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Meet the artist: Helen O’Connor

Meet the artist: Helen O’Connor

Helen O’Connor is a Yukon visual artist who makes paper by hand using oriental and local fibres to create sculpture, assemblages and installation. Her works express a reverence to nature and are influenced by the unique atmosphere of the north. She took the time to talk to us specifically about this distinctive practice, as well as future papermaking projects.

O’Connor’s exhibition ‘Salutation’ is currently showing in the Yukon Art Centre Public Art Gallery until May 10th.

What is unique about your process?

Art is a means of expression. The medium is the vehicle used to express. This is why my chosen medium of hand papermaking is so important to me. It is an age old process that connects me physically to the past and to the earth. After much repetition a physical process such as papermaking becomes a means of spiritual connection. Each step of the process contains significance that goes into the ultimate meaning of the piece. It is a slow meditative process that gives the mind space for creative thought and connection.

The sculptural installation work I have created for this show is made from handmade paper. The process of papermaking connects me physically to my work and creates a beautiful product which is far superior in aesthetics and quality than factory produced paper. I believe the closer the medium is to its primary source (the earth) the more radiating beauty and energy it emits.

The paper created for "Singing Stones" is made from oriental fibres called Gampi and Kozo and local willow. The oriental plants are small bush-like trees that regenerate each season after harvest (quite like our local willow bushes). The fibre is collected from the bast fibre (the inner bark) which is stripped from its branches. It must be soaked for 24 hours and then cooked for several hours with a mild caustic (soda ash). It is then rinsed and beaten with hardwood mallets on a large rock or wooden surface. This can be a social rhythmic event with many participants.

The resulting pulp is added to a vat of water. It retains long fibres which makes for a fine strong paper (see paper used as projection screen in "Release"). Yukon willow paper is very coarse and a reddish colour. See if you can find it among the "Singing Stone" rock sculptures.

The paper sheets formed on a screen are then "couched" onto a board to dry or onto the rocks to cast.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a multi disciplinary collaboration with filmmaker Marten Berkman (see film loop installation "Release" in YAC gallery), dancer Monique Romeiko, and musician Jordie Walker for upcoming show in October 2014. I will be creating more cast rock sculptures this time using recycled paper grocery bags (more utilitarian for dramatic stage use with dance) and a super large sheet of flax handmade paper for dancing on and under. Flax produces a rattly crisp paper which will add some interesting sound qualities to the performance. The group will be rehearsing in a weekend residency at the Old Firehall, Whitehorse, April 5 and 6th. The public is welcome to attend during development. Monique and I collaborated on an improvised dance performance for the opening of Yukon Arts Centre exhibition, Salutation, on March 6.

This summer 2014 I look forward to attending an artist residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, County Monaghan, Ireland. My project there is to create a series of sculptural artist books that will include elements of handmade paper, collage, photo transfer or photo etching related to exploration of personal connection to Ireland and ancient culture. Based on visits to ancient stone/bog sites and interaction with contemporary community.

My studio is located in the Rosati Centre, 3 Glacier Road, Macrae Subdivision, Whitehorse. I have a Mark Lander Hollander beater called a "Critter", an oriental paper stamper, as well as some interesting antique fibre processing equipment. Call ahead for studio visit, 334-4292 to experience the magical process of papermaking.

Image shows artist hand beating willow bark for installation at the Riverside Arts Festival, 2009 in Dawson City. Photo credit: Chris Clarke.

Meet the artist: Kim Beggs

Meet the artist: Kim Beggs

A stalwart of the Yukon music scence, Kim Beggs is an acclaimed singer-songwriter who has just released her fourth album ‘Beauty and Breaking’ to rave reviews. Sharing her songs and the stage, she will perform alongside Justin Rutledge and Oh Susanna for Dark Strangers on Thursday April 24th at the Yukon Arts Centre. Tickets $27.

How would you describe your music (in five words or less)?

Broken pieces sung back together

What is the best/worst thing about your being a musician?

I get to write music. It takes much of my creative energy to promote the music.

What would you do if you were not a musician?

I would be a carpenter or a mother.

What is the most memorable response you’ve ever experienced to your music/songs?

Being on the CBC Sunday Edition with Michael Enright twice.

Speaking of 'Dark Strangers', what do you appreciate most in your friends?

They are dark and emotional. They create music with it. That is inspiring.

For more information about the artist and her music, please visit her website.

Meet the artist: Michele Karch-Ackerman

Meet the artist: Michele Karch-Ackerman

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' 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! 

Meet the artist: Jane Isakson

Meet the artist: Jane Isakson

Born and raised in Alberta, Isakson left the sporting arena for the fine arts after representing Canada in two Olympic Games, (1992 and 1994) in the sport of Biathlon.  Completing her Fine Arts Degree at the University of Alberta, Isakson moved north to Whitehorse, where she has developed a painting practice that is rooted in the northern landscape that surrounds her.

Isakson’s exhibition “From the Outer Edges” is currently showing in YAC’s gallery until February 22nd, 2014.

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

The best thing about being an artist is the freedom to make your own schedule;  the hardest thing about being an artist is having no fixed schedule to follow.

2) How has your practice changed over time?

I began painting the landscape in a very straight forward manner - not particularly realistically, perhaps in a more expressionist manner, but gradually the paintings became more symbolic, looking to express more than the surface of the landscape.

3) Who are your favourite artists?

There are lots of artists that I admire, some of my favourites are Cezanne, Bonnard, Emily Carr, and John Koerner.

4) What are you working on now?

I participated in a three week residency on a tall ship in the Arctic Archepeligo of Spitzberben (Svalbard) this fall, and am currently at the Banff Centre for the Arts working on a body of work based on this experience.

For more information regarding the artist and her work, please visit her website

Meet the artist: Jennifer Walden

Meet the artist: Jennifer Walden

Jennifer Walden is a visual artist based in Yellowknife, NWT, known for lush northern landscapes. Her paintings have been featured, notably, at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and purchased by collectors worldwide.  Currently, Walden and her children are living in Italy for six months, where she will study Renaissance painting techniques and Italian fresco.

Walden’s exhibition “The Land at the End of the Sticks” is currently showing in YAC’s gallery until February 22nd, 2014.

1) What is unique about your process?

Although my work is very heavily textured I actually use very little paint. I sketch my pieces out in pencil and then apply various layers of molding paste. This is like a thick stucco that I apply with a knife, and sculpt it until I am happy with the shapes. The entire piece is all white and very sculptural. Once this is dry, then I begin to apply the colour by applying multiple layers of very thin glaze.

2) How has your process changed over the years?

Texture has always been the element of design that interests me the most. I am constantly trying to find new ways to explore it and ways to push the boundaries with texture. Over the years my ability to control the textural elements has greatly increased, not only in how I use the texture to create the composition, but how I balance that composition on an almost three-dimensional plane. I have been able to increase the depth of relief, and control textural elements that protrude up to 4 inches from the canvas.

3) What has been the most memorable response to your work?

I have been fortunate to have many positive and moving responses to my work over the years. It is one of the most motivating things about being an artist, seeing people respond so strongly to what I do.

One particular memory that stands out happened a few years ago. During the opening reception for one of my solo shows a woman approached me in tears. She had seen a painting of mine a few years back and she was very taken with it, the piece really hit an emotional chord with her, but the painting had already been sold. She had come to this particular opening hoping to find a similar piece. There was a piece that again hit the same emotional chord. The painting spoke to her personal life experience so much that she felt it truly depicted her life journey. But this piece as well had just sold. In great disappointment she shared with me a little of her life story, and explained why it was the piece so strongly effected her. At the end of her story we were both in tears, and I agreed to complete a special commissioned piece for her. To date it is one of my favorite paintings. Being able to make that kind of emotional connection with a complete stranger is one of the miraculous things about being an artist.

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

The best thing about being an artist is really what I described in the answer to question 3. Being able to connect with complete strangers, regardless of age, gender, cultural background etc… I have found my art gives me an ability to cross all sorts of borders to connect with people.  Being my own boss also has great perks!

Living my passion daily is the best, unlike most people I know, I live for Monday mornings, anxious to get into studio, and cringe a little on Friday afternoons knowing I have to wait two full days until I get an uninterrupted block of time again in my studio.

Worst thing – The amount of people I meet that assume that because I am an artist I paint here and there for an hour or two when I feel inspired, and then seem confused when I say “I can’t make it to something because I need to work” and their response is “oh, where do you work?” There seems to be a general assumption that if you are an artist that you don’t really work that hard. Enjoying ones work doesn’t meant you don’t work diligently, for long hours every day like everyone else.

5) What is your dream project?

To travel the world with my art. What inspires me is the natural beauty of the planet in all it’s different forms and colours. Currently I live in the North and it is filled with beauty and inspiration, but there is so much more to this planet. I have the same passion for nature around the globe. I would like to opportunity to paint the great plains of Africa, the mountains in New Zealand,  the rain forest in Brazil…. The list could go on forever. The challenge is not only getting to these places, but finding a place to exhibit and share them with people. It is natural for us to want to look at images that are familiar, my dream is to find a way to visit the far corners of the globe, paint what I have observed and then come home and share them in a way that makes them relevant to everyone.

For more information regarding the artist and her work, please visit her website

Photograph of Jennifer Walden by D. Brosha.