The current exhibition at the Art Gallery of Swift Current presents an important overview of the practice of folk art on the prairies through a large and diverse collection of artworks.
The exhibition A Prairie Vernacular features around 100 historic and contemporary artworks by Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba artists.
Art Gallery of Swift Current Director and Curator Kim Houghtaling said it is wonderful to show the works of various artists from different times in a single exhibition.
“It's really an outstanding opportunity,” he noted. “Very often you show a body of work or maybe a group show of living artists, because you're trying to show what's current or what's happening. When you have this opportunity to show artists from earlier generations and what they've achieved, and then how they affected another generation, and to show those all together, we get to see the lineage, the connection and the commonality, but also the difference and recognize the growth in it all. And that really illustrates in a sense how our culture came together.”
The exhibition uses the term vernacular art as an inclusive term to refer to the work of untrained artists. Various terms have been used in the past to refer to these artists, for example their work was described as folk, naïve, primitive or outsider art.
“It's essentially the grassroots art movement,” he said about vernacular art. “It's the art that grew in that place. … Art grows out of culture and then becomes a way of talking about culture, and so the vernacular art is the kind of foundational art for a culture.”
He noted that it is also common for trained artists to reach back to their own cultural foundations when they create their art.
“When an artist is trained and well educated, they become artists of the world,” he said. “They're aware of art everywhere and they think about it as a kind of a human activity, but then when they actually go to make art, they will explore their own authenticity. What am I, where am I from, what do I truly feel, what's most important to me to talk about? So even at that point the highly trained artists will return to their personal experience and work from that perspective, and that personal expression is a commonality amongst the naive artists or vernacular artists and the highly trained artists.”
This exhibition highlights the influence of vernacular prairie artists on trained and professional artists through the inclusion of artworks by some notable Saskatchewan artists such as Victor Cicansky, Joe Fafard, Wendy Parsons, David Thauberger, and Russel Yuristy.
“It demonstrates the exchange between them,” Houghtaling explained. “You see where those folk artists came from, and they would be considered amateur artists, even though some of them had very committed practices and in that respect had a really professional attitude. … So they have that serious approach and that's partly why they gained the respect and interest of the practising professional artists. Not only did those professional artists of Saskatchewan saw those amateur or naive artists as a source of true cultural art for Saskatchewan, but they took them seriously as artist.”
This interest from professional artists in their work served as an inspiration for vernacular artists, who realized their work has meaning and relevance. For example, Joe Fafard made friends with vernacular artists such as Molly Lenhardt and Harvey McInnes. Artworks of all three these artists are included in this exhibition. An interesting arrangement of artworks at the entrance to the exhibition makes reference to this connection by placing Joe Fafard’s sculpture of McInnes next to two rural scenes painted by McInnes.
The exhibition shows the ongoing influence of vernacular prairie art on the work of contemporary artists in the region.
“The contemporary artists are very concerned about the purpose of their work, what it says and the story or message that it's trying to send,” Houghtaling said. “It wants to deal with subjects from our current culture and what we're actually living. So a lot of contemporary artists on the prairies especially look to those early generations for ways of approaching this and learn from that history. So now we have a transition right from the naive artists through the modern periods of art right up to contemporary art.”
Vernacular art is often associated with pioneer or settler culture, but this exhibition includes the works of indigenous artists to highlight the existence of different artistic perspectives and experiences.
“I'm really glad that they brought those First Nations artists into this exhibition,” he said. “We're aware of some of them. Allen Sapp is very famous and others in their own practise in their own history have been acknowledged and respected as artists, but to demonstrate that they're really part of the prairie vernacular and that they're not to be ghettoized because they're First Nation artists. They're part of our history of the vernacular culture. So I think the show does a great job of that, with so many good examples.”
The curators of this exhibition are Jennifer McRorie from the Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery and Joanne Marion from Esplanade Arts & Heritage Centre in Medicine Hat. The original exhibition includes nearly 200 artworks that have been borrowed from different art collections. The smaller space at the Art Gallery of Swift Current means that not all the artworks are included in the exhibition.
“Some works had to be edited out, but we have examples of virtually all the artists with the exception of a few, but then just less examples of their work,” Houghtaling said. “So it's a very powerful, very complete exhibition.”
This is the first exhibition open to the public at the Art Gallery of Swift Current since the reopening of the R.C. Dahl Centre, which was closed from mid-March to mid-August due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Public health restrictions mean that art gallery visitors need to wash their hands, keep their physical distance, and wear masks. The art gallery is also not able to host previous activities such as the guided tour program and public speaking events, including events with artists and curators that usually take place as part of each new exhibition.
The art gallery is therefore using virtual options to provide information about the exhibition through social media. A three-episode video series about this exhibition will also be created through support from the Saskatchewan Arts Board and SaskTel Max. This will include interviews with the exhibition curators and some of the artists. The video series is scheduled to air on SaskTel Max before the end of this year.
“We're quite excited about that,” Houghtaling said. “So we're finding ways to extend the value of the show by filming it and putting it out online and corresponding on social media and that sort of thing, and we'll be doing that with all the exhibitions in the coming year in order to extend the value and to make sure we get out to the same number of folks we would normally serve and even more.”
The exhibition, A Prairie Vernacular, is still continuing at the Art Gallery of Swift Current until Oct. 31. Admission is free and everyone is welcome. The gallery is open Monday to Friday from noon to 7 p.m. and on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.