Michele Karch-Ackerman is a nationally recognized contemporary artist whose work is known for its provocative and touching mining of the 'smaller' and often tragic histories of Canada's past, commemorating those who died in sanitoria, the plight of unwed mothers, the sad childhood of the famous Dionne Quintuplets, the 'Lost Boys' of the First World War, and the children lost to pioneer mothers.  A graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design, her installations have been shown in over thirty solo exhibitions at public galleries across Canada, including a recent retrospective at The Tom Thomson Gallery.  She has been the recipient of numerous awards from the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council, awarded residencies throughout Canada and has received national media coverage.  Ackerman has taught for over twenty years at the Haliburton School of the Arts where her teaching is widely recognized for its innovative and motivational style.

Karch-Ackerman’s exhibition “Foundling” is showing in YAC’s gallery from March 6th until May 10th, 2014.

1)  What is unique about your process?

It feels like everything I do is unique to my practice because I don't know of many artists who make clothing for ghosts.  I have always felt a little lonesomein that regard.  I employ traditionally female crafting and domestic arts: 'The Domestic Acts of Love' and utilize them in a conceptual manner through installation.  My work is tied very strongly to literature and history.  Penance and mindfulness are integral to my work.  Healing through service is paramount.  These are all practices that often make me feel pretty unique.  I have many friends in the ghost world.

2) Has your practice changed over time?

Yes, my practice has evolved.  The earlier works were much more intuitive and decorative and the later works more institutional and conceptual in scope.  I think that initially I was responding to motherhood and living in the country and the pioneer history around me.  Exploring using handicrafts and sewing as a medium that honoured my position as a mother and artist.  As time went on my projects became more specific and involved mining particularly tragic episodes in Canadian history and offering my 'Domestic Acts of Love' as a gesture of love and healing to those who suffered.

3) What is the most memorable response you’ve experienced to you work?

I have had many serendipitously spooky moments.  I work with the ghost world.  It is lovely to watch people engage with the work and tell their tales.  It seems that my work is a springboard for stories.  Each show has its own set of wonderful stories attached to it.  My exhibition 'The Lost Boys' which was exhibited at the Yukon Arts Centre a few years ago had a particular installation in it that took on a life of its own.  As I crossed the country I invited the public to knit sweaters 'for the war effort' in honour of the Newfoundland regiment that fell in the battle of Beaumont Hamel.  It was an honour to display over 500 of these sweaters (many with tiny letters of love hidden inside them) at the provincial gallery The Rooms in St. John's.  I originally had planned to exhibit the installation of sweaters as one complete organic surface covering a specific wall in the gallery.  But the soldiers intuitively guided me to display the sweaters in the shape of a whale which eventually led out to the horizon line of a huge window that looked out on to the ocean.  The soldiers told me they wanted to go 'home'...to float out to sea and to their villages that dotted the coast.  It was very sweet.

4)  What is the best/worst thing about being an artist?

The best thing about being an artist is doing what you love.  Making art doesn't feel like work at all.  I adore doing research and contemplating and thinking and imagining.  And connecting serendipitous dots is like winning the lottery!  I am working on a project related to tuberculosis and lace making at the moment.  I initially wanted to work with lacemaking because my favourite saint (and the inspiration for the show) St. Therese of the Little Flower died of tuberculosis and her mother was a lacemaker. What an exciting moment when I found out through research that 'tatting' (a form of lace making) was actually employed as occupational therapy for tuberculosis patients!   The ritual of my practice feels the same way I felt as a child reading The Secret Garden for the first time.  It is magical!  And it can be thrilling to spend years on a project and watch it come to fruition.  I also love the catalogues that go with my exhibitions and opening up a box of catalogues for the first time is pure joy!   It feels very rewarding to do such meaningful work for a living.
On the down side the work I do is penance oriented and can involve hours and hours of repetitive tasks.  It can be lonely and boring.  My work is not particularly saleable and I rely on exhibiting it at public galleries and on grants to support it.  During the depths of 'the doldrums' when I am mid process I can sometimes wonder why I chose such a rare occupation.  Why do I stitch clothing for ghosts?  But then I remember the answer!  If I don't, no one else will.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our conversation with Michele Karsh-Ackerman!