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

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