Art in the age of COVID-19: The Dalton Trail Gallery

I remember the first time Nicole Bauberger created a series of dresses. It was in 2004, and Bauberger was part of an artists’ collective called Studio 204. The collective had a small studio and artist-run gallery space of the same name, in the alley in the back of 204 Main Street.

Bauberger’s first show at Studio 204 was a series of 100 dresses painted in encaustic, a beeswax-based medium. Bauberger painted the dresses in the gallery, and visitors were invited to watch her work. They could also create their own “guest dress” to be exhibited alongside Bauberger’s. This became standard practice in the many “100 dresses” series that followed: they were created in public spaces where Bauberger welcomed conversation and participation.

Over time Bauberger began experimenting with three-dimensional dresses. She recruited volunteers and draped their bodies in plastic, then wrapped them in packing tape. The packing tape dresses were removed from their human models and installed in several natural landscapes.

These early dress projects show a pattern emerging, where Bauberger explored alternative spaces for creating and displaying her work. In doing so she demystified the practice of art-making and encouraged others to participate in the process.

Over this past winter, she switched mediums again. She acquired a kiln and started making dresses out of clay. It is these ceramic dresses that are featured in Bauberger’s recent project, the Dalton Trail Gallery. Like the encaustic and packing tape dresses, the trail gallery and its small ceramic frocks are reflective of Bauberger’s interest in dissolving the barriers that separate art from our everyday world.

The trail gallery is also a response to the void visual artists have been faced with in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Galleries everywhere, including the Yukon, have closed and shows have been cancelled. But Bauberger’s ceramic dresses were, says the artist, “tenderly and insistently” asking to be exhibited. If Bauberger wanted to debut the dresses in the foreseeable future, she would have to take them outside. And so, in the greenspace behind her house on Dalton Trail, Bauberger installed her menagerie of dresses.

Public art is nothing new, of course, and Whitehorse has many large outdoor sculptures and murals. However, there is something particularly vulnerable about these small dresses floating amongst the poplars. They are exposed to the elements. They are within easy reach of passers-by. They have no shelter, protection or security.

But these are tough little dresses. They were fired to code 6, which means they can withstand the freeze and thaw cycle of the Yukon spring. The method also provides them with more natural hanging points, so they are easier to suspend securely from the trees.

They are also resilient in the way Bauberger has rendered their forms. Characteristic of all her dresses, they are all the same style – simple, no-nonsense, sleeveless shifts. Most of the dresses suggest they were fashioned for robust figures. They can be imagined slogging through the muck of the Klondike Gold Fields, or hiking the Chilkoot Trail. They’d best be worn with second-hand Doc Martens or gumboots. One dress seems to have a tear, another a ragged seam. They’ve seen their fair share of adventures.

As much as the dresses are similar, each has a unique individuality. One has a rough texture, as if hewn from the clay, but is luxuriously lined in flakes of gold. Another is glazed in milky, almost iridescent blues. There is a little black dress that appears to be metallic, with tiny sparkles lit by the bright sun. It hangs from thin lines of rubber and swings gently in the breeze. All of the dresses seem at home amid the poplars, with imagined breezes lifting their hems and the noon-day sun highlighting their rustic beauty.

If dresses have been a preoccupation for Bauberger for many years, so, too, have ravens. You have likely seen at least one of her painted or sculpted ravens if you’ve been in the Yukon for long. Last summer, Baugberger embarked on a multimedia project with Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé, an Upper Tanana artist and curator. Through the project, called Scavenging for the Many Faces of Raven, Bauberger and Vander Meer-Chassé crafted ravens from clay, glass, bicycle tire tubes and salvaged scraps of rubber from blown tires.

Some of these ravens have made their way to the Dalton Trail Trail Gallery. If you look carefully, you will find webs dotted with small, stylized ravens made from bicycle tire tubes. They behave as ravens do, swooping and cavorting amongst the branches. There are larger ravens as well, more lifelike than than the others. These sculptures are multimedia, with realistic bodies made of clay, and abstract wings of tire rubber.

Just a stone’s throw down the trail you’ll discover a small pop-up exhibit of colourful, translucent paper pieces. Created by Bauberger’s neighbour Suki Wellman and her children — Kuya, Aiko and Tomio – the cheerful show is part of what might become an outdoor “gallery row.”

The trail gallery is open indefinitely and Bauberger will be switching things up, so the installation will change over time. If you visit often, you may find your favourite dress has disappeared, and another small piece has taken its place.

You will also find the gallery “space” changes constantly as winter gives way to spring. Every visit offers a new perspective and a reminder of impermanence. Soon there will be buds on the poplars and more brilliant light each day. How will Bauberger’s trail-dwellers appear then?

The Dalton Trial Trail Gallery provides Hillcrest trail users with an unexpected creative encounter. The gallery’s spontaneity encourages a more informal interaction with the artwork than we experience in an indoor gallery. We are invited to take art a little less seriously. And at this time, when we live under so many rules, the simplicity and whimsy of Bauberger’s gallery offers a chance for us to lighten up.

To visit the Dalton Trail Trail Gallery, take Hillcrest Drive to where it terminates at the fire road up to Granger. Walk around the gate, then take a hard left onto the trail. A ceramic sign marks the start of the gallery. The trail is always open, but please practice physical distancing.

Culture meets couture

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