Artist Meshell Melvin examines her work mounted in the Yukon Arts Centre on June 7. The show includes over 1,000 individual portraits. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

Artist Meshell Melvin examines her work mounted in the Yukon Arts Centre on June 7. The show includes over 1,000 individual portraits. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

Double portrait show at the Yukon Arts Centre features art that looks back

“I hope they’ve been looked at fondly, and I’m hoping that fun looking comes back.”

The Yukon Arts Centre has a new shared exhibition featuring two very different forms of portraiture.

The opening reception for Drawn Together: embroidered portraits and Doortraits: Intimate Pandemic Images was June 5. The exhibit runs June 7 to August 27.

Artist Meshell Melvin created the portraits over 18 years, from 2003 to 2021. On over 1,000 squares of canvas material, Melvin stitched contour portraits of people attending Yukon festivals and arts events.

Melvin’s ambitious goal of drawing every person in the territory has produced a major body of work — the drawings on display at the Arts Centre completely surround the gallery visitor, but they are only a fraction of her work.

“I was thinking of it as being in a choir. Like being a choir director, somehow. I got to thinking about everybody having a story and what it would be like if all those stories and voices are hanging there, even if they’re only implied, is there a little murmuring?

“I think there’s a looking back that the portraits do too, that maybe they are seeing the audience. I hope they’ve been looked at fondly, and I’m hoping that fun looking comes back.”

Melvin used an embroidery machine called the Universal Movement Machine in order to create the works, which she first encountered in Nairobi before tracking one down closer to home.

The machine has a sewing machine-like foot but allows full freedom of movement, allowing Melvin to “draw” her portraits directly onto fabric with gold and green thread. As contemporary embroidery machines have moved on to digital drawing and mathematical instructions, the Universal Movement Machine is very much hands-on.

Attending music festivals around the territory, Melvin invited people to sit for a portrait, offering them the option to purchase the final work or leave it behind.

“It is almost a performance and a demonstration. It’s also a way of connecting in an intimate way with someone. Not everybody gets to be drawn in a lifetime,” she said. “I’ve had people say, ‘No one’s ever looked at me like that before and that’s great.’ That’s what I want to be able to do. Because I think that is a gift to be seen.”

Those who sat and were seen but opted to leave behind their likeness might now notice a familiar face in the gallery.

While the pandemic installment of the portraits took place over the internet, Melvin intends to continue the drawings, getting as close as she can to the “outrageous” goal of capturing every Yukoner.

A companion to Melvin’s many faces is the photography exhibition in the shared space, Alistair Maitland‘s Doortraits: Intimate Pandemic Images.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, work suddenly dried up for the Yukon photographer.

“It was so terrible. Just to lose everything so quickly with what felt like no warning. I didn’t realize how much of my identity was wrapped up in the work I did,” he said.

Soon after the shutdown, Maitland noticed fellow northern photographer Pat Kane doing door-to-door portraits, a safe distance from his subjects. Maitland reached out to ask if he could do his own Yukon version.

Yukon Photographer Alistair Maitland photographed in front of his work at the Yukon Arts Centre on June 7. Maitland said he captures personal moments from the most uncertain days of the pandemic. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

The response was overwhelming.

“I didn’t think people would be so into it,” he said.

“I felt like there was a multitude of motivations behind people wanting to get portraits done. People were like, ‘Yes, I want some kind of frozen in time moment during this crazy time. I think people were also desperate to do stuff with their kids who are now at home with them and everything like that,” he said.

On his busiest day he estimates he did over 20 portrait sessions. The best of the portraits has been collected into a series of large prints that make up the gallery show.

In the faces he captured, Maitland also captures the emotions of a world turned upside down – including immunocompromised couples still smiling, the loneliness of being in solitary quarantine and the reflection of a photographer forced to shoot through a window.

Some of the photos are posed family portraits, while others are candid – and still others feature families dressed up in costume.

“Some people just pull out all the stops, like the ones where they’re like, holding their babies out and stuff like that. I did not ask anybody to do anything crazy. They just took it and ran. That’s Yukon for you, it’s like everyone tapped into their colorful five per cent.”

Now, a year and a half into the pandemic as the territory begins to reopen, Maitland said he hopes the gallery show will remind people of that moment of uncertainty when the pandemic began – and the lessons taken from that difficult time.

Preparing for the show, he said returning to the portraits was emotional.

“I know there are people that are still experiencing restrictions and a lack of normalcy now, but it was a gong show back then. It was really hard. I hope that people experience that same kind of ‘Wow. That was a time. That was rough. But we still came out of it.”

“It’s something to bring people together, I guess, is a real big takeaway. Even as individuals, it might seem like we’re alone, but when you put a body of work like this together it’s like ‘Oh, we did it. We’re all going through this together.”

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