New life for old treasures

Amanda McCavour created a thread installation based on her kitchen from an old home. Photo by Jessa Alston-O'Connor.
When it comes to keeping items that have been passed down in the family and leaving them unused, nearly everyone is a repeat offender. Sometimes the object will sit in an attic in dust-bunny splendour, and maybe end up on eBay somewhere down the road.
But with websites like Etsy sweeping hipsters off their brogues-clad feet, these artifacts are getting a second lease on life by artists who use them as inspiration or include them in their artwork.
In comes Heir/Looms, an exhibition that combines the sentimentality found in inherited objects with the DIY sensibility of the crafts movement.
“What would it be like, I wondered, to have contemporary artists who work with craft materials and techniques to present their work alongside familial or cultural heirlooms that they had inherited?” said curator Nicole Dawkins. “I was interested in the idea of confronting the complexity and ambivalence of our relations with the labours, materials and techniques of our respective heritages.”
With that in mind, she found 12 artists hailing from Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa who work with textiles and were interested in exploring the relationships people have with the objects they inherit and the role they play in their lives.
While each work, just like the objects the artists worked with, is unique, they evoke a shared feeling of intimacy with the viewer. The artists’ personal attachment to their heirlooms is very much present in the stories behind their objects.
From the second-hand handkerchiefs Jennifer Smith-Windsor has collected, or “rescued,” from flea markets, paying homage to her grandmother’s penchant for collecting linen, to Carl Stewart’s handwoven wool portrait of his brother, who passed away at the age of three, every piece elicits a memory. It is these stories that lend the works an unmasked sincerity, and allow the viewers to create a deeper connection to the art.
“The works we decided to include in the exhibit tell a far richer and more compelling story than the simple juxtaposition of new works and old crafts,” said Dawkins. “They explore much broader themes and ideas surrounding notions of “heirlooms” and creative inheritance: memory, nostalgia, trauma and family history, appropriation, collaboration, authorship.”
Artist Megarrah Buxton went one step further with Collect, a button exchange that took place on opening night. She invited viewers to bring a button of their own and swap it for one from her grandmother’s collection.
“There is something really amazing about holding a button in your hand; feeling the cracks, chips and etched details of each one,” said Buxton. “It’s a way to grow and alter the collection, and share the experience with others.”
The exhibition also aims to explore the place of crafts in the modern art world, where the word “hobby” is nearly always used in the description of the medium.
“There seemed to be a tension between the yearning to reconnect with the traditions of craft and textile production, and the conflicting desire to cut those threads in order to mark these new idioms of making as entirely distinct or radically subversive of, for example, the crafts our mothers and grandmothers made,” explained Dawkins.
The exhibition comes at a point in time where there has been a resurgence of both interest and practice with crafts, especially with Generation Y artists who learned the practices from their parents or grandparents and are changing them.
“I think that craft is gaining a whole new respect within the arts community,” said Buxton. “In the past, many of these pieces would have been considered kitsch, but I think the way artists are approaching and utilizing crafting practices today is different.”
“What interests me is how crafting has so many different meanings for this generation: for the majority it is a hip pastime; for many it is an alternative and meaningful form of work; and for a few, it is a deeply profound social and political statement,” added Dawkins.
And it is to this changing landscape that Heir/Looms is contributing and lending a platform to keep evolving.
“Perhaps viewers will think about how what contemporary textile work says or doesn’t say with respect to the traditions and legacies of the medium,” explained Dawkins. “I would hope that the show avoids creating a simple story about creative continuity and reproducing the stereotype that all craft work and art work that uses craft techniques or mediums is ‘traditional.’”
Heir/Looms is on at Studio Beluga, 160 St-Viateur St. E., Suite 508A. It runs until Aug. 30. A limited edition catalogue is also available. For details, go to

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