Written by Dennison Smith
Photography by Anton Rodriguez
Written by Dennison Smith
Photography by Anton Rodriguez
Current artist in residence Meryl McMaster tells us her key influences, self-discovery along with her love of day-dreaming and how she has created a partly fictional and partly real world that is expressed within her art as a way of releasing herself from life’s struggles.
My photo-based artistic practice broadly explores the tensions that complicate our understanding of personal identity while inviting deeper reflection upon broader issues of collective identity. Within recent works I have specifically explored the sense of being in-between my Indigenous Canadian (Plains Cree) and European (British/Dutch) cultures and the conflicts found at the intersection of self-exploration and heritage.
A key influence on my work have been the transformative experiences I have had while exploring and working in remote natural landscapes within Canada and abroad. These adventures were an important catalyst in the process of making my personal identity more transparent to me. Within these environments I find myself highly attuned to my surroundings, enabling a deep introspection into my relationship with others and my place in the world.
I continue this process of self-discovery within my work with a distinct approach to photographic portraiture and self-portraiture. I am constantly overlapping the roles of artist, producer and performer. I incorporate the spontaneity of photography, the construction of objects or sculptural garments, improvisational performance and quiet self-reflection. I bring together all of these different elements within the finished images. These media form a mosaic that illustrates a journey of self-discovery, following me as I explore how we construct our sense of self through lineage, history and culture.
This process is layered and time consuming but creatively fruitful. Combining other processes has helped to broaden my perspective on how to make art and has helped to ensure that my creative process was not limited by being guided by a singular approach. Just as with personal identity, there are many facets to artistic identity.
Many of my images involve the representation of quasi-fictional experiences that reflect my thoughts and feelings. I have enjoyed many different influences that have informed this approach. I think I have always held on to those moments from childhood of getting lost within a story and transforming the words from a fictional world, imagining the imagery in your mind and going on an adventure. I love day dreaming during moments of boredom and letting my mind get lost in a storyline. I have created similar, partly fictional and partly real worlds that are expressed within my art as a way of releasing myself from life’s struggles and to allow myself to look at the world in a way not normally seen by the naked eye.
Throughout this process my work looks to the past to form a fuller understanding of the present. I often do this by creating images that reveal the contradictions and conflicts in my dual heritage, hoping to create moments for the contemplation of where we are and where we ought to go next. My work isn’t intended to resolve this dilemma but rather to create an opportunity for introspection and conversation. Each of us has a complicated relationship with the past with gaps and biases, and it is important to me to expose and explore these gaps so that we may encounter our next moments better prepared and with better understanding of ourselves and the world.
McMaster’s work will be displayed throughout our second floor until Friday 2nd February. Her series is part of The Baldwin Gallery’s Betwixt, exploring the organic and psychic transference between selves and species. To learn more about this work or to purchase a piece from the collection, please visit here.
At a glance, Tim Shaw’s solid stone cottage has the gravity of his vast works in bronze, and so does Shaw himself. But while the Royal Academician is best known for his unflinching interpretations of war, politics and the human heart of darkness – ‘Casting a Dark Democracy’, ‘Man on Fire’, ‘Tank on Fire’ – he is not the grave and somber man you might expect. His rose garden is beloved and well-tended. And a whimsical Ken doll has incubated in the hedge. Inside his remote Cornish cottage, a papier-mâché puppy sleeps under a chair, and up the brilliant yellow kitchen wall, a small red school bus careens. A Jolly Green Giant bean tin sits on the shelf, reminding that Shaw employed just such a can as a plinth while sculpting ‘The Pregnant Fairy’.
Down the lane, ‘The Middle World’ – Shaw’s earliest but ongoing opus – fills most of a dark and musty cow barn where it was originally conceived. ‘The Middle World’ is at once baroque, looming, hybridal, disorienting, comical and threatening. Beyond it are stacked the plaster moulds of giant, disassembled heads and feet, and – ghostly bound up in bubble wrap – the crazed figures of ‘Ketamine (The Bisto Kids Gone Wrong)’.
Shaw is the longest-standing artist to make his studio in the iconic farmyard, watched over by an imposing but ramshackle manor house where owner Michael Pokenhorn lives. For almost thirty years, Michael has supported young artists and artisans by offering them his outbuildings as simple, inexpensive studios.
The farmyard retains the values and vibe of Cornwall before its tourist boom, when an artist could rent a boat builder’s shack with a view of the sea, while surviving on the dole. Sitting on a hill above Falmouth, ‘The Farm’ might be mistaken for an island of lost boys.
Occupying one of The Farm’s studio-sheds is artist Carlos Zapata, who, as a lone young man, with no money in his pocket and no friends or relatives to greet him, immigrated to England from civil war-torn Columbia. Today, he’s a successful automata-artist and sculptor and his work is held by museums across the world. Zapata is a handsome, gentle man who speaks with a graceful Columbian accent and whose work is influenced by both the exuberant folk traditions and the violence of his youth. His automata – mechanical hand-cranked sculpture – can be playful and delightful, like in ‘Carnival’, a dancing menagerie of animal-headed creatures. But, recently, Zapata has turned his attention to sculpting darker memories in the guise of toys. Playing on the tradition of toy soldiers, his series ‘Child Soldiers’ remembers the kidnapped children forced into service as guerrilla insurgents. The effect of a toy is visceral, with disquieting implications. A little wooden boy holds his hands in the air. A posy of child soldiers point their machine guns at him. You turn the crank underneath. You hear the rat-a-tat-tat. It’s you who killed the boy.
At the other end of the studio, Shaw is constructing a green man of the woods. It’s a light-hearted figure constructed of bent cardboard, but the distance between it and ‘Dark Democracy’ is not as far as you might think. There is no contradiction in Shaw’s work and it makes little difference whether he is shaping a tiny wax maquette or working on a giant A.I. robot: humour and horror, light and dark edge against each other, taking form with equal mastery, be it in bronze or barbed wire or stitched together from old clothes. ‘Casting a Dark Democracy’, ‘Ketamine’, ‘Middle World’, ‘Green Man’, ‘Pregnant Fairy’, and most recently, ‘Breakdown Clown’ comprise an ever-extending pantheon, in which Shaw has captured the primal energies conducting life and death.
Let’s begin with the founder, Dennison Baldwin Smith, and the question, why does a novelist, in the throes of finishing her fourth book, open an art gallery?
What looks like a curveball isn’t.
Unusually for a novelist, the most important players in Dennison’s life have often been fine artists. She has taken her inspiration from, and her intentions have been shaped by, the visual arts, even more than the literary.
As a mother, she spent long days in the National Gallery with a baby hitched to her back – because you aren’t going to read Crime and Punishment to keep a baby happy.
And as a young struggling writer, she spent her starving artist years in Cornwall, where her dumpster-diving boyfriend provided the food, and Dennison whipped up large dinner parties for other young struggling artists. Like herself, some are extremely successful today, amongst them Tim Shaw RA and Alexandra Roussopoulos. But the sense of community forged in those early years continues, and today it takes shape as an art gallery.
Far more unusual is the impact a Navajo family of shepherds had on Dennison’s life. Taken into their family and initiated into their customs, Dennison acquired a deep respect for their integrated worldview and its expression through art. These continue to shape her novels, and now The Baldwin Gallery.
In keeping with Navajo philosophy, The Baldwin Gallery is unique in its use of narrative and the interdisciplinary as a platform for appreciating visual and applied arts. We offer art in context and relationship and forge links between artists with strong place-based philosophies, whether indigenous North American or European. We offer quarterly literary, academic and performance salons to create community and expand the appreciation and understanding of contemporary art.
An elegant home-based gallery, we think art should be an integrated experience. ‘One taste’ is the expression. From the white cube to the bedroom wall. Or even, open the closet, and it’s there.
And so we bring contemporary art into the European home life, with special attention to indigenous North American artists. Inspired by the Native American understanding of art as who you are, where you live, what you breathe, and not as mere commodity, The Baldwin Gallery = Art is Home.
Robert Davidson has opened the door for younger artists to integrate their history and longstanding customs into contemporary art movements. Like Davidson, Kwakwaka‘wakw artists, Sonny Assu and Steve Smith are inheritors of the ‘formline’ art tradition, defined by a complex stylistic vocabulary of shapes, geometrics and topographies, historically employed in totem poles, house fronts and transformational masks. Reshaping the formline in the face of the personal and political, artist Steve Smith individualizes his tribal identity, while Sonny Assu elides Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakwak practices and Pop Art, challenging corporate and nation-state colonialism.
In the tradition of mentorship, Steve Smith was originally taught by his father. Painting his father’s carvings, his work was meant to pass as his father’s. When he surpassed his mentor, and his ‘self’ entered into his work, he became a contemporary artist. Today, these origins remain the foundation beneath bold experiments in form and colour. Smith interprets formlines through the changes and challenges of personal history. He credits a recent heart attack and the visions experienced during a triple bypass surgery for altering his palette from the red, green and blacks of Northwest Pacific indigenous art to a polyphony of colour.
Sonny Assu, graduate of Emily Carr College of Art and Design, uses painting, sculpture, large scale installations, digital constructions and photography to challenge monolithic commercial culture. ‘Consumerism, branding, and technology are new modes of totemic representation,’ writes Assu. Exploring the effects of colonisation on the Indigenous people of North America –loss of land, language and cultural resources – Assu deconstructs perceived identities and overturns the myth of the virgin continent and its vanished peoples. His digital series, Interventions on the Imaginary, imposes the traditional formline on pre-existing narratives, challenging colonial depictions of the receding Indian and the empty continent. Like alien spaceships, neon formlines hover above early colonial landscapes, interrupting the imperialistic tale of the ‘other’ and inverting the gaze.
The philosopher, Martin Heidegger said it:
Home is dwelling.
Dwelling, from the word to build, bauen, implying to cherish and protect and preserve and even to spare. Dwelling is an act of kindness and necessity.
For Heidegger, home is a place of both being and becoming.
Think of it this way: hair down, but hair growing.
Home is how we inhabit earth, architecture, flesh, thought structures and art. Home is reciprocal. It protects us, and we it. But how does art do that?
Art is a dialogue between the artist who makes and the viewer who cherishes. If protecting us means allowing us to be and provoking us to become, then certainly art is home.
Dwelling, says Heidegger, is what humans do. It’s ‘the essential existential core of human being-in-the-world from which there is no escape.’*
Which sounds a little ominous. And dwelling is not always cosy, because there is an inescapable tension. For Heidegger, this is an imperfection in the making.
Sometimes that imperfection is where the magic happens. The Baldwin Gallery won’t be selling those Tim Shaw sculptures that have emigrated through four countries and eight homes over twenty years with owner Dennison Smith, and which wear the dinks and marks of time and travel. (Dennison would never part with them!) But we will exhibit them, because their imperfections deepen their story, and they are richer for being cherished. (Shaw’s work will be offered in pristine condition, for a new home to add the imperfections.)
Long before the environmental crisis, Heidegger accused us all of failing to dwell deeply. He said we demand too much of the world and – whether in regard to ‘how we build, see, understand, [or] think ‘– we should learn to let the world and ourselves be.*
What is home is a many-storied question, which dovetails with what is indigenous and who are we.
It’s a question we will be exploring in shows, salons and blogs, over evenings of food and wine, through art, literature, music and discussion, as we welcome artists, salonists and guests into Dennison’s Blackheath home. (See events.)
© Dennison Smith
* David Seamon, ‘Concretizing Heidegger’s Notion of Dwelling: The Contributions of Thomas Thiis-Evensen And Christopher Alexander’ in Building and Dwelling [Bauen und Wohnen], edited by Eduard Führ.
The word indigenous – like native or first – is problematic, but English doesn’t offer us a better word.
The dictionary definition is: ‘originating or occurring naturally in a particular place’ or ‘naturally existing in a place or country rather than arriving from another place.’
Both definitions and their applications are suspicious when applied to humans.
Because the word can be used to falsify an immobilising history, one that stagnates a people in both time and space, and one in which any kind of change – from innovation to migration – equals the dirtying or diminishment of a mythical state.
Also, the definition pits nature against culture – a concept rooted in colonialist or patriarchal hierarchies – rather than viewing nature and culture as so intertwined that even the horrors of an all-plastic world could never fully untangle them.
What to do?
The English language needs a better definition.
We need the word to express the legacy of deep and abiding relationships between people and places, and the resilience of traditions sensitive to their environment, and the centrality of origin to a longstanding culture which has been marginalized by an incoming power.
So, Dennison has suggested some tweaking to the OED. She hopes the dictionary writers are listening!
Indigenous: originating or occurring in historical and ongoing relationship to a particular place, or experiencing oneself and culture as naturally existing in a place or country rather than arriving from another place.
Here, at least, the word has a little subtlety and breadth. And it can be used to embrace both the hardiness and the natural changefulness of cultures, reflected in the work of First Nations artists, like Steve Smith, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Robert Davidson and Preston Singletary, who are, at once, rooted in tradition, contemporary realities, and a creative and innovative practice.