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Getting the bigger picture

Take a walk through St. Albert's trail system and you'd expect to find birds of many different feathers and other woodland creatures. Look in the branches and you might see something unexpected: small sculptures placed there by some unknown hand.

DETAILS

For Women Who Roar

Shana Wilson

Opens Thursday, March 24 and runs until Saturday, April 30

In-person tours with curator Emily Baker to take place at noon on Tuesday, April 5 and Thursday, April 21

Virtual tour with curator Emily Baker to take place at noon on Tuesday, April 12

Artist talk and closing reception on Thursday, April 21 from 6 to 8 p.m.

Call 780-460-4310 or visit artgalleryofstalbert.ca/exhibitions-events/exhibitions/for-women-who-roar-2 for more information

There aren’t enough women being celebrated in art, neither as creators nor as subjects. Sure, you know the Mona Lisa but who was she as a person? What did she do with her life to warrant her position on a masterpiece painted by a man?

Where’s the painting of Ruth Bader Ginsburg? What about Gloria Steinem? These towering figures in the worlds of justice and human rights certainly deserve their portraits to be placed on the gallery walls of the Eternal Hall of Heroes.

That’s very much the reasoning that Shana Wilson came to. The Edmonton artist is still in the early years of her life’s mission to bring artistic justice to those two, and to so very many others. As a painter, she was already devoted to the American realist style of portrait when international news did much to focus her vision.

“About five years ago, the Me Too movement actually really just rocked my world. That's when I decided I needed to start celebrating game-changing women on canvas because we just don't have enough of them on canvas in any major institution. It's heartbreaking,” she explained.

There she soon found herself just quietly painting “one portrait after another after another” in her studio by her account. She started paying stricter attention to the news, looking for new subjects. She started a list of names. For Women Who Roar was born.

“It was just a passion project; I was just doing it because I felt I needed to. I was driven to do it. Then finally, there were 15 of them, and they were all five feet tall, and I thought, ‘maybe it's time, I should get about sharing these.’ That's when I decided I'm just going to organize it myself, put it together, be part of the Vignettes Festival. It just exploded. I think it really resonated with women; it was so amazing to see,” she continued.

The exhibit is a series of larger-than-life portraits of women, including Dorothy Pitman–Hughes, Anita Hill, Buffy Sainte Marie, and Edmonton’s Jamie Salé. Gloria Steinem and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are in there, too, as you’d expect. You’ve likely already seen the RBG portrait from the cover of Time magazine back in the fall of 2020.

The exhibit also features the faces of women you might not have heard of, at least, not yet. There’s Carol Pope, one of the first openly lesbian singers to front a rock band. There’s Maria Toorpaikai Wazir, who disguised herself as a boy in her native Pakistan so she could defy the threats of the Taliban and play competitive sports. Mei Xu is a Chinese immigrant who founded three hugely successful companies and now focuses on empowering female entrepreneurs. There’s also Cecily Brown, who Wilson reckons is one of the greatest contemporary painters ever.

The large (152-centimetre-by-102-centimetre) and lovingly rendered portraits certainly draw a viewer’s attention to these powerful stories of success over adversity.

“Parents bring their small children to come and see it. That one really was pretty overwhelming for me actually: to see these young girls come in — and young boys, too — and look up to these women and read about them and learn about them. That was pretty awesome.”

Seeing the public’s reaction is often just as much of a celebration to the artist. Some women come to the show and start crying, Wilson said. Other crowds have other kinds of energetic reactions.

“It was super emotional. You'd have these groups of 20-year-old women come in to see the exhibit and they’d get teary, or they’d put on music and then dance like crazy in the room. The whole thing was pretty extraordinary. It was just a real part of a movement, I guess. Women finding their voices and saying ‘enough’s enough’ and ‘me too,’ and all that kind of stuff,” she continued.

Abandoned art

Somewhere out there, an artist is laughing like a barrel full of monkeys. Whoever it is has been placing little metal sculptures of figures — some resembling monkeys with cartoonish semi-circular ears — in the branches of trees around St. Albert's trail system. The figures do bicycle tricks, ride unicycles, and play musical instruments. There's one playing a squeezebox while riding a unicycle. All seem to be wearing face masks.

On the St. Albert Chat page on Facebook, Dot Doyle Newman recently posted a photograph of compiled images of three such sculptures with her remarking, "Thank you to whoever is hiding these delightful little metal sculptures along the walking trails of St. Albert. It brings a little joy to our walking group each time we find one and makes those daily 10,000 steps a lot more fun. The masks are a nice touch, too!"

A round of questions about the artist's identity went out to local sculptors and teachers, but to no avail. The mystery continues.


Scott Hayes

About the Author: Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns, and profiles on people.
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