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Murder incorporated

WAG craft exhibition features Manitoba artist whose controversial work upset families of missing, slain women

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The Winnipeg Art Gallery is about to show a work from the same series by a Thompson artist that recently provoked controversy for depicting missing or murdered Manitoba women.

Some family members of missing or murdered women were upset that Winnipeg's Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery displayed a work from Teresa Burrows' recent series the blue beaver's burden and the disappearance of the shaking tent sisters as part of a juried fine-craft exhibition that ran from June 23 to Aug. 27.

The controversy erupted in the final few days of the exhibition. Burrows' piece included intricate glass beadwork depictions of three women's faces, apparently based on photographs released by police. The women's families complained the work was disrespectful and threatened a protest.

After a provincial official contacted the MHC Gallery, curator Ray Dirks hid the wall-mounted work with a drape for the final three days -- with Burrows' knowledge -- and offered visitors the opportunity to discuss and view it if they wished, said Alf Redekopp, director of the MHC.

The Manitoba Craft Council, which put on the exhibition, said the action raised concerns about censorship and freedom of artistic expression.

Burrows, an award-winning multimedia artist who integrates beadwork, found textiles, animal traps, furs, beaver skulls, caribou antlers and hooves into her provocative pieces, is the only Manitoban featured in the five-artist show Precise: Craft Refined, which opens today at the WAG and runs to Jan. 15.

Her installation piece from the blue beaver series being shown at the WAG is not the same one shown at the MHC Gallery, but includes images of missing or murdered women, as well as animal traps.

Titled stolen: knave of hearts tarts, it includes what appear to be baked tarts, each with a "stolen" woman's eye beaded on it.

"(The piece) calls on all of us to share the burden of grief and devastation borne by the families and friends of these women," said Helen Delacretaz, chief curator of the WAG and curator of the Precise show. "It is a powerful piece that speaks to sorrow, loss, and our connection to these women."

The piece includes a hinged box, inside which the viewer can see a beaded image of a naked woman.

The families of the lost women have not contacted the WAG. Delacretaz said if they were to object, she would invite them to view and discuss the piece, possibly with the artist. "I would facilitate more discussion about it," she said, adding she was not prepared to say whether the WAG would consider removing it.

Burrows, a University of Manitoba fine arts grad, is a former parole officer and addictions counsellor. She is concerned, Delacretaz said, with issues facing marginalized and at-risk women, including aboriginals. She is not aboriginal herself.

Like the other four Canadians showcased in Precise: Craft Refined, Burrows draws on traditional craft materials and techniques, but takes handwork to innovative, surprising and challenging places, the curator said.

The artists' ideas are complex, she noted, while their skills and time commitment are awe-inspiring.

From veteran fibre artist Jane Kidd's unlikely hand-woven tapestries that address oil spills, disappearing polar ice caps and mining, to Burrows' elaborate ceremonial robes that speak to aboriginal women's power and spirituality, the 36 works expand -- even explode -- the definition of craft in the 21st century.

The public can see the show free of charge during Nuit Blanche, the all-night art celebration from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Oct. 1.

"I've been wanting to work with all these artists for a long time," said Delacretaz. The works are on loan from institutions such as the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, as well as collectors and the artists themselves.

In this age of digital reproduction and computer-assisted art-making, Delacretaz said she wanted to highlight the creators' painstaking, labour-intensive methods. "For each artist, the involvement of the hand is key."

The most in-demand artist in Precise is Korean-born Kye-Yeon Son, who teaches at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Son is this year's winner of the Saidye Bronfman Award, Canada's highest distinction for excellence in craft media.

She makes delicate-looking vessels out of soldered silver wire. Lacking the solidity to hold material things, they are "receptacles of spirits and memories." Their poetic shapes often echo natural forms, such as hoarfrost or blossoms turning toward the sun.

The show also features wheel-thrown vessels by veteran Calgary ceramic artist Greg Payce and metal pieces by Victoria native Cal Lane, a welder-turned-artist who uses an oxyacetylene cutting torch to create delicate, flowery and doily-like patterns in utilitarian objects such as oil tanks, a wheelbarrow or an old gardening shovel.

"She has made the shovel itself be evocative of the beauty it assists with," Delacretaz said.

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

Art Preview

Precise: Craft Refined

  • Winnipeg Art Gallery, to Jan. 15

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 10, 2011 G3

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