The Artist & Her Work
Shona Fitz-Gerald Laing
“It is a great privilege to be able to work with, and I suppose work off, my feelings through sculpture.” – Louise Bourgeois
In the summer of 2012 I found myself, by happenstance, walking into the Musée National des Beaux-Art du Quebec. My mother and I had agreed to a day-trip to Quebec City when we were visiting family in Montreal and after several hours walking around in the August heat, we agreed that spending a couple of hours in an air-conditioned museum would be ideal.
The feature exhibition that summer was In Wonderland, The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, which included a good number of notable artists from the movement (anyone would be pleased to share space with Frida Kahlo and Louise Bourgeois). In short, the exhibition analyzed the varying strategies, influences, and motivations within the surrealist movement that were clearly delineated by gendered practices and impulses. Where men used surrealism to delve into the subconscious and ephemeral natures of dreams, using the female figure as a stand-in for the artistic muse and lover, women were more inclined to speak to a personal narrative through the construction of new identities that demonstrated independence and imagination. Women saw surrealism as a forum to re-present themselves and bring together fluctuating and fragmented elements of experiences that were too often dismissed as trivial.
"Too often, the need for academic basis overshadows the personal attachment we have to our craft"
All of these things aside, I will say that I have never felt more at home within a gallery setting. It had the quiet feeling of being with old friends, where every work sung in its own way. I understood these women: I understood them through myself. I could speak to the many, many ways that I’ve used the exhibition as a keystone of my own work, but more importantly I feel that the emotional resonance manifested itself in less academic terms. It is easy to tell the story of how I wound up in trouble in an art history class for saying that the MoMA was a highly gendered and alienating experience, or about the time I argued with a stranger in a Burlington Sport Chek over whether or not it was proper to purchase men’s hiking boots for myself. The challenge is describing the indefinable feeling I had that August afternoon in the heart of Quebec City. At the time, I did not know as much as I do now about these women, nor the context in which they were making their work. I was left only with an inescapable feeling and a 250 page catalogue that still sits on my desk. Perhaps I accepted these feelings as permission to speak to myself more truthfully in my work and react materially in ways I had denied myself previously; perhaps it made it easier to accept that narrative as valid enough to share. Too often, the need for academic basis overshadows the personal attachment we have to our craft. I had things to say, and stories to tell that until this point I was too nervous to share. The rest fell into place in time.
"I always offer that the artist curates the conversation through their work"
Art, I believe, functions most consistently as a keystone for expressing a piece of human experience. It is an open dialogue between artist and viewer that is inevitably skewed by the interference of the work itself. A friend of mine, Dylan Dobbie, argues that art is in the viewing—that the experience of seeing and interacting with an art object is entirely unrelated to the artist’s intention. I always offer that the artist curates the conversation through their work; that while there are many instances where the meaning is “lost”, a generalized understanding can almost always be translated. It is in that open narrative of viewing and experiencing art that allows us to see ourselves through another lens, and I believe that is what draws us to continue to seek it out through whatever venue we prefer. We, both artists and viewers, take what we need from art, and in that there is always an opportunity for things to be lost but also found.
As a graduate student I spend a large amount of time entertaining visiting artists for studio visits. I’m often asked about my increasingly narrow palette, which, since moving to Lethbridge Alberta, has become a study on the absence of colour. Of course, the universal—and entirely valid—conversations include gender and race dynamics as well as material investigations of texture and form. Following this I’ve had every conversation from the obsession of the collection of objects, the feeling of loss and nostalgia, and the scientific accuracy with which I approach my work. In truth, I was reacting to the overwhelming anxiety I feel when the weather shifts with the changing winds and the city becomes cloaked with a thick and choking fog that desaturates the landscape and conceals everything beyond your immediate vicinity. Mind you, this phenomena doesn’t seem to bother anyone else.
But that experience is singular: limited to myself and constructed in part by my history living in the familiar haziness of Toronto smog and the emotional state in which I started this degree. I place that narrative within my work, accompanied by the discussion of the void of colour and my own thematic tensions, and transform them into delicate and ethereal works to communicate something I know to be important. But what comes back through the viewer is not entirely what I put in. But who am I to deny the emotional connection someone has with my work in favour of asserting a narrative of a time and place that is only mine? Viewers project their own stories into a piece: it is an act of mutual confidence that I would argue isn’t always swayed when you read the panel pinned to the wall nearby. It may add an element of understanding or intrigue, but our impressions are powerful.
"The works I find the most engaging are those that draw power and relevance from the inevitable experiential inconsistencies"
It has been a great privilege and pleasure to create and share works in public settings that have returned such positive and diverse commentary. I have also stood on the other side of the dialogue and been equally honoured to partake in a shifting and growing narrative of a work. An artist cannot control a viewer’s reaction and understanding of a work entirely. Time, place, even the different people who occupy the space at any given moment have enough influence to change a work of art. The works I find the most engaging are those that draw power and relevance from the inevitable experiential inconsistencies. It is best to take the opportunity to pause and share the conversation.
Shona Fitz-Gerald Laing is currently a Masters of Fine Arts candidate at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. Having her undergraduate degree from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, her work has been widely exhibited in group and solo exhibitions across Canada, in addition to several public commissions. Working with imagery drawn from local flora and fauna, her work uses the landscape it’s geological features as a site of negotiation of a personal history and narrative. Her artistic practice focuses on mixed-media sculpture and installations that invite viewers into ethereal crystalline spaces.
You can find her at shonafitzgeraldlaing.com.