Displacement: Seeking a connection to the past

Helen O’Connor’s paper-sculpture mastery grows as organically as the flax she cultivates.

With the flax sprouting up from the ground, she weaves tales of family, history and connections to the past. She has four types of flax currently growing, which is “quite an exciting” event that she relates to me.

Primarily a paper creator and sculptor, O’Connor’s newest show, Displacement, takes a look at the ancient art of paper-making through a modern lens — the contemporary eye of the video camera.

Her show is a mixed-media piece, with a video loop of her working an ancient machine, the “heckle” used to break and convert flax into linen, as well as paper sculptures, found items and photography.

“The process for this show felt like a creative writing piece. The way I thought about writing poetry was also how I approached this show,” says O’Connor. There is even a ghostly fine linen dress, ethereal and beautiful.

She approached the show with strong imagery evoking various sensations.

“In the video, I’m using a heckle, it looks like a torture device, with these sharp spokes. It is so aggressive looking, one of those objects that really speaks to you, yet it combs material that looks like baby’s hair, so soft and fine,” says O’Connor.

Her method is free-association, with one theme inspiring another, and so on. “I wanted to tell a story, evoke feelings and emotions,” she says. The natural storytelling weaves a path of understanding throughout her work. It is gentle and inspiring, a way to bring history and memory together.

A suitcase sits close at hand, filled with flax. It is the suitcase of her childhood, holding memories of when she bravely carried it with her on her first trip to visit her family in Ireland.

Paper turns into memory, holding and preserving history in fine flaxen sheaves.

“I wanted to demonstrate the essential nature of the paper I create. It is meaningful to me, and I hoped to show that,” says O’Connor.

The historical process of displacement is important to O’Connor, and she reflects that longing in her work: “Do we displace feelings of loss and longing onto objects in search of identity? Do we connect with the past by engaging by hand in age-old processes?”

O’Connor is a Yukon artist, coming into her 20th year in the Yukon. She is involved with Yukon Artists @ Work and has displayed her paper sculpture at many galleries.

This month is a busy one for O’Connor, as we speak she is packing her bags for Inuvik and A Great Northern Art Festival from July 8 to 18, where she is teaching classes on papermaking.

She also has a show coming up at Arts Underground on July 22, exploring three-dimensional work, and the mysteries of light and paper with Light, Wind and Water.

Displacement runs until July 31 at the Yukon Arts Centre Community Gallery.

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