Anna Taylor spent this winter stitching the stories of Dawson City women.
In March, the Halifax-based textile artist completed a month-long residency at the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture. There, her embroidery practice focused on Dawson’s relationship with prostitution during the gold rush, and on the lives of the individual women who traveled north to work there.
Sex work is something that has long interested Taylor, a graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Her interest started in 2014, when laws were shifting in the country. Taylor was following Bedford versus Canada in the Supreme Court – a case in which three women argued Canada’s prostitution laws were unconstitutional.
“I started doing a lot of research partly because, as a person who is not working any kind of dangerous forms of sex work, it’s very easy for me to be very vocal, and very public, even if it’s only within my own feminist community, even if only within the walls of a gallery.”
Within the walls of a gallery, these are the forms it might take: Taylor’s small fabric hoops, in pastel shades of pink, blue, and yellow, embroidered with statements such as sex work is work. Female hands giving one red-nail-polished middle finger. Lines from Bill C-36 – which is intended to improve safety for sex workers, but criticized for restricting them – are flanked by red-lit lamps and toothy beavers.
Larger piece are like scenes. There’s a narrative in what they contain in the hundreds of tiny, time-consuming stitches that are seen as traditional women’s work. One that Taylor worked on in Dawson is an almost life-sized bust of a woman, her eyes lifted. A line of small silhouettes, laden with backpacks, lines her neck, climbing toward her dripping gold earrings. A paddle wheeler sits on her head like a crown. The mountains come up like a dress around her shoulders.
She’s “Dutch Kate” Wilson, one of the women who went over Chilkoot Pass, and just one of the women Taylor learned about while working in Dawson this year.
She says her research on the north started with books including Good Time Girls by Lael Morgan, and Gold Diggers of the Klondike by Bay Ryley.
“Going in, I had a lot of the facts, but they were sort of suspended in a fluid of narrative,” she says. She wanted to look past potential romanticizing and get the real, raw information on Dawson’s brothels, madams, and sex workers.
In this way, the Dawson City Museum Archives were invaluable. There, Taylor read thesis work and manuscripts. She found criminal records, court cases, and descriptions of real people.
She saw records of the annual fines that were imposed on women, acting as a form of legislation that technically followed the laws of Canada. She came across evidence of a doctor issuing certificates of health, and quotes from community members (including a police officer’s wife) supporting the women, and their place in the city. Parks Canada, which owns Ruby’s House, a former brothel, compiled information on the site, and accounts from residents.
Taylor says this kind of documentation, from the Gold Rush, through to the 1960s, is part of what makes Dawson unique in Canada in terms of sex work. In the fall, Taylor travelled to Iceland to research the history of sex work. In the future, she wants to visit Winnipeg. But it’s tough to tease out the history.
“In Halifax, where I live, that history is totally buried and really hard to find,” says Taylor.
“Sex work is a part of history and the erasure of that history fits into the devaluing of sex workers and the devaluing of their rights. Even just the fact that Canada is constantly struggling with how to deal with sex work within the structure of its laws… I really do feel that the laws that sort of protect people’s safety and protect people from being exploited in labour, those should be applied to all humans. The laws that are added on with sex work limit the safety of those workers.”
Taylor says she came away from KIAC residency with a more well-rounded view of the territory, the roles women and sex workers played, and the history of not only the acceptance, but also the understanding Yukoners had of sex workers.