Post-Humous Collaboration: The Artistic Practice of Rita Giedre Bulova-Forrest and Irma Makariunaite

Perhaps the most striking thread to emerge in comparing their practices is their exploration of death, memory, and the afterlife. 

Located on the second-floor galleries of the Woodstock Art Gallery, a daughter presents an homage and tribute to her late mother in Inspired by…Mother and Daughter: Rita Giedre Bulova-Forrest and Irma Makariunaite. The exhibition displays not only works of their individual practice, but also contains pieces created by both of their hands. In pairing these artists, this exhibition interweaves their distinct artistic practices but also draws into comparison their use of motifs, portals, and storytelling. Both Bulova-Forrest and Makariunaite use a wide variety of mediums in their exploration of symmetry and colour, immigration and world events, myths and stories, Lithuanian tales, as well as philosophy and mysticism. Perhaps the most striking thread to emerge in comparing their practices is their exploration of death, memory, and the afterlife. Whether through creating literal portals to the beyond or the numerous works of posthumous collaboration, Bulova-Forrest and Makariunaite are inexplicably intertwined in their individual practices.

Rita Giedre Bulova-Forrest, born in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1940, held many titles and careers throughout her life. After achieving a Master’s Degree in Architecture from the Academy of Fine Art in Vilnius, Lithuania, Bulova-Forrest held a career as an urban planner as well interior and furniture designer. In 1975, along with her young daughter, Bulova-Forrest immigrated to the United Kingdom and later settled in Toronto, Canada. Here, she obtained a second Master’s Degree in Architecture and continued to design houses and their interiors. Throughout this career, she maintained an artistic practice and exhibited widely.

Woodstock Art Gallery Interior. Photo Credit: Joseph Hartman

Viewers receive a glimpse of this period of artistic production in the far-west gallery space. The exhibition pauses upon Bulova-Forrest’s Kaleidoscopic Series from 1986 to 1992, containing large, vibrant, and sharp “symmetrical mandalas” that are symbolically and literally connected to Lithuania. The objects reflected in Bulova-Forrest’s kaleidoscopes, as described in their corresponding labels, range from lozenge motifs connected to Lithuanian legends to a colour palette used to resemble traditional textiles and costumes. Their titles are further reference to Lithuanian geography, folklore and myths, as well as medieval histories. Knowing these cultural and historical connections, these kaleidoscopes or mandalas begin to read more as a visual map or plans of the artist’s history and roots. Perhaps indicative of the artist’s education and profession at the time, these pieces can be potentially interpreted as architectural in their composition. The use of sharp lines, symmetrical composition, and angular objects, breaks from the conventions of an architectural drawing but retains the feel of a designer’s hand.

In the 1990s, Bulova-Forrest shifted her career toward art therapy. In 1994 she would graduate from the Toronto Art Therapy Institute and begin her own art therapy practice. The exhibition goes on to describe her turn towards the fibre arts after being widowed in 2003.

In 2010, Bulova-Forrest was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and would pass away at the age of seventy. For the last seven years of her life, she was fully immersed in the medium of fibre arts and within this exhibition, it is these works that are perhaps the most compelling examples of this exploration of death, memory, and remembrance.

Woodstock Art Gallery Interior. Photo Credit: Joseph Hartman

In the centre gallery, Bulova-Forrest’s When the Sun Goes Down and Irma Makariunaite’s Crossing the Styx are displayed together. For Bulova-Forrest, this piece of circular openings within a fibre quilt is dedicated to her late husband David G. Forrest. The circular openings of the quilt and the use of organza fabric, as described in the corresponding exhibition label, are read as symbolic representations of the spiritual veil that separates life and death. This reading of the work is made even more apparent in its pairing with Irma Makariunaite’s Crossing the Styx. The title draws directly on Homer’s The Odyssey, where the hero, Odysseus, descends into the Underworld crossing the river of Styx on the same boat that transports the souls of the deceased. Perhaps inspired by When the Sun Goes Down, Makariunaite frames her image of a boat in a circular-like portal. Whereas Bulova-Forrest’s portals are emptied voids or netted organza and the viewer is left to imagine what it is that they are viewing, Makariunaite uses the oculus as an indicator of the beyond. This is not a ship of our world but rather something that is beyond our world. The use of the portal motif is also found in The Soul’s Journey Through the Five Blue Ethers by Makariunaite, which certainly continues this exploration of the unknowable and what lies beyond our current existence.

What I imagine is in part due to the timing of Bulova-Forrest’s exploration in fibre arts as well as it being a new medium for the artist, some of the quilts displayed are often noted to be collaborations with Makariunaite. With SUPER NOVA, Bulova-Forrest requested the assistance of her daughter in the completion of its asymmetrical composition. Red Square, an unfinished piece, would be completed by Makariunaite. Within the exhibition space, these fibre quilts are intermingled with Makariunaite’s own large scale musings of the mystical, philosophical, and esoteric. It is through these collaborative fibre pieces and the display of Bulova-Forrest’s work that the exhibition transitions to Makariunaite’s own artistic practice.

Woodstock Art Gallery Interior. Photo Credit: Joseph Hartman

In far-east gallery space, the exhibition displays Irma Makariunaite’s mixed media works. Whereas Bulova-Forrest’s practice was an act of connecting to her past through legends, motifs, and mythical stories, these mixed media pieces are a working through of Makariunaite’s own anxieties and childhood experiences. Both The Longing and Migration are part of a series of works exploring the subject of immigration as a child. As described in the corresponding label, these pieces contain letters written and received by her maternal and paternal grandparents when Makariunaite arrived in Canada. The artworks read not only as an examination of memory but also transform the letters into something entirely new, perhaps a portal into the past. The ephemera is worked into the background of these images which appears to tear or pull away from itself. In The Longing, the red and yellow acrylic appear as almost angular tears in the canvas. For Migration, ropes appear to move through the canvas, pulling yellow threads along grey tectonic plates. Although the experience of immigration for Makariunaite occurred when she was a child, these artworks certainly speak to the artist’s continued working of her past which is only made more powerful with the inclusion of these letters. As paint and other material are layered upon them, their contents are no longer legible as they once were. Rather, they have become an entirely emotive medium, seeking to communicate with one’s past through artistic practice.

Irma Makariunaite is an actively exhibiting and practicing artist based outside of Delhi, Ontario. Her practice stems from her education at OCAD (The Ontario College of Art and Design) and the University of Toronto. It is noted in the exhibition that Makariunaite is influenced by her travels abroad during her studies and makes a particular note of an experience to an archaeological excavation as deeply influential. It is then unsurprising to find Makariunaite’s practice as a means of excavating her past and even current anxieties through reworking memories and ephemeral objects. In pieces such as Displacement, Delirium, and Broken Dream, clippings and various other material are heavily worked into the canvas, creating a deliberate emotive experience of anxiety and restlessness. Unlike Bulova-Forrest’s works which are mostly angular, symmetrical, and existing in a singular plane, these pieces by Makariunaite are tightly compacted with layers of media imposed upon one another. These works are firmly situated within the present for Makariunaite, especially as she responds to world events, the global warming crisis, and population displacement.

Following the passing of her mother, Makariunaite was left an entire collection of her hand-painted papers, sketch books, fabrics, and dyed silks. With these materials, Makariunaite has created artworks in homage to her mother. Combining her technique of layering material to create abstract images with her mother’s brightly coloured papers and fabrics, together they form An Homage, Red Sky in the Morning, Chaos, and Sun Wheel Thangka. An Homage is of course Makariunaite’s most direct remembering of her mother as it combines both fabrics and hand-stitching. The piece also appears to mimic some aspects of Bulova-Forrest’s practice as the fabric is stitched onto the plane in squares, just like the original quilts. As well, circular motifs or portals have been hand stitched in vibrant colours of oranges, blues, and yellows. Makariunaite’s own practice remains visible as paint appears to be transferred onto the plane, appearing almost stamp-like in the outer rim of the composition.

Throughout this exhibition, the practice and artwork of Rita Giedre Bulova-Forrest and Irma Makariunaite are inextricably woven together. Even though they both seek different subjects and media, such as Bulova-Forrest kaleidoscopic mandalas or fibre pieces and Makariunaite’s use of assemblage and exploration of the exocentric, their paths repeatedly meet. Such moments of entanglement include Bulova-Forrest’s request for assistance to complete her fibre works, as seen in SUPER NOVA and Makariunaite ultimately finishing fibre works posthumously as found in Red Square. These pieces of homage, created posthumously, are perhaps the most intertwined artworks to be displayed in this exhibition as they are by the hand of Makariunaite with the materials from Bulova-Forrest.

This exhibition is a rich presentation of the inexplicable connection between a mother and daughter. How both have coped with loss through creating portals that can see what is beyond life or by working ephemera and materials into one’s work. The exhibition adequately presents their differences in artistic practice and expands greatly upon where they both intertwine. Inspired by…Mother and Daughter: Rita Giedre Bulova-Forrest and Irma Makariunaite is a powerful statement of loss and commemoration as well as death and memory. The exhibition urges the viewer to examine their own lives and the traces our maternal figures have left behind. Whether complicated or simple, these traces are inexplicably present in all of our lives.

Julia De Kwant is a recent graduate from York University, obtaining a Master of Arts degree in Art History and Visual Culture. Julia is a cultural profession and writer residing in Toronto, Ontario.

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