On the Saturday of the Family Day Long weekend, February 15th, the Woodstock Art Gallery hosted the celebratory reception to officially open the new suite of winter exhibitions. It was a great turnout that day and at the time I did not realize this would be the last event of this kind at the Art Gallery for a very long while. Along with the Gallery’s regular supporters, many generations of local families came together that afternoon to celebrate their cherished relatives. This was because one of the featured exhibitions launched that afternoon was Given Her Due: Oxford County Women Artists 1880-1980.
True to the sentiment of grassroots, this unique project started very organically and grew over a period of five years. About once or twice a year, a member of the local community would contact me out of the blue and introduce me to the work of their great aunt, mother or grandmother. They would share with me images of paintings that were prized treasures in their personal collections, as well as touching stories of these women’s lives and, more importantly, their impact on their families. The reminisced histories shared were all very similar: after all the chores were done and the kids put to bed, these women would carve out precious time to create and paint for themselves.
I would listen and nod, not really sure how to contextualize and present what would amount to a handful of paintings by a self-taught, unknown artist, now long gone. After each meeting I would place my findings in a file labelled “(Historical) Oxford Women Artists.”
In July 2019, this experience repeated itself yet again. Sarah Oostenbrug contacted the gallery inquiring how she would go about displaying some of her “nana’s art.” Only this time, nana was still very much alive at the age of 95. Fryke Oostenbrug immigrated to Canada in 1948 and the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 has a wonderful first-hand account of her journey online (pier21.ca). She has lived the rest of her life in Oxford County working on a farm and raising three children, while still finding time to paint and draw and write poetry.
I gathered together this information and when I went to file it with my other research, I realized that the folder had become quite substantial. Coupled with some recent acquisitions to the Gallery’s permanent collection, I concluded that now was the time to give these women their due.
With the assistance of Carolyn Hickey, the Woodstock Art Gallery’s Head of Collections and Julia de Kwant, Curatorial/Collections Assistant Summer Intern, we began the task of researching these artists, which proved to be quite challenging. Researching historical information about women in any field is always daunting and complicated. Being overlooked is the norm. Occasionally a throwaway mention will surface, such as “quite competent for a lady.” Most frustrating is when the women becomes married, and her name disappears completely after she assumes her husband’s surname. Because of these circumstances, a lot of research was done through family ancestries, birth, death and marriage notices and the occasional gravestone marker.
Daunted but not undeterred, we did find some wonderful information and connections linking these women together over the course of a hundred years. The exhibition begins with Caroline Farncomb (1859–1951) and Florence Carlyle (1864–1923), two notable professional artists, and traces the links to the Smiley family, comprised of an aunt, Mary “Minnie” Smiley (b. abt. 1868–dd. unknown) and her two nieces, first cousins, Mary B. (McCandless) Dean (1880–1983) and Violet Erie (Smiley) Edwards (1900–1991). From there, women connected to the creation of the Woodstock Museum, founding curator Louise Hill (1890–1987), and the Woodstock Art Gallery, founding curator Lillie Jane Telfer (1914–2005), are featured. And undoubtedly these women were known by Betty Marie McArthur (1923–1994) and Blanche Longworth (1907–1986). The exhibition concludes with more contemporary artists, such as Bernice Vincent (1934–2016), Marion Drysdale (b.1929) and of course Fryke Oostenbrug (b.1924). There are many other fine artists included in this exhibition and the connections between them abound.
Sometimes projects take on a life of their own and Given Her Due was certainly shaped by connections, serendipity and unforeseen consequences both past and present. Being very proud of this contribution to the archive of local women artists, I asked the Gallery’s Communications Coordinator, Robin De Angelis, to start pitching “a story idea” to journalists in the hopes of getting some media coverage around International Women’s Day on March 8th. It was then that the first red flag was raised. Reporters were too consumed with the coronavirus coverage to pick up this story, even with its natural tie in. By March 17th, the Province of Ontario’s declaration of emergency closed the Gallery to the public. On March 24th I had to lay off my entire staff in one afternoon–– an extremely demoralizing day. The profound sense of failure still eats at me daily.
The sentiment behind Given Her Due has now been shifted to our front-line health-care workers, many who are working in what are still heavily female-dominated positions. I wonder how many of them are closet artists? After they have come home from a particularly stressful environment and are likely being isolated from their loved ones, do they paint, draw, write, play, dance or sing to channel their fears and joys, successes and frustrations? What archives are they creating that will be mined and researched in the future? Will they be truly given their due once this COVID-19 pandemic is over?
I am delighted to say that as of April 20th, a few members of the Gallery team have been called back from layoff to develop online virtual programming. Stephanie Porter, Head of Education, Deanna Logan, Education Assistant and Robin De Angelis, Communications Coordinator are currently working away at creating some exciting educational programming that will feature works from the Gallery’s permanent collection and on exhibition. One of these new initiatives will feature Given Her Due.
As I work through various scenarios for the re-opening of the Woodstock Art Gallery, front of mind is how much this COVID-19 experience will markedly shift the way we interact with one another, as well as the desire to visit public indoor spaces such as art galleries and museums. Although I can’t predict the future, one thing I am confident about is that the amount of creative expression to come out of this “great pause” will be extraordinary, and perhaps even revolutionary.