About Carol Wylie’s portrait exhibit at Edmonton Public Library

'They didn't know we were seeds' is on exhibit at Stanley Milner Library until November 25. Photo by Tammy Vineberg.

By Regan Treewater-Lipes

(Edmonton) – Many Edmontonians may already be acquainted with the locally-based production The Well-Endowed Podcast supported by the Edmonton Community Foundation, and affiliated with the Alberta Podcast Network. Those who have not yet tuned in should check out their recent episode, “Parallels” which featured an extensive interview with Canadian-Jewish artist Carol Wylie.

Wylie’s exhibition of eighteen large-scale portraits, They Didn’t Know We Were Seeds, is on display at the Stanley A. Milner Library in Downtown Edmonton till November 25.  The show examines trauma and its impact on the physical and spiritual self, through the portraits of nine Holocaust survivors, and nine victims of the Canadian Residential School System.

The Well-Endowed Podcast featured They Didn’t Know We Were Seeds to showcase a series of art therapy worships being held at the Stanley A. Milner Library with financial support from the Edmonton Community Foundation. Lisa Pruden, the Executive Assistant to the CEO of the Edmonton Community Foundation, introduces listeners to a voice that is well known within the Jewish community, that of Jenna Soroka. Soroka, who has been an active contributor to community building within Jewish Edmonton for most of her young life, is also a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with the Alberta Jewish News. Most recently, she served on the planning and organizing team that helped bring Wylie’s exhibition to Edmonton. Through collaboration between Jewish Family Services, the Jewish Federation of Edmonton, and the Edmonton Public Library’s Indigenous Services team, Wylie’s works have resonated impactfully with many Edmontonians, across diverse demographics.

On the recording Pruden comments: “Jenna was on the committee that helped plan the programming and events around this exhibition. She had mentioned to me that she was the youngest person on the committee at twenty-five-years-old. Like so many of us listening she is part of the next generation to carry her learnings forward… Jenna recognized a parallel between the Holocaust and Residential Schools, that there is often a gap between what is taught in schools. That is, what is understood by people outside of the community versus the lived experiences of those within the community.”

To mark the opening of the exhibit, Dr. Jo-Ann Saddleback, the Elder in Residence for the Edmonton Public Library, and her husband Elder Jerry Saddleback, presided over a pipe ceremony with members of the Indigenous and Jewish communities present. Soroka was in attendance and lovingly describes the experience as a “warm hug of humanity that was compassion driven. I felt grateful to be a part of it. It was very special to witness and participate in. It created a lot of context to come out and then see the art and take it in at full capacity.”

The art therapy workshops were facilitated by Heather Frayne from Jewish Family Services.  Frayne is a registered social worker with an MA in Expressive Art Therapy. According to Frayne the workshops provided an opportunity to “reflect and respond through art making” following visits with Wylie’s eighteen portraits.

Frayne elaborates in the recording stating that: “The art making piece was to create masks. So, reflecting on your inner face and outer face. What is the mask that we show to the world, and how do we carry our stories in our face?… Art is a beautiful catharsis, but also a container.”

The Edmonton Public Library’s Senior Advisor of Indigenous Relations, Emily Riddle hopes to “work to centre Indigenous knowledge, world views, and languages, and recognize that Edmonton has always been a gathering place for lots of different people, and public libraries are gathering places for lots of different people too, so we can bring people from different cultures and backgrounds together.”

The second half of the podcast is Pruden’s interview with Saskatoon-based artist Carol Wylie. They discuss Wylie’s exhibition, but more importantly, what went into the larger creative process.

“I was raised Jewish, but not in a religious family…it was more part of a historical and ethnic connection. So, I always connected with being a Jew in that way, but not so much religiously. I’m not a religious person, I’m a spiritual person…  I am surrounded by people who are like me in terms of being White settlers…  I am not Indigenous to this land, but other people are,” Wylie states in the interview.

She explains to Pruden that she lived in rural Saskatchewan for many years, and there was only one other Jewish person in town other than her own family.  She then reveals that this other Jewish resident later became a subject for one of the portraits included in the exhibition. She reflects poignantly about language and not being able to speak Yiddish, commenting: “I never learned it, and I feel that there’s a loss in that…When you are a member of the diaspora, it’s sort of different, you have that expectation that your language may not be front and centre but when you are in your home land, but you don’t have your language I can imagine it’s like a tenfold experience of loss.”

To contrast the immense loss suffered by the subjects of her portraits, Wylie endeavored to capture their lived experiences, positive and negative, through portraiture.  She had always wanted the exhibit to feature eighteen works to emphasize chai – life. What has resulted proved to be moving for both for the artist and her subjects as they sat together sharing stories, or sometimes sitting in silence as Wylie sketched.

She reiterates in her interview sentiments that she vocalized during a public speaking engagement on October 6, that these are not her stories to share, but that the experiences of her subjects are indelibly physicalized as a part of their faces and come out in the portraits themselves.

Welcoming Carol Wylie’s work to Edmonton has resulted in significant community engagement and sparked a great deal of positive exchange. The resulting art therapy workshops were a testament to the public’s desire to further internalize the concepts and themes presented by They Didn’t Know We Were Seeds in a lasting and meaningful way.  Those who have not yet visited the exhibit should most definitely do so, and then sit down to listen to Pruden’s interviews to hear about the seeds that are now growing.

Regan Treewater-Lipes is a Local Journalism Initiative  Reporter.

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