can’t afford it,” she said.

Jen Williams was also inspired by New York artist Charles Wehringer, who paints detailed miniatures of everyday objects, like tiny bottles of Advil.

A lot of artists are exploring globalization, said Jen Williams.

“And I wanted to do something that was uniquely mine.”

Taking Stock is at the community gallery, in the Yukon Arts Centre lobby until February 8.

With Writing is in the main gallery until March 15.

Those interested in watching Owen Williams draw 10,000 variations on the letter S should swing by the gallery in the next four weeks. It’s open Tuesday through Friday from noon until 6 p.m. and on weekends from noon until 5 p.m.

Contact Genesee Keevil at

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukon RCMP are making an appeal for information in the case of Mary Ann Ollie, who was murdered in Ross River last year and whose case remains unsolved. (Black Press file)
Yukon youth being extorted online

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted on… Continue reading

Fines for contravening the fire ban start at $1,150 and could go as high as $100,000. File photo
Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. (Black Press file)
Yukon campgrounds to open early

Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. The early opening… Continue reading

Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce executive director Susan Guatto and program manager Andrei Samson outside the chamber office in downtown Whitehorse Feb. 23. (Stephanie Waddell, Yukon News)
When business models shift

Whitehorse chamber offers digital marketing workshop

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The aesthetics and economics of highway strips

One of the many cultural experiences you enjoy while driving from Whitehorse… Continue reading

Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone.
Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone. (Submitted)
Yukon kids express gratitude for nature, pets and friends in art campaign

More than 50 children submitted artwork featuring things they are grateful for

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

David Malcolm, 40, has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm a police officer after an incident in Whitehorse on Feb. 18. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Man resists arrest, assaults officer

A Whitehorse man has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm… Continue reading

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. A site on Robert Service Way near the Alaska Highway has been selected as the future home of Yukon Energy’s energy storage project. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Site selected for Yukon Energy battery project

Planned to be in service by the end of 2022

Most Read