Annual Figureworks exhibition expands its reach and reputation with this show

Detail from Jessie Babin's Self Portrait with a Red Lamp. It can be seen in the annual Figureworks exhibition.

Last Sunday, I happened onto the webpage of Gallery 78 in Fredericton, N.B., and for the first time saw the work of Jessie Babin, including a striking self-portrait. Forty-eight hours later I walked into the St. Brigid’s Centre in Ottawa and there was the portrait on the wall, as part of Figureworks. 

Go figure. I mean, what are the odds?

Babin’s self-portrait is one of 40 or so pieces in the 2018 edition of Figureworks, the annual, juried exhibition. It’s a lovely little drawing, with Babin seated on a bed, her expression pensive, a red lamp in the background. It’s done in coloured pencil and is soft and deft.

There was a time when Figureworks, held in the basement of the St. Brigid’s Centre in the Byward Market, was predominantly a local affair, but it’s been expanding its focus and reputation. This year there were 398 submissions, says president Mark Stephenson. The pieces selected by a local jury are from across Canada, with two from the United States. 

It is, as the name implies, all about the human figure, though one piece this year, a street scene, is more figurative than figure. It’s a nice painting, but it’s like a lone tulip in a bed of roses, a discordant if pleasant note.

The show includes painting, drawing, photography, sculpture and, for the first time, video. There’s a tremendously strong showing of photographic art by women, which may be coincidence, or indicative of some broader trend in the art form. One of those photographs took the Figureworks grand prize.

Olivia Johnston’s photograph of her mother as the Mater Dolorosa was the grand prize winner at this year’s Figureworks.

Olivia Johnston posed a woman as Mater Dolorosa, the mother of sorrows, the Virgin Mary. The woman is robed in white, her hands on her lap, eyes closed, and surrounded by an approximate circle of golden stars. The iconically medieval feeling is reinforced by the dome-top frame, and contrasts with the somehow recognizably contemporary air of the model. Perhaps the recognizable air is explained in Johnston’s note about her entrancement with the Virgin Mary: “She is one of us. She is all of us.” (She is also, as it turns out, Johnston’s mom.)

The exhibition’s second prize went to the painting Unmask, by Victoria, B.C.’s Nicole Sleeth. A nude figure sits with head rested on one hand, as relaxed positions are held by the other three hands. Is it one figure or two, is the person male, female, or neither? It’s a portrait of gender-fluid times. 

Third prize was taken by Lift, a sculpture by Winnipeg’s Erin Frances Brown. A man is suspended by wires from the ceiling, as if floating in air, his arms clasped around two large, bag-like things. I couldn’t decide if they were lighter-than-air balloons or heavy sacks, or, more to the point, whether they were his salvation or his doom. Without doubt, he embraces them as is his very life hangs in the balance. 

I’m surprised none of the prizes went to the photograph Urban Stream, by Sage Szkabarnicki-Stuart. The Toronto-based Szkabarnicki-Stuart composes self portraits in which she’s dressed in trash, literally. Here she’s posed waist-deep in water, flanked by two white swans, and wearing a breastplate and mask she fashioned from plastic spoons and forks she found discarded around the pond. The result is both social documentary and outrageous fashion. It’s as if the chromatic David LaChapelle and Ottawa’s own Meryl McMaster had a child who’s merging the family footsteps.

There are too many pieces in the exhibition to mention here, but standouts include an oil panting of a man by Kathy McNenly, whose portraits have a classical, wonderful serenity, and who is, if anyone’s asking me, the most interesting portraitist working in Ottawa today. 

Sage Szkabarnicki-Stuart’s Urban Bath.

There are thematic echoes throughout the room. There are several unflinching portraits of very aged people, each suffused with the love of the artist. Another echo is love lost, art done post-break-up, including Sarah Lacy’s portrait of a woman (with its own echoes of Manet’s Olympia), and Hannah Evans’ heartbreaking self-portrait with her ex, who “pushes the shutter button five days after our break-up, and in the bed we still shared together.”

Such a warm, fleeting embrace. It’s titled “and in the end,” where there is sorrow, and courage.

Figureworks continues to Dec. 1 at the St. Brigid Centre for the Arts, Cumberland Street entrance. See daily hours at 

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.