A Visit with Canada’s Art Darling

She’s taller than I remember. I have an impish image of Shary Boyle stuck in my mind – a gawky figure hunched over with devious playfulness sparkling in her eyes.

Maybe I’ve gazed at her immense body of work so often I have come to think of her drawings as literal representations of her. The image is bunk: Canada’s darling choice for the 2013 Venice Biennale ain’t no slouch.

She was in town this month to collaborate with a stellar crew of musicians on The Cost of Doing Business; an album marrying (get ready for it…)Baby Eagle, Wax Mannequin, Construction + Destruction, Michael Feuerstack, Shotgun Jimmie, Kyle Cashen, Marine Dreams, Richard Laviolette and The Burning Hell. The album is due to be released in the new year by Headless Owl Records. Shary pitched in some backup vocals, projected visuals for two live performances, and will be producing the album cover art.

I meet with my old friend when she’s here, and as soon as I see her I’m already pining for the next time, and the next.

A conversation with Shary Boyle will run the gamut of the usual stuff: from Allyson Mitchell’s vagina guillotine to the extraordinary amount of Ikea furniture in Whitehorse, and then on to the idea of the True Arctic…

“You fly over the snow wall and that wall goes up to space… when you’re that far north the south ceases to exist,” she says.

Shary has been slipping in and out of the North since she was a fresh-faced, just-graduated, little OCAD punk. I met her in 1995. She was a vagabond waif, peddling her artwork for sustenance. She arrived in Dawson City with a teenage fantasy of the North, intent on finding a print-making co-op within a town of 1800 miners, and an apartment.

Dawson can be a cruel dream-killer. She ended up in a borrowed tent pitched on the snow on the other side of the river, and a pilgrimage to John Steins’ studio door proved futile – at first – as he had just departed for Toronto.

But Shary doesn’t give up. Working the breakfast shift at the Midnight Sun was easier than shivering in her tent in all her clothes at 5:30 am, and John eventually returned, opening his studio to her limitless imagination.

She put her time in as a typical Dawson transient for the summer. From Dawson she fled to San Francisco, then to Amsterdam and beyond, catapulting into 15-years of wanderlust. The work she produced in those years was small out of necessity; it would fit into a suitcase. Besides printmaking, she’s a pretty good drawer; she also dabbled in pet portraits, oil on vellum, self-published books, and miniature sculpture work using Sculpey and thread. When the ODD Gallery opened its doors in 1999, it featured a solo show of her paintings and Vellum work.

Still on the search for the ever-elusive perfect place, the universe would rubber band her back to Dawson every once in a while. She returned to be the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture’s first artist in residence, and then onward-ho to LA, Berlin, Paris and Winnipeg to collaborate on performance pieces with Peaches, Feist, and Christine Fellows. She hates the idea of being complacent, or settled, or tied down… she’s allergic to it.

Toronto would finally grab her, though – for practical purposes. You know, like a career, a studio. The things you need to be able to make artwork on a grand scale.

And how grand it is. Shary is in the midst of quite a celebrated art practice.

Exhibitions of her artwork can be found in Italy at the 2013 Venice Biennale International Art Exhibitio; in France at the Centre Georges Pompidou; in Ottawa at the National Gallery of Canada; and in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario. She is a recipient of two Canadian awards: the 2010 Hnatyshyn Foundation Award of $25,000, and the 2009 Gershon Iskowitz Prize of $25,000. She was also shortlisted for the 2009 Sobey Art Award of $70,000 from the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Yet she’s the same turkey who karaoked her way into my heart so many years ago.

I asked her why the landscape of the North keeps plucking her out of the bright lights.

“I feel like coming up to the Yukon allows you a perch from which to observe,” Shary says. “This is the first chance I’ve had to come all this way since 2006 with Christine Fellows. After (the 2013 Biennale in) Venice, that experience was so ungrounding. I’m out of my body and too much into my head. It is a gift to be able to come up here and get in touch with reality. I’m putting myself into the service of something else. Musicians are so collaborative, and my art practice is solitary. This collective endeavour is joyful and sharing. It’s a relief.”

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