The line between "adult" and "child" gets hazy when we confront the prospect of losing a parent. Overturning the familiar roles of caretaker and decision-maker is a destabilizing experience for any grown-up, and the anticipation of loss can trigger a flood of childlike anxieties, desires and ways of thinking.
At some point, artist Sherry Walchuk's dad convinced himself that he was going to die the same way his own father had -- aged 60, of a heart attack, at Kmart.
At the time, it seemed like a distinct possibility, and in response Walchuk set about proposing preferable (if not exactly plausible) scenarios for his eventual death. Taking the form of purposefully naive drawings and rickety-looking cardboard sculptures, those proposals make up For My Dad, her current exhibition at the U of M faculty of architecture's ARCH 2 Gallery.
Drawing inspiration from her childhood surroundings in Mission, B.C., as well as her own far-reaching imagination, Walchuk envisions an array of fantastical spaces and impossible machines designed to ease the transition into death. She balances the morbid subtext of her work with a whimsical sensibility and an incongruously cheery outlook which, while occasionally unnerving, lends the art much of its weird charm and pathos.
Displayed in plastic sheet protectors, coloured-pencil drawings on copy paper occupy vitrines outside the entrance, while others line the walls of the main gallery. Crudely proportioned but rendered neatly, many of the drawings repurpose forms borrowed from suburban architecture, the natural landscape, hospitals and nursing homes, while others depict specific events in Walchuk's life.
Amid wrenching scenes of the family gathered around dying pets and rough schematic drawings of garages and trailers, we find concept sketches for impossible mobile-care units. Walchuk draws self-contained "hospital boxes," perhaps for ailing loved ones eager to escape the nursing home, and tiny private houses for those who do wind up there.
There are portable sanctuaries -- wheeled swimming pools, personal waterfalls and mountain ranges -- and other carts and contraptions whose functions are unclear.
One device from the drawings, a triangular "tanning booth made from the sun's rays" is modelled at scale in floppy, yellow-painted cardboard just outside the gallery. Inside, a raised platform bearing a near-life-size recreation of her father's lot at a B.C. trailer park dominates the space.
A roughly hand-drawn map identifies the various sculptures -- papier-m¢ché pets and doghouses, a "Fridge Tomb" -- that surround the exhibition's centrepiece, an abstracted RV cobbled together from cardboard boxes and wooden shipping pallets reminiscent of a child's playhouse. Beneath a ring of cardboard patio lanterns that cast cardboard haloes of light, viewers enter through a simple hinged flap. Inside is a refuge of almost otherworldly calm.
Cardboard dampens outside noises and muffles any echoes, while the unadorned walls and ceilings are painted a vivid blue-green that recalls tropical ocean water or ancient Egyptian ceramics. Resting in one of the dimly-lit alcoves, it does seem like a lovely place to die. Certainly better than Kmart.
While some viewers might be put off by For My Dad's absurdist sensibility and deceptively "artless" esthetics, its strength lies in Walchuk's ability to fully inhabit the magical (and occasionally deranged) mindset of a frightened child. Variously emphatic, pathetic, incomprehensible and odd, Walchuk's models and sketches find humour and comfort in situations of powerlessness, creating moving (and mobile) expressions of wishful thinking, love, and care.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.