Curtis Doherty at Westland Gallery, “Who Knit Ya?”

To say that Curtis Doherty’s exhibition, “Who Knit Ya?”, was conceived from a hundred-year-old wooden trunk sounds somewhat abstract and mysterious, but indeed, it was the contents that lay inside this trunk that were the catalyst for Doherty’s artmaking – it was a treasure chest of inspiration. As the artist describes it, once the chest was opened, “a story, a legacy, and a message that [he] couldn’t help but share” arose from its contents, and his series of East Coast surrealist landscapes and impressionist studies of family and heritage were the result.

Wooden trunk belonging to artist Curtis Doherty’s paternal ancestors. Doherty’s great grandmother kept her life belongings in this trunk while she traveled with her son from Newfoundland to Quebec in 1930. Later, the trunk held a plethora of familial photographs taken throughout the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries

This series is currently showing at the Westland Gallery, London, Ontario, from February 20th to March 9th, 2024. For Doherty, “Who Knit Ya?” displays “a vibrant exploration through a forgotten ‘new found land’.”

There was a sense of a privileged moment for me when attending the opening of the exhibition and seeing the actual wooden trunk and the black-and-white photographs of inspiration inside that the artist and his family had unearthed while going through this ancestral treasure trove years prior; photographs that prompted Doherty’s series to “[begin] with a vision and idea which grew and flourished by the end.”

The selection of Doherty’s family photographs that were references for the series’ artworks

For Doherty, the term, ‘Who knit ya?’ transformed from loose and informal to a term of depth and significance.” He explains that this was the result of certain revelations coming to light along the way. One of these revelations was the reality that Curtis did not at first realize that he had painted both of his great-great-grandparents in separate pieces in the early stages of the work. An eerie revelation, indeed, that reflects the artist’s certain genealogical metaphysics in his inquiry, a metaphysical relationship that was perhaps spawned from the many faces captured in the trunk’s photographs.

The Seal Hunter, 22×28 inches, Curtis Doherty. Depicting the artist’s great-great grandfather, Jonas Jones

It was at the reception that I was able to speak with Doherty directly about the family history he wanted to capture, and about what his intended overarching theme was, and yes, why the intriguing title. Curtis grew up in Kitchener, Ontario, but the series transports us to another time and place – a place where his genealogy is rooted. “Who knit ya?” is a colloquial saying, mainly a Newfoundland term, that asks who one’s parents are. For Doherty, the term embodies the artist’s vision in doing his artwork as he encountered and spent time learning who some of the people were in the photos that his family discovered inside the wooden trunk. The trunk belonged to his great grandmother, whom Doherty describes as a “one-legged woman who migrated with her young son from Newfoundland to Quebec in 1930.”

An unfolding is possibly the best way to describe Doherty’s process as he explores his Newfoundland ancestors in this exhibition. But it is a process he himself sees as “jumping into a situation and figuring it out as [he] goes along.” It was in the process, he says, “that’s where the magic happens”. The process for Doherty was organic, taking place over what he calls, “three winters of contemplation.” During this time, he felt he pushed the depth of contemplation and artmaking, exploring such elements as traditional portrait techniques, how to create vibrancy in colour, how to effectively integrate complementary colours, how to get flat colour to work in landscape painting, and more challenging still, how to maintain the element of storytelling. Storytelling for Doherty is an articulation of an inner desire he had to tell “a story of hard-working people to live on, and live on being noticed, ruminated on, and in full colour”.

Da Side is Back In’er, 30×60 inches, Curtis Doherty. Centre figure depicts the artist’s great-great grandmother, wife of Jonas Jones

The works move into the surrealist, most notably with those works that appear to have a collage quality to their rendering and where more than one image overlaps, as in such compositions of the portraits of the great-great grandparents. This prompted me to ask Doherty about his technical approach to translating the story from his family photographs to the canvas:

Part of the element of the intangible is that I don’t want to define what it is, I want the viewer to interpret it how they will, or at least get a general sense of a
mood or feeling. Often in the painting process I will create the initial layers with organic means, through mediums (especially Gamsol [oil paint solvent]) where
that pre-mentioned ‘magic’ can happen. The way paint may drip or separate on its own, or the way pressing a rag into it is unpredictable and unique to that
moment… it’s something that can’t really be recreated. There are pieces where you want a sense of chaos or tension, or maybe age, for example, and you try
to create this underlying mood with these intangible elements.

In reference to specific works displayed in the series where technical choices arose during the creation and led to strengthened intangible qualities like mood or age, Doherty mentions the use of flat color. He reflects that, “after a season of grueling landscape work where I was painting detailed grass for so many hours in ‘Sheep Swig and the Yellow Dress’ and it was just overwhelming, so I just mixed a vibrant green and covered the entire grassy area in flat color. It gave me such a sense of relief.” The unexpected appeal that this effect had on Doherty was followed by adding shadows so that the subjects were in a dimensional space again, which resulted in a visual solution and also offered symbolic meaning. This was something that worked for Doherty, and you can see each painting in the series has at least one area of flat color somewhere.

Sheep Swig and the Yellow Dress, 46×31 inches, Curtis Doherty

Doherty, speaking specifically about his work, ‘A Twillick and his Ducky’, mentions the green rose/cabbage-looking forms that are throughout the painting. It is another piece that embodies a strong sense of surrealism. However, these rose and cabbage-like forms were “a spontaneous motion that set the tone for [the] dreamier piece”.

A Twillick and his Ducky, 40×40 inches, Curtis Doherty

When he first set out to start this series, Doherty says he just wanted to bring to life “some old references.” The concept of film photographs perceived through the medium of paint is explained by Doherty as having an “underpainting” that “started with burnt umber and solvent to give a backdrop for something aged and sepia-like.” To help some works feel more like old photographs, Doherty used actual old canvases which, he says, resulted from the use of “walking by and seeing the age of the raw canvas on the edges” – a subtle effect that might register with the viewer more on the subconscious level.

The Bayman, 26×30 inches, Curtis Doherty. Title is an expression that translates to “you’re not from St. Johns”

Still feeling a bit puzzled by the exhibition, and wanting to understand it as something personally meaningful, I asked Doherty what for him was the main message he was wanting to project in his exhibition. It had to be more than a retrospection. Doherty responded, with a certain reflective tone, “I hope as much as anything that I am surprised by what viewers may think or feel when viewing this work, but I also hope people get a better sense of how to engage in visual art as a means that’s more than just interior design. I believe art is a bad preacher, but it’s great to stir up thoughts and evoke introspection.”

While the artist’s exhibition is oriented in his ancestral past of the Newfoundland landscape and familial hardships, Curtis Doherty prioritizes viewers’ subjectivity and meaning-making in his pursuit to incite consciousness within all of us to consider, “Who Knit Ya?”.

Sarah Oakley is a recent undergraduate in sociocultural anthropology from Western University. Residing in London, Ontario, writing for the local visual arts community has encouraged her to seek a career in museum and heritage work. Sarah is currently pursuing distanced post-grad studies in Cultural Resource Management at the University of Victoria while working in the heritage industry.

Centred gratefully acknowledges the support and funding from the London Arts Council for our Visual Arts Writers Mentorship Program.

Images courtesy of the artist and author.

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