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Artist Profile: Amy Belanger

Posted by art On November - 18 - 2008
Amy Belanger

Amy Belanger

By Amy Borkwood

Amy Belanger is a multi-talented artist, working with everything from embroidery to jewellery to printmaking. She lives and works in Halifax, but you can find her work all over Toronto: necklaces at Heart On Your Sleeve, “Canadian Ragdolls” at the Souvenir Shop, or online at Toronto-based goodEGG Industries. We chatted recently about her work and practice, and what has been inspiring her lately.

MONDO: Can you tell me a bit about your background in the arts? I know you went to school at NSCAD, and the first time I saw your work was at the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition this summer. Can you tell me a little more about you and your work?

Amy Belanger: Well, I could go back as far as decorating pumpkins at my birthday parties and feeling like I had an exceptional talent over my five-year-old companions.  Soon after those youthful days I was in university for environmental resource studies. I had some great experiences in high school, and after that I travelled and worked on farms. Ultimately, this changed my perspective. I became and remain interested in working as part of a community. There are thoughts that a person is educated to improve herself and therefore become a valued citizen in society; or, conversely, that she can be educated in a community- and society-oriented way to make for a better individual. Both are important. Community involves food, culture, music, and arts. This is where I thrive as an individual…and why I decided to pursue art.  I studied textiles at Sheridan College and at NSCAD University in Halifax.  I am living in Halifax particularly because there is such an active group of people working for community efforts, at the amazing farmers’ market, on independent projects, and in the scattered little galleries across town.

MONDO: I’ve seen your gorgeous hand-embroidered black-on-white pieces, and your jewellery is all over Toronto. You’ve noted that you’re now working on silkscreened posters and postcards.  Can you tell me about all these different projects? What draws you to each new medium? And how is it that you’ve got such diverse, incredible skills?

AB: I was talking with my friend Jordan MacDonald about the work he was doing in ceramics and at the time he was being secretive about his project. I said “Are you not ready to show us your work because you’re too far from finished? Are you still in the development stages?” His reply was that he tries to always be in the development stages. I like that. That’s the best way I can attempt to explain why I enjoy working with a variety of materials and subjects. They all influence the other, the last, or the next. The posters and postcards involve silkscreening images that have been compiled in my sketchbooks. While working on the embroidery pieces that you saw at the Outdoor show, I started collecting sentences or things I would hear on the street, and writing them down as a way to reactivate my mind in the midst of all the time-consuming stitching. This collection turned into something like found-word poetry, I guess. It’s still something I’m playing with — in the developing stages, so to speak. The jewellery you mentioned…are necklaces made from broken tea cups and saucers. Similarly, they started out as a diversion project, using the glass studio at Sheridan to figure out how to make the pendants, while I was in my final year studying textiles.

MONDO: Your embroidered works are just stunning — they were by far the best work I saw at the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition. What inspired them, and what’s the process of the work?

AB: I have had a lot of time to think about what these pieces mean to me, but I still find this a difficult question to answer. I started filling up pages of my sketchbook with lines and mark-making. This felt foreign and exciting because, although these marks are familiar, they are less distinguishable or relatable to our everyday experiences. The connection to landscapes was from looking out the window of the plane. The fields and rivers made up similar patterns. It was interesting to talk to people at the Outdoor show during this time because people, instead of having personal connections [to the work], made many references to traditional craft and art: Inuit stone carving, Maori tattoos or tribal tattoos, Japanese landscapes, Indian traditional quilting and henna to name a few. The use of line is so prevalent in traditional work. It is a different kind of expression that escapes the physical reality in some way, like matter being broken up into molecules and atoms. I also enjoyed pretending I was a Mayan weaver or visiting an African tribe. The intricacies, simplicity, and universal quality are sometimes devalued or lost in our culture. I found these works so exhausting, but at the same time they are calming and reassuring. There is more to see than what is tangible, decipherable, and right in front of us — and although it’s always in-process, this is what these pieces are about for me at the moment.

MONDO: Why textiles?  How were you originally drawn to that medium?

AB: I was working at a summer art program for kids called ArtsKool (good name) after my first year at university for environmental resource studies. I worked for my high-school art teacher, and it was her and a friend and co-worker that convinced me to check out the Craft and Design program at Sheridan College. I think there was less than a month left before fall classes started so I took the first two studios available, which were textiles and ceramics. I really had no idea what they entailed, but I fell in love with textiles immediately! The splashes of colour all over the walls in the mixing room and sinks, the patterns layered all over the drop cloths, the versatility of the material, and their origins and history.  Yes, love! Prior to this, my experience with textiles came from an interest in fashion and cultural dress. I used to make a lot of my own clothes and always enjoyed hunting through second-hand stores for interesting finds and fabrics.

MONDO: I’m really interested in your community involvement. Do you consider yourself to be part of an art community, a craft community?  How do you combine working as an individual on your own projects with being a member of a specific community?

AB: I am often so inspired by the talent and great work in this little city. A few weeks ago, there was an event called Nocturne, an evening art event. It was fantastic. These are the events that I get most excited about and would be strong in any city. There was so much collaboration: from the event organizers, the individual galleries and participating artists, to the public transportation (free — with art and music en route). Every gallery was full and just walking down the street would take you to another installation, performance, or music in the street.

My involvement thus far includes attending events and being enthusiastic and participating in local crafty fairs. I would definitely love to be more involved in these events — which might involve showing my work here in Halifax. Currently I’m bartering, silkscreening for a local artist, Michelle St. Onge, in exchange for a beautiful textile space. It’s a great opportunity and definitely makes me feel like I’m a part of this craft and art community.

MONDO: Whose work are you influenced by?  Which local (Halifax) artists are you interested in right now?

AB: These people are all fantastic: Chris Foster, Lydia K, Laura Dawe, David Harper, Picnicface (comedy team).

MONDO: Are there any other mediums you’re interested in trying out?

AB: All other mediums! I would really like to build a house (cob or straw or wood) actually!

Craftoronto vs. Harbourfront

Posted by art On October - 14 - 2008

Craftoronto is back! This week, Amy reviews a few of the shows at Harbourfront Centre’s fall exhibition.

By Amy Borkwood

1. Book Art

Here is the truth: Book Art is my favourite, and it’s all I really think about. When I was 17 and first getting interested in the book arts, especially bookbinding, I went to the library and took out arm-loads of books filled with work by well-known book artists. And I was really, sadly, disappointed. The books were from the late 80s and early 90s, and it showed — all the featured books were elaborate and over-the-top, they valued form over aesthetic, and they were just generally unattractive to me at that age. The exhibition at the Harbourfront Centre — Book Variations, organized by the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild (CBBAG) — reminded me of the disappointment my 17-year-old self felt looking at those library books. The aesthetic — over-wrought, metallic-on-black-with-calligraphy-and-beading — has remained the same in the small world of the traditional book arts. Of course, there were gorgeous individual works: there was Erin Ciulla’s series of fibre-wrapped books — linen, mohair, wool — in shades of off-white, stored in a gorgeous wooden box. A few books showcased immense skill: most bindings were gorgeous in and of themselves, and there were books with hand-set type, wood engravings, and impeccable detail. In general, though, the exhibition was disappointing, and may discourage those people just finding their way into the book arts. Though this exhibition would suggest otherwise, the book arts truly are changing: there are so many talented people, especially in the world of zine-making and printmaking, who are updating and pushing the book arts ahead, into a gorgeous and exploratory place.

2. Tweens

I think pretty highly of tweens. They’re stuck in the most terrible of places: their childhood has suddenly disappeared, their adulthood is too far off to realistically imagine, their worlds are over-grown and volatile and they have to go to junior high, and on top of that they’ve got to be strong and hold it all together. The Harbourfront Centre has a small exhibition of photography — Bye-Bye Baby and Celestial Echoes by Michelle Sank — which looks at these kids who have to somehow find their way into adulthood: that place they most desire. The photographs are gorgeous, each centering on a young person who suddenly has to renegotiate the way that they present themselves to the world. The images force the viewer to stop and take in the entire scene. Certain photographs really stand out: a young girl with a one-shouldered top and purse who treats the camera as if it’s below her, something to be looked down on; and a boy who can’t be over 14, his shirt off and his hair over-gelled, with two enormous tattoos across his chest and arm (I could almost feel the regret he’ll have by the time he’s 20 and the tribal-sleeve gets a bit old). Check out Sank’s site — her work, mostly focusing on youth in England, is just stunning. Then go and see her photography in person.

3. The Daily Lives of People in Love

There is immense beauty in the everyday, and Geneviève Jodouin’s series I don’t ever want this to end puts this delicate beauty on display. Her work is intimate as well as large-scale: the entire space is wallpapered to match the framed prints of couples involved in the commonplace (eating ice cream, going for a walk, talking in bed). Each of the pieces portrays the couple alone in the space they have created for themselves. The cleanness and repetition of each piece makes it hard to find much to explore, though they are pretty. Her other work is similar as well — you can see more on her website — a delicate and idealistic exploration of youth, beauty, and relationships. Make sure to note the sexy If these walls could talk.

Craftoronto: Awash in Washi

Posted by art On June - 17 - 2008

World Washi Summit

June 7-15, 2008
35 locations in and around Toronto

By Amy Borkwood

How many ways can you possibly manipulate Washi — through folding, gluing, dyeing, painting, cutting, printing, sewing, etc. — in order to create something absolutely new? This is what the World Washi Summit seemed to be asking of its artists throughout this one-week exhibition of Washi (the Japanese word for traditional papers, made by hand for over 1400 years, from renewable, indigenous plants). Galleries (and restaurants, retail stores, and more) all across the city dedicated their spaces to the exploration of this traditional paper, featuring new and experienced artists, all working within the medium of Washi.

The hand-making and traditional uses of Washi — and this is applicable to fine craft and handmade goods in general — have drastically reduced with the use of machines in traditionally handmade goods and materials. The purpose of the summit is to draw attention to the traditional roles of Washi, through showcasing the creative possibilities of this medium.

The potentials of Washi seem limitless: at the Toronto School of Art exhibition, there was an exact replica of a newspaper, intricately hand-lettered and hand-drawn, next to an installation of origami shoes, spread along the entire gallery floor, which ended at a podium full of shakeable folded boxes (seeds and bells sounding inside). My favourite piece at this gallery was Yoko Nomura’s “Yozakura (Cherry Blossom in the Night),” which was really a study of the Washi itself: loosely layered sheets of Washi, made with Washi-petals inside the paper as well as on the floor directly in front of the piece, as if the petals had been falling slowly from within the paper over the course of the exhibition.

My boyfriend and I subwayed and trammed down to Propeller gallery, just to find that the show didn’t officially open until the next day — only to be let in for an early showing by a (wonderful) woman working in the gallery. Though the gallery wasn’t completely ready to be viewed — there were papers and rulers along the floor, notes on the walls about the placement of each piece — the work that we saw was stunning. One piece by Teri Donovan stood out: black-ink prints of houses on off-white Washi, with hand-embroidered root systems trailing from each house.

After Propeller we headed to the Ontario Craft Council gallery, where 13 artists had been working over the June 7/8 weekend to create gorgeous, innovative Washi works. Within two days, the artists collaborated or worked individually to craft mobiles, “paper cups” (glass cups overflowing with torn Washi), jewellery (a necklace made of large, egg-like sculptured Washi), multiple collages, and even a scarf knit from Washi and shredded office paper. The OCC exhibition, all crafted within the two-day deadline, is now being auctioned off to the public. Go to the OCC show if only to see the knit-paper scarf. Honestly, how is that possible?



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