Arts centre gallery kills horse

Veronica Verkley's work was chucked out of the Yukon Arts Centre Gallery a week after the show opened. And the staff who put it out to pasture were wearing Hazmat suits.

Veronica Verkley’s work was chucked out of the Yukon Arts Centre Gallery a week after the show opened.

And the staff who put it out to pasture were wearing Hazmat suits.

“They were afraid it was going to contaminate everybody,” said the Dawson artist.

Called Seam, Verkley’s piece was a lifesized horse made from recycled scraps of leather stitched together to form a patchwork hide.

“The leather has this innate beauty, because it comes from other creatures that were skinned and made into bags and purses and then I skinned the bags and purses and made them back into an animal,” she said.

Standing in the dim gallery with water pouring from its seams onto a wool-covered base, the horse made a powerful and pungent impression.

But over the next few days, that pungent, warm-barn smell started to change.

And after a week, Verkley got a call from gallery director Mary Bradshaw, who was suspicious of mould.

“I used all natural materials, including the sheep wool, and I guess that was the culprit,” said Verkley, who started to read up on mould.

It’s everywhere, she said. It’s in our hair, it’s in cheese, soy sauce – it’s even on our skin. “But in the right amounts. And some types of mould are dangerous when you breathe in large amounts.”

It wasn’t clear what type of mould was growing on Verkley’s art, but during that first conversation, the fix seemed relatively simple – get rid of the wool.

“There was fear of contaminating the institution and the staff,” she said.

It didn’t occur to Verkley that the wool would react to the water like that. “I thought the oil from lanolin would preserve it,” she said.

After all, sheep spend a lot of time in the rain. “And they don’t get mouldy,” she said.

During that first phone call, Bradshaw and Verkley batted around the idea of replacing the raw wool with processed, clean fleece, even though it went against Verkley’s philosophy of using only natural and found materials.

But by the next day, after a flurry of calls and e-mails, it didn’t matter.

The wool was no longer an issue – the whole horse was on the line.

And, apparently, the gallery had started to smell like dead mouse.

When organic matter gets wet at room temperature, things start to grow, said Yukon government museums conservator Valery Monahan, who’d been asked to come in and assess the horse.

“It smelled like mould and mildew, which is not inviting to viewers,” she said.

And because the gallery’s ventilation system continuously recirculates the air, there was potential for toxic contamination, said Monahan, who consulted a mould specialist in Ottawa.

The horse was “heavily contaminated,” she said.

The only visible mould was a tiny bit on the horse’s tail, added Bradshaw. “But inside the horse there was a perfect micro-climate.”

After 48 hours, anything that’s organic and wet is going to have mould, she said.

But no one actually tested the horse for mould, said Bradshaw.

The suggestion, now, was to run biocide or bleach through the animal, but that would dramatically alter the art, said Verkley. “It would have the opposite effect of my message, in terms of presenting a really peaceful work that was about the natural cycles of purging and rain.

“Instead you’d come in and smell bleach. And you’d think, ‘Oh, this is about killing animals.’”

Plus, bleach breaks down and discolours fibres.

“I thought about it overnight,” said Verkley. “But I didn’t want to compromise the work.”

So, the next day, gallery staff donned Hazmat suits and hauled the horse out the back door into the arts centre parking lot, where it froze solid.

“It was heartbreaking. It was really sad,” said Bradshaw.

Up in Dawson, teaching art at KIAC, Verkley felt empty.

She remembered the start of summer, when she began building the frame for the horse at her cabin on an island just outside Dawson.

And Verkley thought of freeze-up, when she and her partner had waited until the last minute to load all their belongings into a tiny boat with their dogs and the horse perched on top.

Verkley had searched around town for a place to continue working on her beautiful beast, but no one wanted to give up heated garage space in Dawson as temperatures plummeted.

So Verkley headed to the Westminster Hotel, home of the Pit, and rented one of the raunchy rooms upstairs.

The Pit regulars visited with Verkley as she painstakingly stitched scraps of leather together to create the soft, dark, multi-coloured hide, and the hardware store guys were very interested in helping the artist find the perfect pump to run water through her creature.

“Lots of people helped make it,” she said.

And at the arts centre opening, the horse did exactly what Verkley had hoped. “The idea was of letting go, bursting at the seams,” she said.

Then, even though the reasons were completely sane, to have it ripped out of the gallery after only a week, was “dramatic and traumatic,” she said.

“It was unsettling.

“Especially because you work months to do something with a really positive, peaceful, contemplative message and suddenly it’s not there anymore.”

And experts said to throw it out, said Verkley. “Because it’s probably contaminated, and I’m told to wear protective clothing and nonabsorbant gloves ….”

But on Thursday night, just six days after the horse was wrapped in plastic and left outside to freeze, Verkley was back in Whitehorse clamouring all over her frozen steed.

A few days earlier in Dawson, trying to decide what to do with the empty room at the arts centre gallery, Verkley remembered something she always tells her students -“respond creatively.”

So she flew to Whitehorse for a day, made a shrink wrap mould of the horse, and spent a night in the gallery shaping and hanging the plastic animal, going through more than 26 rolls of packing tape in the process.

It’s the first time Verkley has worked with new material, like plastic, and it “smells funny,” she said.

The ghost image of the horse is the “sanitized version,” and Verkley has a pump contained in a glass jar recirculating vinegar, to contrast with the water that fell from the original piece.

She considered using bleach, but she couldn’t bring herself to fill the gallery with its stench.

“I am calling this piece Unseamly,” she said.

Verkley’s big leather horse is heading back to Dawson to spend the winter outside. And come spring, she hopes to salvage it, despite the dire warnings and Hazmat suits.

In Australia, there’s an art institute that creates works out of mould, including fungus dresses, said Verkely. And in 1987, in Montreal, Jana Sterbak’s meat dress made national news as it rotted in a gallery.

“Galleries are set up to show art,” said Verkley. “And their first mandate should be to protect art.”

But at the arts centre, “instead of thinking of ways to modify the gallery, there was only talk of modifying the art,” she said.

Contact Genesee Keevil at