Illuminations shines light on women’s contributions to Canada

This piece by Mary Anne Barkhouse is included in the travelling exhibition Illuminations. The work is called Sculpture.

A unique tribute to the women we might call the Mothers of Confederation will find a home in Rideau Hall, if Laura Brandon has her way.

Brandon served for 22 years as art curator at the Canadian War Museum. She hopes some day soon the Governor General’s residence will be decorated with a unique collection of silver candle and lamp holders that would sit alongside other art and artifacts considered national treasures.

These silver objects are meant to honour Canadian women from the last two centuries and are fashioned from repurposed silver harvested from heritage tea pots, trays, spoons and other glittering objects.

Laura Brandon points at one of the art works in Illuminations during exhibition in Fredericton, N.B. Courtesy Laura Brandon

At the war museum, Brandon spent most of her career dealing with art and history generated by a decidedly male point of view. Women’s contributions to this country were often ignored.

Dance by Charles Funnell. Courtesy Laura Brandon.

The boiling point came during a car trip one day in 2015 shortly after Brandon’s retirement. She became “exercised,” in the words of her husband Rob Brandon. The couple was listening to a radio program at the time about celebrations coming in 2017 to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation and the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

“There was a lot of talk about the Fathers of Confederation,” Laura recalled in a recent interview. “It all sounded as though it was going to be a masculine enterprise. That bothered me. I thought: ‘There were women involved in the Confederation story.’”

Laura decided it was time to honour the unsung Mothers of Confederation, the women who helped build this country even though they did not sit in Parliament nor command soldiers.

She specifically thought of her great, great, great grandmother, Elizabeth Dunlop who, in 1858 in Toronto, founded a home for single women who “accidentally got pregnant,” fought for women’s property rights, was active in the anti-slavery movement and, like most upwardly mobile women of the era, had a dining room table laden with silver objects that were lovingly passed along, like the proverbial torch, from one generation to another.

Film, Television & Video by Mary McIntyre. Courtesy Laura Brandon.

Brandon had inherited a huge trove of silver utensils and decorations from Dunlop and other ancestors. Some of the objects were valuable. Those were kept or sold. Others were just silver plate. The rest of the loot was repurposed to honour the unsung Mothers of Confederation who not only spent their days polishing silver but helped create a country in a thousand other ways. 

The booty increased with some additional silver donations from Rob’s family and from friends of Laura’s forebears, the Britton and Cronyn families from various Ontario locations. About 10 kilograms were then parcelled out among 15 celebrated silversmiths, jewellery-makers and other artisans involved in metalwork across the country. Many of these artisans have been recipients of Canada’s highest awards for fine craft. Some of these artisans regularly sell their work at L.A. Pai Gallery in the Byward Market.

The result of Brandon’s efforts is a traveling exhibition called Illuminations, which is comprised of 15 holders for candles or lamps made from the heritage silver. Each artist picked an original piece of the heritage objects, such as a teaspoon, a picture frame or an ornament to remain intact and to become part of a new sculpture-like candlestick or lamp holder. The rest of the silver was melted in a communal pot and distributed among the 15 artisans to use, as they wished, in their creations. In total, each artist received about 650 grams to play with. There were few restrictions except that each new object was not to exceed roughly eight inches by eight inches by 12 inches.

Illuminations was a labor of love, receiving no government grants nor corporate sponsorships. The artisans are receiving only the normal exhibition fee galleries pay professional artists. Rob and Laura hauled the works in their Gulf Wagon across the country to the exhibition venues.

Craft by Lois Etherington Betteridge. Courtesy Laura Brandon

The show opened in late 2018 in Guelph, then moved to Fredericton and Halifax. The exhibition travels to Toronto in January next year and then to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Brandon has tried without success to find an Ottawa venue. That’s a familiar refrain from curators seeking a place to exhibit art in the capital.

Among the 15 artisans is Chantal Gilbert, of Quebec City, a winner of the Saidye Bronfman Award, the country’s top prize for fine craft. Her creation is an organic looking candle stick that seems tasty enough to eat. Attached is an antique silver spoon.

Kye-Yeon Son, of Halifax, is another Saidye Bronfman winner. Her candlestick employs elaborate text to honour such prominent Canadian authors as Gabrielle Roy and Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Beth Alber, of Toronto, engraved the names of female architects in Canadian history on her work. Jackie Anderson, of Calgary, created a candlestick engraved with the names of female musicians.

Indigenous artist Mary Anne Barkhouse of Haliburton, Ont., is best known in the Ottawa area for her sculpture, ’namaxsala, a life-sized copper canoe carrying a wolf and floating in a pond by the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau. Her work for Illuminations uses a small ornamental canoe from the heritage silver.

Lois Etherington Betteridge, of Guelph, is a jeweller in her 90s. This Saidye Bronfman Award winner created a candle holder that, in part, resembles a plant made of silver. She was the first artisan Brandon had approached. Betteridge eagerly jumped on board and selected the other 14 artisans.

“I am delighted to be part of this project,” Betteridge was quoted as saying in a newsletter from the Ontario College of Art and Design University.  “It is not only a celebration of the craft of metal-smithing but sends a strong signal that women count in the arts in Canada and always have.”

Brandon says she is very proud of Illuminations. There seems to have been a sense of duty associated with the project.

“I have strong feelings about giving back,” she says. “Canada gave me a career.”

The ultimate goal is to donate the 15 works to the Crown Collection, the National Capital Commission agency that collects art and antiques for use in Rideau Hall and other official residences. The Crown Collection has promised to consider accepting the donation once the exhibitions are over.

“I feel that the ancestors are cheering me on,” says Brandon.

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