The Greatest Stories Ever Told: Summer at the Esker Foundation

Jolie Bird, 1597; Harmonious Frequencies, 2018, Esker Foundation Project Space, May 7 to July 29, 2018, (in progress). Photo by: John Dean.

Story by Christina Wong

A golden thread, sheets of metal, and scraps of cloth: these are the treasures you have been told lie waiting for you within the red-brick building called the Atlantic Avenue Art Block. As you approach, you are greeted by the sight of a woman working, tirelessly coiling a golden thread on the wall. She is completely focused on her work, tightly wrapping the thread into a spiral that is part of a greater set of spirals. Each spiral is a carbon copy of the other, and while it might seem as though they were manufactured by a machine, it is clear that each dot was meticulously created by the hands of an expert craftsman. Heedless of the bustle around her, she continues her work, the summer sun radiating into the glass-enclosed space. With this sight, you begin your adventure at the Esker Foundation, which has transformed and refreshed itself for the summer season.

The Project Space on the main floor now hosts a minimalist workshop, decorated with nothing more than a numerical counter, a tool cart, and the artist’s uniform. With these elements, Calgary artist Jolie Bird sets the stage for her performance-based installation, 1597; Harmonious Frequencies. Consisting of golden dots of wrapped string set in a pattern to mirror the Fibonacci Sequence, 1597; Harmonious Frequencies is an interactive piece that will be completed over the course of 12 weeks. By creating the piece through a performance, Bird gives viewers a glimpse into the intricacies and investment that goes into the creation of art. The most interesting facet of this work is that Bird wanted to activate the Project Space for a moment before letting the entire work go and leaving no trace of the installation behind.

The fourth-floor gallery space has also been stripped down to reveal an open-concept area that takes you away from the bustle of Inglewood to an airy dreamscape of larger-than-life installations. The first, Vanessa Brown’s Late Night Trip to the Jeweller’s, is a landscape of oversized objects: a sleepy clock that spans the entire height of the gallery, colourful earrings perched on a jewelry stand that could only be worn by a giantess, and two dark robes lined with jewels and plant life that would be a challenge for any mere mortal to wear. With this and all of her work in the exhibition, Vancouver-based Brown welcomes you to her storybook world, comprised of three interconnected, immersive scenes where you are asked to take the lead role in the artistic narrative.

Vanessa Brown, Stained Glass Earrings and Stand, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

This quality of storytelling is particularly pronounced in Brown’s Charm series of sculptures. Made of flat, painted steel planes, these figures are silhouettes of their practical equivalents, as if they were cut out of the pages of a metal storybook. Despite their construction from flat metal, each of these sculptures is given a level of dimension in their arrangement, with other shapes and figures revealing themselves as your perspective changes.  By creating these transforming objects, Brown has created a narrative that both surprises and delights as the sculpture’s true nature is revealed.

Seamlessly integrated with Brown’s dreamy, storybook reality is Anna Torma’s vibrant  narrative in textile art. A series of hand embroidery and textile collage, Torma’s  installation is a chaotic collision of collective memory. On display are works inspired by her children’s drawings, pieces from collaborations with family, and remnants from past projects that come together to create stories that are both foreign and familiar. Complex, anatomical diagrams are presented with words spelt backwards, fire breathing dragons dance alongside wolves with human heads, and roaring bears are mixed with words in Hungarian, and it’s these collected landscapes that give insight to that delicate balance between preserving history and creating progress.

Anna Torma, ‘Carpet of Many Hands,’ 2012-2018, (detail). Courtesy of the artist.

The most captivating of these pieces is Carpet of Many Hands, a textile collage of found fabrics from domestic linens, printed pieces, and decorative samples. Spanning two panels that drape along the floor, Carpet of Many Hands is an ode to the small things that are often cast off because of their seemingly inconsequential nature.  Pastoral images are captioned with comic book speech bubbles while lace panels partially obscure tribal-like drawings, and while each of the fabric pieces may not be very impressive on their own, together they create a powerful story of love, social norms, and life as an immigrant in Canada. Through this colourful and larger than life installation, Torma reminds us that it is not a thing, a phrase, or an image that matters, but the interconnectivity of these things that makes for an interesting story.

In that sense, the Esker Foundation’s Summer 2018 Exhibitions are an ode to the stories that make up life itself and a chance to see ourselves as the creators and keepers of our own story. We are questioned through Brown’s work about what type of protagonist we are and what perspectives we take on our challenges. We are shown through Torma’s work that no story is complete without all of the details and to value all of the little things. We are reminded through Bird’s work that despite the beauty and the effort that is put in to create something meaningful, it will one day be stripped away. If all that remains are our stories, then this summer’s exhibitions at the Esker Foundation are a fantastic example of how we must honour those stories, no matter how insignificant the details or fantastic the outcomes.