Art exhibition encourages viewers to contemplate the stories of Holocaust and residential school survivors
The artist behind a new, poignant exhibition at the Mann Art Gallery hopes to build compassion through her work.
Carol Wylie’s exhibition, They Didn’t Know We Were Seeds, consists of 18 portraits — nine of residential school survivors and nine of holocaust survivors. It opened Friday and is on display at the gallery until May 29.
The impetus for putting the collection was attending the Saskatoon Holocaust Memorial Service in 2016.
“I go every year, but it started to hit me for the first time how elderly these Holocaust survivors are, and how important this firsthand experience is, hearing about it and seeing their faces,” she said.
As a portrait artist, Wylie said she knows that her work is about capturing a person and the stories in their face, so that once they’re gone, and they can’t speak to us anymore, their story lives on.
As she started to work on the project, Wylie attended a Passover Seder for the community. At that Seder, the importance of remembering Indigenous history and the residential school experience was highlighted.
She also came across some articles about Robbie Waisman.
Waisman survived Buchenwald. Now, he meets with Indigenous survivors of residential schools and talks about his experience and of sacred duty and responsibility to help people heal.
“We cannot, and we should not compare suffering,” Waisman has said.
‘Each suffering is unique. We (survived)— so can you.”
Living in Saskatchewan, which has “a fraught history of residential schools,” and with the freshness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on her mind, Wylie felt that including residential school survivors alongside Holocaust survivors in her exhibition “was a way I could make a personal, tiny little step towards reconciliation, but bearing witness to some of these stories.”
She knew right away that it had to consist of 18 paintings. That’s because, she said, in Jewish tradition, 18 represents the word “chai” which means life.
In painting these portraits and interviewing the people who sat for them, Wylie gets to know the people quite well. Portrait painting, she writes in her artist statement, is “a true meeting of two subjectivities, requiring a unique commitment and sustained effort, building intense familiarity and intimacy with the face of another.”
The 18 portraits all show striking emotion. Each of them, though, evolved naturally as the painting progressed.
“It’s an experience that happens over time,” Wylie explained.
“I capture it as closely as I can. The resemblance is very important to me. But it comes through filtered through my physicality, my interpretation. That’s all intuitive. It just kind of happens as I work towards making sure I’ve captured the nuances of that person’s face. That’s where their personality appears to us when we’re talking to them.”
People relate to each other through their physicality, she explained. As someone talks, our brains are observing and reacting to nuances and shifts in each other’s faces, shadows and responses.
“Who a person is, once they’ve relaxed, is all there. All I have to do is see it and paint it. When they’re there, hopefully their story, their history is also there.”
Observant guests will notice more to the portraits than the face leaping off the canvas. The paintings, surrounded in pure black, have text hidden in the background. That text, Wylie said, comes from each of the portrait subjects themselves.
“When I interviewed these sitters, they would often say something so poignant, I thought it was such a beautiful way of stating either their pain, the pain of their experience or their trauma or their resilience. I had to include little bits of it in there too,” Wylie explained.
She didn’t want the text to stand out. She didn’t want it to take away from the face.
So, she painted the text in black on a black background. It’s only just visible in most of the pieces. If you don’t look closely enough, you wouldn’t even know it was there.
“I didn’t want to make it too easy for the viewer,” Wylie said.
“The first thing for them to interact with was the face. If they happen to notice there’s something else in there, they need to spend that much more time.”
Spending time with artwork is important, Wylie said. When she’s not painting, she works as a museum educator.
“The best tool for viewing art is a chair,” she said.
“You’ve got to spend time with art in order to glean more from it. It unveils itself or reveals itself over a longer experience interaction with it. To me, it’s just one more step to hope that people will stand in front of each painting a little bit longer and interact with it, try to read what it says and go back to the face. Hopefully, it causes them to want to spend a little bit more time with that individual and with that piece.”
The works in the show were created between 2016 and 2020, and each would take several days worth of painting to complete. Some faster than others, Wylie said, as the shapes and colours and nuances of each face would become more apparent.
The show has been displayed in Vancouver and is set to travel to Estevan this year, then Moose Jaw and Humboldt in 2023 and 2024.
People have responded emotionally to the show, Wylie said, which is important as they contemplate the stories behind the faces hung on the walls.
“We hear all of these big numbers, like 6 million or 250,000. Thousands of people have been through these experiences. It becomes an abstract. You can understand it, but you don’t really feel it,” she said.
“But if you hear or experience by bearing witness, or by looking at the face of someone who’s been through these experiences, one on one, that individual experience could have a huge impact.”
Wylie wanted people to connect to that experience of a Holocaust survivor or of a residential school survivor.
“We still have Holocaust deniers,” she said. “We have lots of people who don’t know about the residential school experience right here, where it happened. I’m hoping that they will be interested enough to find out and be moved by those experiences as a way of building compassion.”
They Didn’t Know We Were Seeds can be viewed free of charge at the Mann Art Gallery Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. and noon until 5 p.m. on Saturdays.
A remote conversation moderated by Wylie and by Mann Art Gallery curator Marcus Miller with survivors Robbie Waisman and Eugene Arcand will be available on the gallery’s website and Facebook page on April 29. Both men have their portraits included in the exhibition.