November 27, 2017
Although central to the theme of the exhibition, Rewind: Typologies of Time at the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum in Almonte, the timeline of the 200-kilometer Mississippi River is largely absent. In some of McMaster’s work, this absence seems intentional – a way of undermining the so-called objective rendering of the landscape as represented in maps. Whether deliberate or not, the exhibition is sponsored by the Mississippi River Power Corporation and as such the river’s typology deserves more attention.
Noelle Hamlyn and Jenny McMaster, the two fibre artists featured in this exhibit, have created bodies of work that show mastery of their individual media.
Some of Hamlyn’s artworks are from her “Sweetness of the Work” collection, first installed at the Biennale International du Lin, Portneuf, Quebec in 2013. Initially, the sweetness seems to refer to the white crystals that look like sugar and adhere to the tools of women’s hand work – threads, thimbles, pins, needles and even a 1901 sewing machine cast in paper – until the viewer learns that the material encrusted on these objects is salt.
It is a symbol, according to Hamlyn’s artist statement, of the sweat labour and salt tears shed by seamstresses of long ago. The salt also seems to refer to the tears of the artist who, through her labour of love, laments the loss of traditional women’s hand skills.
There is also a reference to the three fates in Hamlyn’s statement, a fitting mythological gloss for her subject matter. Unfortunately, the reference is lost here, perhaps due to the scaled down version of the “Sweetness” collection to fit the gallery space. The embroidered scissors, a signifier of Atropos, one of the three Moirai in Greek mythology, were nowhere to be found when this reviewer visited the exhibition.
Hamlyn’s other contributions to the exhibit include her “Wallflowers” collection, a series about men’s wear – an assortment of jackets, shirts, a vest, and a man’s suit complete with bow-tie and shoes all made of Japanese gampi tissue paper. Its colour is reminiscent of the paper used to make patterns for clothing. However, this tissue is much stronger.
The paper has this wonderful glazed quality which is used to strong effect by curator Michael Rikley-Lancaster in lighting Hamlyn’s ephemeral gampi sculptures.
The lightness of the “Wallflowers” collection is contrasted by Hamlyn’s “Bricks” installation, two walls of plastered reclaimed clothing folded and combined in such a way to create a fence of bricks, a “calcified wall of memory” to the people who wore them.
An eponymous poem possibly refers to those who once worked in Almonte’s mills, shoulders hunched, and jaws clenched. These ordinary folk, some of whom are named by McMaster, laboured for pitiable wages while the owners – the very same men who wore the real clothing alluded to in “Wallflowers” – became the illustrious pillars of the community as referenced by “Esquire” at the end of their name. The two plastered walls are positioned in such a way to appear as a gateway.
McMaster’s series of art works constructed from handmade paper, pulp painting and embroidery are an interpretative response to archival maps housed at the museum. Her sources range from line maps dated from 1829 to digital photographs from Google Earth. All have an aerial point of view.
Her introductory piece, visually adjacent to Hamlyn’s encrusted sewing machine, is a work entitled “230 hands”. It is based on the archival map “‘Rosamond Wool Mill, Almonte Ontario, 1889’”. The art work focuses on the layout of the Rosamond Wool Mill in 1889 and the ordered functions of the workers in each of its buildings.
The mill, now the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum, includes a grey T-shaped block with the embroidered word, ‘DYEHOUSE’ within it. The building is positioned perilously close to the Mississippi River which borders two sides of the mill/image.
In both “Sites of Power”, 2017 and “The River Electric”, 2017, McMaster undermines the dry and seemingly objective qualities of the archival line maps on which her art works are based by her use of cerulean blue – a colour that shouts “Water!” and “Electricity!” simultaneously – as the central shade that defines both works. “Sites of Power” is a visual poem; the only lines uttered are the embroidered edges of land with a few yellow threads signifying proposed power sites.
“The River Electric” is based on a 1946 diagram “‘Showing [the] Location of Water Power Users on the Mississippi River at Almonte, ON.’” Both works are delightfully ironic. They elucidate the myopic approach by the original cartographers towards the source of another type of power – the river as a force of nature.
A work by McMaster, in which the river is marked by its visual absence is “Untitled Almonte”, 2017. The town is represented as a patchwork of man-made sectors somewhat like a topographical map – but with the natural features missing. The island on which the museum sits is represented by a block of clay-colour bricks.
While the two exhibits are connected by historical narratives, the perception of the Mississippi River as a sovereign force of nature is missing here. Hamlyn’s cast clothing and sewing tools clearly mark a time in the past when women’s hand work had social value. McMaster’s interpretations of archival maps show them for the cultural artifacts that they are: embedded in a way of seeing that only becomes noticeable after decades have passed. A third artist’s work might have taken the museum visitor to a visual time and space when there were no mills or white settlements adjacent to Almonte’s Mississippi thus strengthening the typology of time for the river and the pathos inherent in the exhibition. It is not only the loss of traditional women’s hand skills that can be lamented in this exhibition.
To quote McMaster from her artist’s statement, “the former Rosamond Wool Mill, which now houses the museum, would never have come into existence if it were not for this body of water.”
All photographs are by the author.
Until December 16, 2017
Mississippi Valley Textile Museum, Almonte Ontario