By Jenn Watt
A white rocking chair sits in the corner of the old train station in Haliburton. Draped over it is an afghan blanket each granny square colourful and bright. On another wall is a quilt nearly complete with squares in familiar patterns – north wind log cabin eight-point star. On the walls farm implements logging axes and animal traps hang.
It could be Haliburton at the turn of the century except that train station is the Rails End Gallery and there’s something not quite right about these objects.
Look closer and that afghan isn’t so warm after all – it’s made of the wires that run inside ethernet cables painstakingly crocheted together. The quilt on the wall is actually slices of old keyboards wedges of Blackberrys and corners of laptop covers. Out of the end of a pitchfork comes a set of earbuds. The handle sports a set of white lettered keys.
This blend of past and present is from the By Hand exhibition by artist and Haliburton School of the Arts instructor Elinor Whidden on at Rails End Gallery until Oct. 11.
The artist says the idea emerged from the building itself. She wanted to do a project that played off the historical past of the gallery formerly the Haliburton train station.
To gather information and inspiration she went to Haliburton Highlands Museum where staff allowed her to look through their artifacts and offered up their knowledge of local history.
“As I started to explore I realized what I was really interested in was looking at the labour of opening up this area – farming and logging and because the farmland turned out to be so crappy there was some trapping that was happening but how people were making a living by scratch and by hand the real physical toil of eking out an existence in this landscape which is so rough” Whidden says.
It was striking to her how the nature of work had changed.
“I was thinking about how a lot of our current work and labour is connected to these electronic devices these handheld devices these phones and laptops and tablets and all these cables we end up with and our work has really changed to be not so much by hand … we still have all these handheld devices but they all end up in the garbage every year” she says.
Haliburton during the time of the settlers was not nearly so wasteful. Quilts for example were made of reused fabric that no longer served its purpose as a garment. Groups of women would come together to create these functional artworks. Likewise men would converge to put up a barn or log a forest. Work was done together and skills were practical and tangible. “The complete opposite of how wasteful we are of these devices. Either they break in a year or the operating system is no longer supporting the new app so out it goes” Whidden says.
This mashing of the two cultures is obvious and whimsical but its message becomes more nuanced the longer the art is examined.
Beside the quilt made of tech cast-offs stands an ironing board and an old fashioned iron. On the board a nearly complete quilted square of cold plastic and metal sits as if waiting to be added to the blanket on the wall. Imagine placing that hot iron on the quilt square however and the narrative changes. A hot iron is unlikely to smooth anything about this new invention; it would melt and warp maybe even release toxic fumes from its plastic parts.
The afghan offers the same dilemma: beautiful from afar its cold wiry fabric would be little protection from a winter’s day.
“There’s an absurdity to the person who would gather these broken wires and turn them into something else but that something else doesn’t really work. Like an afghan made out of wires isn’t comforting.
“They don’t really function. They reference something that keeps you warm but is a tool for working but they don’t really work” Whidden says.
The exhibition title By Hand offers several branches of thought to explore. Our early settlers certainly worked the land by hand and even made their tools by hand. Today most of us work by hand too but the nature of that labour is incredibly different. Our living “by hand” often means being apart from others.
“There’s this idea that we’re networked together but there’s also this isolation that we have now all working from home alone on these devices” Whidden says.
It can mean blending work and leisure time as we check our emails late at night or sneak a peek at Facebook while at the office. And as Whidden points out these new objects are made by hand just not by us. Often the new iPhone or Android tablet was made under poor conditions overseas by people we will never meet.
Despite the serious nature of these conversations the exhibition is filled with fun and subtle jokes. Like the photo of Whidden posing with a bonnet made of wires and earbuds the artist wants the audience to think but also to laugh.
To accompany the sculptures in Rails End a special feature has been added to the Haliburton Highlands Museum. Amidst its collection of historical photos some staged pictures of Whidden posing in sepia tone have been added. In one she stands with her pitchfork looking like an area farmer from the 1930s. Under more careful inspection you see that farm implement has computer keys on it.
The hope is that this reference at the museum will get people talking and perhaps guide them to the gallery. Likewise the gallery will be informing visitors that this additional artwork is available to view at the museum.
You can check out By Hand at the Rails End Gallery until Oct. 11. Go to railsendgallery.com/calendar/elinor-whidden-by-hand/ for more.