David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

This Fragile Dwelling Place

Brandon Sun, July 6, 2015 - David McConkey

Janet Shaw-Russell sees patterns. Connections: among people, things, events. Seeing patterns is vital for her career as an interior designer. And for her passion as an artist. Out of the patterns she has seen, she has created a new exhibition at the art gallery, “This Fragile Dwelling Place.”

Shaw-Russell began this artistic journey with the legacy from her parents. Her father was a doctor; her mother a home economist. Both died of cancer at a relatively early age. To honour and explore her heritage, Shaw-Russell began making medical drawings on the translucent paper of sewing patterns.

She then brought in other objects, thoughts, and concerns into a concept for a larger art exhibition. She received grants from the Manitoba Arts Council and the Brandon Arts Council. She has worked on the exhibition over the past three years.

“We are fragile in this world and our world is fragile,” Shaw-Russell said to me when I visited her Brandon studio to discuss the project. She encourages us to reflect on the fragile nature of the body when we view a heart or a lung drawn on the delicate tissue of a sewing pattern. A strong organ sustains our life. But when weakened, causes our death. 
Shaw-Russell also draws inspiration from history, especially the struggle 100 years ago for women’s rights. A struggle that is ongoing today. Part of this struggle is for the right to vote. Another is for the right to safe working conditions. Clothing factories are one of the dangerous places where women work. Now: a factory collapse in Bangladesh. A century ago: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. That fire killed 146 garment workers, mostly young women.

Women’s rights were a big deal 100 years ago. Many men were away at war. Women were making their mark: at home, at work, and in the public square. Clothing was also big. Look at photos of the elaborate women’s clothes of that time. Dresses and hats that today would be reserved for a special gala were used then for everyday wear.
Questions about women’s clothing echo through the years. How much is societal oppression? How much is self expression? A century ago, women gained new confidence. Often wearing elegant outfits, women walked into the larger society. And they marched for justice and equality.
Shaw-Russell’s exhibition incorporates her drawings, other artwork like prints and wallpaper, and historical artifacts. Among the artifacts are postcards from a collection kept by her grandmother. Some of these postcards are from the First World War and are made of embroidered fabric. The postcards were mailed to family back in Manitoba by men serving in the trenches in Belgium and France.

Shaw-Russell weaves into her exhibition an event from Brandon’s history: the Syndicate Block fire of Jan. 17, 1916. That fire destroyed the department store Doig, Rankin & Robertson. The fire killed four employees; three were young women who worked as dressmakers. The Syndicate Block was downtown at 7th and Rosser – right where the art gallery is today.
The memory of the Syndicate Block fire evokes “This Fragile Dwelling Place.” We are fragile. A regular day at work can turn deadly. Themes resonate: clothing the body, dressmaking, sewing patterns. And more: women’s fashions, women’s work, women’s place in the world.

“This Fragile Dwelling Place” will open with a reception on Thursday, July 16, 7:30 p.m. at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba. The exhibition is on until Sept. 5. The gallery’s summer hours are Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

The Syndicate Block fire will also be the theme of a walking tour that I will host as part of the “Doors Open” event in Brandon on the July 18 - 19 weekend. And on those days, there will be special curator’s tours at the art gallery of “This Fragile Dwelling Place.”
January 1916, Brandon, Manitoba: ordinary life, local tragedy, and historic events. A world war was raging. Great political change was unfolding. That month – for the first time in Canada – women in our province won the right to vote.

An artist invites us to contemplate the patterns that she has seen and that she has drawn into a larger picture.

“We can be going about our normal days,” Shaw-Russell said to me, “but there are things of consequence happening all the time.”

* * * *
See also:  

“A Gloom Over the City”

Reflections on the Great War 

Francis Marion Beynon: Compelling Story of a Manitoba Suffragist, Pacifist

Remembering Nellie McClung

99 Years Ago: “Icy Ruins” in City

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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