The current exhibition at the Art Gallery of Swift Current provides a different perspective on war through the items created by soldiers, prisoners of war and civilians.
Keepsakes of Conflict is a travelling exhibit that will be on display at the gallery until Dec. 30. It has already toured to five other communities in four different provinces.
The exhibition was organized by the Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War and to investigate the little studied area of war-related Canadian craft.
Craft historian Julia Krueger was hired by the Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery to find objects for this exhibition on trench art.
“I do a number of different things in my job and one of the ones that I like the most is hunting for objects, because it means I get to go to really interesting places and see things that I’ve never seen before,” she said. “That was the first reason why I said yes, and the second one was because I didn’t know anything about this. ... So I thought this is a way to learn about something that I don’t know anything about and that I wanted to learn more.”
The exhibition defines trench art as any item made by soldiers, prisoners of war and civilians from war material or any other material, but which are associated with an armed conflict or its consequences. Trench art continues a tradition that started in the early 18th century to create wartime souvenirs.
“These objects have agency,” she said. “They’re able to tell us things, if we take the time to look at them, and they’re full of memory. So they’re telling us the story of the human side of armed conflict and what it means to navigate that world and how to cope with it through making.”
Various items in the exhibition were made from wartime material such as artillery ammunition or bullets that were transformed into household items such as a vase, a desk lamp, napkin ring, or a tea set.
One of her most surprising discoveries while hunting for items to include in the exhibition was the level of creativity that were often involved in the making of different pieces.
“I started off with the bugle and the lighter and I thought that’s what I was just going to see,” she said. “Sort of that idea over and over again. A bugle with something carved into it, something quite simple, but then I started to see the different types of vases, the jewelry box for instance.”
The individuals who made these objects were probably motivated by a variety of reasons, but due to the age of many of the items their motivations are mere speculation.
“In some cases I think it was to while away the time,” she said. “Other cases might have been to make some money. If you were a really good craftsperson and you could make a lighter and then trade it with your fellow soldier for cigarettes or something like that, I think there was an economy that was going on there. Then I think it was also to memorialize the experience.”
Some items were functional, for example a wooden ditty box that was used by a sailor to store some personal items, and a cigar box. One of the more unusual items in the exhibition is an inkwell (a jar for holding ink) that was made from the hoof of a horse and then presented to the officer who used to ride this horse.
There are items in the exhibition that are associated with a wartime period, but that were made by civilians. For example, there is a collection of six postcards that were embroidered by Belgian and French women and then sold to soldiers during the First World War. Some other items in the exhibition were probably made by civilians due to the amount of skill and tools required to make them.
“We do suspect that a number of the pieces could have been made by the civilian population, but that doesn’t discredit them,” she said. “It makes them interesting in a different way and it can tell us about different types of economies that came about due to armed conflict. It can tell us about what people did in Europe who weren’t fighting. So to me it’s just as important if you want to understand this human side of war.”
Some items in the exhibition are related to the aftermath of war. A Vetcraft cart with horse was made in the 1920s in one of the Vetcraft workshops where disabled veterans from the First World War made furniture, wooden toys and other items. A soapstone carving of a wolf was made around 2010 by Corp. Barrett Fraser, who was wounded in Afghanistan on Dec. 30, 2009. He made this carving while participating in a craft program during his long convalescence.
Craft therapy has been used for a long time to help wounded soldiers to recover from physical and mental trauma and it is still used in Canada as a treatment for post traumatic stress disorder.
Krueger had the opportunity during her research to meet the creators of two objects that are on display in the exhibition, which significantly influenced her understanding of trench art.
“I think there is a lot of stereotypes involved with people in the military as well as with even this type of material, and so getting to meet these two men taught me a lot,” she said. “I just got to talk to them about the human side. What was it like being over there and things like that.”
She felt it will be worthwhile for people to visit this exhibition for a number of reasons.
“You will probably see objects that you have never seen before,” she said. “So it can be exciting in that sense. I think that it also is a different way to look at a number of the armed conflicts that Canada has been involved in ... and it’s a way to think about the people that were involved. Oftentimes we read about the big battles and the generals and that type of stuff and we don’t get to know about the day to day life and the humans, and I think that this is a way to access some of that.”
The Keepsakes of Conflict exhibition is still on display at the Art Gallery of Swift Current until Dec. 30. Public viewing during regular gallery hours is free. The gallery is open Monday to Thursday from 1-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m., and Friday to Sunday from 1-5 p.m. It is closed on statutory holidays.