Fairy Tails & Opening Exercises at Owens Art Gallery, Sackville

By Jon Claytor

Fairy tales are lovely stories for children about talking animals, princesses, princes, magic, and adventure. Fairy tales are also terrifying stories about fear, violence, power, darkness, and dangerous desires. Were they created to scare kids into conforming to society’s norms or to comfort parents that the world’s darkest mysteries could somehow be made manageable by containing them in fanciful narratives? Fairy Tails is a group exhibition currently on display at Owens Art Gallery that explores this division in a variety of mediums.

Aganetha Dyck, Cinderella’s Other Shoe, c. 1995-1998, found shoe and beeswax, work completed by honeybees (photo: Roger Smith)

A golden high heel shoe by Aganetha Dyck sits in a glass case at the gallery entrance. It has been encrusted in honeycomb by bees. We recognize it as Cinderella’s lost footwear, but this time it isn’t a pristine, handmade glass slipper. It’s something organic and odd that raises the questions: “What if the animals told the story? What if the bees made the art? How different would the story be?”

Each piece in this exhibition asks similar questions, but in different ways. Diana Thorneycroft’s photographs of small anthropomorphic woodland creatures engaged in twisted, almost-human activities expose the horrors of everyday life. Embroidered wall hangings by Anna Torma hint at magic, ritual, tradition, and storytelling. Meryl McMaster’s photographs On The Edge Of This Immensity and Deep Into Darkness Waiting draw closer attention to the dark beauty at the heart of all fairy tales. A woman stands by a lake holding a boat full of crows. A canine creature surveys the wilderness wrapped in a beautiful cloak. The aesthetic is part of the tale. The artist’s stylized outfits contrast with the wild of the wood and the unknowable psyche of the animals within it.

Sylvia Ptak’s embroidered storybooks retell or obscure the original narratives they contained to create new mysteries and reexamine the notion of traditional storytelling. A film by Amalie Atkins follows the human fate of twins and a witch. Again the fairy tale aesthetic almost becomes a character (as the children in matching red outfits use exquisite utensils to make mud pie offerings to the witch) that highlights the darkness lurking below society’s veneer.

Fairy tales speak to childhood fears but also to adult fears for our children. Laura Vickerson’s pieces Softness and Caress touch on those emotions. The relics of childhood – booties, dresses, dolls hands – are hung on the wall and capture the unspeakable sadness of youth’s passing. Janice Wright Cheney’s photos show us animals deep in the woods with all of their mystery intact, but her sculptural/photo piece of a large black velvet cat in front of hanging prints of a woodland scene takes on new meaning when we notice the cat has a collar. It has been captured, tamed, and made safe. This is perhaps the goal of all fairy tales: to calm the terror in our hearts and tame our animalistic desires.

Fairy Tails shows us the idea of the fairy tale from adolescent, adult, and animal perspectives, but ultimately fairy tales are for children who live in a world that exists equally in imagination and reality. Vicky Sabourin has created a chest of keepsakes entitled Curiosities that captures the magical world where children create alternate realities to escape, examine, and play with their fears. The chest represents a child’s place for their special toys and talismans. This inner world is where fairy tales are born from fantasy and darkness.

Opening Exercises, a project by Didier Morelli, with contributions from Eunice Bélidor and Camille Georgeson-Usher, installation view (photo: Roger Smith)

Also on display at the Owens Art Gallery, Opening Exercises is a wonderful exhibition where artist Didier Morelli was invited to interact artistically with Alex Colville’s 1961 mural Athletes and the Mount Allison University archives. From this starting point the resulting installation/archive becomes a tangle of tangents. It is about running with ideas, not arriving at answers. And the race is a whimsical one going in many directions at once.

It is set in motion with Colville’s mural. A swimmer, a high jumper, and a runner are frozen at the start of a race, midway through a jump, and crossing the finish line. But this is just the beginning. Didier plays with a photo of Colville looking at the mural in a small series of digital interventions that quickly become an exercise in formal acrobatics. This sets the bar for the installation. A tension is created between the aesthetics, idea, and physicality of sport and art. Things continue to diverge from here. A beautiful collection of baseball bats leans in the corner and are plugged into an amplifier that makes no sound. Medals dipped in neon colours hang on the wall. We dive back in time with a collection of vintage pennants and vitrines displaying black and white photos of athletes and students from a distant era. Pop Art-influenced popcorn bags filled with blue foam kernels point to the spectator as part of the game. Observers/artists and the observed/athletes are codependent on each other for purpose and meaning.

No good sporting event is complete without running commentary – be it boastful or insightful. Didier supplies it in the form of two didactic panels. Eunice Bélidor speaks of love, labour, strain, exertion, and beauty, but it is Camille Georgeson-Usher who best sums up the installation with these words:  “A butterfly chased me for three minutes.” What better way is there to describe this kind of race and this kind of exhibition. Just close your eyes and picture it.

Fairy Tails & Opening Exercises continue until April 1.
Owens Art Gallery: https://www.mta.ca/owens/index.php
The gallery is partially accessible.

Jon Claytor is an artist living and working in Sackville, New Brunswick. He is the co-founder of Sappyfest and Thunder & Lightning Ideas Ltd.