/Brenda Draney & Jewel Shaw
In FIRE Brenda Draney and Jewel Shaw contemplate the devastating effects of fire. Fire as disaster, erasure, and gesture. Fire as transformation, cleansing, and rebirth. They draw upon personal experiences, family stories, and disputed cultural histories, to delve deep into the crevasses of memory. Whether the disaster is personal or public, their visual works delicately weave fact and fiction, presence and absence, storytelling and silence. Their visual gestures grapple with the lasting effects of trauma and recovery.
/HOW TO BUILD A FIRE
FIRE explores the lasting effects of disaster, loss, and grief. It also considers the process of remembering and retelling. As artists from small communities in northern Alberta, Brenda Draney and Jewel Shaw both contemplate the exhibition’s themes through comparable life stories and a sense for expansive space. Their approaches are distinct, however, they both integrate personal and public events while referencing fire as a metaphor for trauma, erasure, and possible transformation.
In Shaw’s work, there is oppressive silence. Injustice, abuse, oppression, repression, and racism are recurring themes. Tension is apparent as she unearths skeletons from secrecy, shame, and silence. Shaw refers to muzzles, bridles, and traps (ref. Investigations of the Dog, see tab 10 on images page) to develop uncomfortable narratives of loss, intergenerational trauma, and the instability of memory. She observes: “shame is one of the worst emotions passed down... Shame for who you are and where you come from, [and for] speaking your language… are all but a few side affects of intergenerational trauma. 1 ” Her artistic practice is a platform to examine the influence of trauma from both personal and cultural perspectives.
Shaw often inserts charged texts and recurring animal figures (ref. The Common Experience, see tab 11 on images page) sourced from an antique natural history book. The phrase “The Common Experience” quite literally refers to the Common Experience Payment , a remittance made to survivors of the Indian Residential Schools in Canada, while “rendered to starvation” points to the dire effects of oppressive government policies. The cruel irony of the situation is amplified by the image of the dog standing as though it is begging. Shaw considers human relationships with animals, particularly with the dog, as important because the way “we treat our animals and our land is directly related to how we are progressing as a society 2 ”, and by extension, is a reflection of how we treat our selves and each other. In these ways, her practice examines trauma from a personal perspective and a broader cultural context.
In a recent studio visit with Shaw, she told me about a dream in which she is in a field of brightly coloured flowers… then, she strikes a match, and sets the flowers on fire 3 . This dream relates to a greater story about a “suspicious house fire [from her] mother’s childhood.” She now investigates this event through a new series of works. She explains “all photographs [and] family possessions were all burned and forgotten. 4 ” Yet, as she solicits stories from family members, narratives become inconsistent… lips tighten. Accurate recall becomes difficult when navigating trauma. Fragmented texts from these conversations appear as whispers throughout her works (ref. Then she lit…). In a sense, Shaw’s artistic practice could be considered therapeutic—stitching stories together like suturing wounds. Her works suggests that words left unsaid are closest to the truth.
Draney describes fire as “erasure 5 ”. Her works are ambiguous, and contemplate the presence of absence, while somehow implicating the viewer as voyeur to disaster (ref. Bruise, see tab 5 on images page). Draney authors visual narratives that are a way of “storying disasters and destruction 6 ” and thereby subverting their power. Yet answers remain intentionally absent. She is aware of the unreliability of remembering and retelling. She is interested in the feelings the images evoke rather than specific storylines. Memory is an omnipresent space that engulfs its subjects who are swallowed by time… and grief. Her paintings mimic a remembering while navigating fragile internal landscapes.
I observed Draney’s studio process throughout the coldest months of winter. I witnessed her studio slowly fill with delicate paintings precariously hung on wire lines. These paintings - faceless portraits, undefined objects, and haunted locales - are lonely. When asked about who or what it was she was rendering (or remembering), Draney spoke about what author Kara Walker called the temple of her familiar 7. Yet, she resisted giving her delicate paintings an anchor of specificity. She also spoke about how the works were connected to the fire that devastated her hometown in 2011 8. Evidence of this takes form in her work as dollhouse-sized basement foundations and front door stoops made of clay. For Draney, this series of works is about how something might shift how we remember, how a story or memory may become so great it could overwhelm.
Draney investigates the origin and aftershocks of trauma by carefully reconstructing memory. Motifs such as a father holding his children are repeated, reinterpreted, reconstructed. Each rendering has details added, subtracted, obliterated. One constant is the brightly striped wallpaper, though foreground and background seem to dissolve, a visual cue suggestive of the experience of remembering. Amongst the paintings hangs a zip lock bag of family photographs and ephemera, offering possible clues. But the pictures face the wall; their white backs face the viewer. On the floor stands a tiny clay foundation of what was a home. Information is fragmented. Draney tells me “this is a narrative, not a story… there is no resolution 9. ” This process of reconstruction is an effort of reconciliation.
While some fires are an act of nature, others are an act of arson. In both instances, fireis traumatic, sudden and debilitating. Fire epitomizes the catastrophic effects of natural disasters and the devastation historic events can have on culture. Fire evokes the likeness of memory to landscape. Fire suggests the subtlety of personal experience and the internal landscape. While the process of remembering, retelling, and rebuilding is often difficult, both Draney and Shaw find this to be a necessary element in subverting trauma’s power. Acknowledging the past is a better option than burying it. What matters most is not identifying what is real or imagined, but rather, narrating and positioning. Finally, fire acts as both destroyer and creator.