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The Ladies illuminates Barton-Tait’s ancestry

The legacy of Isabella McKenzie is built of pulp and human spirit.
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Artist Susan Barton-Tait shows off a piece from her art show The Ladies, on Friday at Storefront Studio.

The legacy of Isabella McKenzie is built of pulp and human spirit.

The high society pioneer of Ontario's 1,000 Islands region has roots that trace across the Canadian experience to modern Prince George where her great granddaughter Susan Barton-Tait turned McKenzie's difficult life into the story of our nation.

The story is almost wordless. Barton-Tait is a professional artist and she introduces her 19th century ancestor to the world in the frame of her picture window at 1144 Fourth Ave. That is where she operates Storefront Studio, with its regular art display in the main street-facing showcase. This one, a sculpture and mixed media examination of Isabella McKenzie's life, is large enough that she is opening the doors for the public to come right in and spend time with the details.

The name of the exhibition is The Ladies due to the tea-time clatch of women in McKenzie's circle, back in her day, and how being a woman defined McKenzie's existence. She was the mother of four children leading a genteel life in upscale Gananoque, Ont. It is a community halfway between Toronto and Montreal, not far from Kingston. It was where rich Americans had splendid summer homes, and where well-to-do Scots and Brits settled in the new world trying their best to replicate the civilities of Victorian life in the wilds of colonial Canada.

All was well until McKenzie's husband unexpectedly died, leaving Isabella alone to look after the large house, grounds, cottage and four children with no income and zero savings.

Trying to make a living as a lone woman in that era of Canada was not for the faint of heart or prim of mind, and in many ways the circles of society were against her in that role.

"She turned the large home into a boarding house, which was not what a proper, educated, genteel lady of the time would do - it was frowned upon - but she was focused on providing for her family. She was a survivor," said Barton-Tait. "Her children all went off to get an education of their own, one of them was my grandmother, and she did it all with nothing."

Barton-Tait works primarily in the medium of pulp sculpture - forms made of hand-shaped paper that create symbols and images that either make their own impact or work as a collection that tells a story. She always knew her great-grandmother shone brightly as a personal story in her own mind, but it became a public telling when someone else was ignited by Isabella McKenzie. Especially important for Barton-Tait was that this someone was trained in the science of art.

Maeve Hanna is a professional curator. She has worked in some curatorial capacity in places as diverse as Oakville, Hamilton, Montreal, Akureyri (Iceland) and moved to Prince George in 2013 for the role of assistant curator at the Two Rivers Gallery. For that effort she earned distinction in the city's Top 40 Under 40, was one of the mainstage emcees at the 2015 Canada Winter Games, and got to know Barton-Tait who was one of the city's only artists with a downtown studio and showcase location.

Hanna wrote about Barton-Tait for an article in Canadian Art Magazine (entitled Pulp Frictions in an April 18 posting) and it was through that interaction that Hanna looked especially closely at the details of the formed paper 3-D images.

One of the items Hanna spotted that particularly inspired her was that of Isabella McKenzie's lace-trimmed dress. That and other odds and ends of McKenzie's life quickly sparked a pattern in Hanna's perception of Barton-Tait's art, and symbolic linkages in art is what the curator's trade is based on.

"I personally believe Susan's work is very strong so I asked her if I could create a show of her work," Hanna said. "The vision an artist has and how a curator sees a body of work are very different. She is the person who made it, it came from her hands through her mentality, whereas I am a step back from that creative process and I have a different perspective about how the same art might be displayed."

Barton-Tait was eager to give the work over to Hanna's expertise. The two have a set tea time each week, so they, too, are their own version of "the ladies" and a sense of mutual trust has been steeped into them both.

"The show is Isabella's dress. It all wraps into that piece," said Hanna. "This is very much about being a woman. There is so much within what we know of Isabella that comes from the combination of delicacy and hard labour. She did fine stitching, for example, which used fine tools and intricate, patient movements to make something both delicate and strong. The same goes, too, for what Susan does in her work. There is a lot of hard work involved in using these delicate, intricate materials. We think of paper as something wispy and easily crushed, but Susan turns it into furniture and luggage and that shows us the interconnections between what seems flimsy and what seems tough. That's how people are, too, and it is especially important to recognize how women are that way."

"It is lovely to have your own perspective as the artist, but then to have a curator look at it through the eyes of that training and thoughtfulness," said Barton-Tait. "It is a gift to me that Maeve has given her expertise to my work in that way. Artists are always in that quandary of being the one to create the work but always hand it over to someone else to display it for the public. It has been a really good collaboration between myself and Maeve. I'm perfectly content with what she has done to present the work."

This is the first showing in what Hanna has made into a series. It will be unveiled at a reception at Storefront Studio (1144 Fourth Ave.) from 4:30-7:30 p.m. on Thursday. Refreshments will be provided as well as interpretive talks from Hanna and Barton-Tait.