Mentioning the Unmentionable

The quiet history of Gold Rush good-time girls is revealed in Jessica Vellenga’s show at Arts Underground. “Are you a lady or a whore; if a whore, then pay $17, then pass through,” proclaims a hand-stitched embroidery, the fragile whimsical textile art betraying the somewhat-harsh proclamation of the licensing fares for houses of illicit operations.

“The history of the Gold Rush is about the men. Few chronicle the trials and struggles of women, the ‘unique pioneers’ of the Rush,” says Vellenga on the inspiration for her show. As an artist, she seeks to explore empathy and the human experience, showing people the hard-bitten realm of the North through the eyes of women.

Unmentionables is a textile fabric display, but reveals much beneath the delicate feminine embroideries. Directions on what to bring and what to wear on the treacherous Chilkoot Trail are listed on an antique hoop skirt, strung up.

Petticoats, bloomers and dresses topped the list, as well as warm clothing. It was clearly an ambitious endeavour for women of the Gold Rush; yet, Vellenga found it difficult to research the women’s stories as not many people are willing to discuss how family members may have been “women of ill repute” in that time.

“You know, nobody wants to admit that Aunt Mabel might have been a prostitute during those times,” says Vellenga.

Vellenga, a professional artist and art educator at the Yukon Arts Centre Gallery, came to the Yukon with the anticipation of delving into the rich history and bringing a show that displayed the many “layers” of humanity during the Gold Rush.

Her art focuses on women’s issues, and Unmentionables brings the frilly, feminine and fun together with the harsh realities of life as a prostitute in the North.

“I wanted to include a variety of experiences from the famous to the mundane, [from] photos to text. Not everyone talks about the women’s lives, and this was a boom time when prostitution was more or less accepted, before towns grew and, in turn, developed morality,” says Vellenga.

Creative use of textiles is Vellenga’s mainstay for her installation, using primarily antique and vintage clothing and fabric to craft her pieces. The embroidery is by hand, often in pink, and is very evocative of women’s work in former times.

“I take women’s traditional work and reference it in my art, when everything was done by hand, not by machine and things took time to produce.” Despite the difficult and dangerous living conditions, the women were still women. They hadn’t lost their femininity, and Vellenga’s art seeks to show that in places where history hasn’t.

“I’ve enjoyed creating these pieces and I’m constantly on the lookout for more vintage clothing and fabric so I can continue to create. I found, with this show, I meditated on the experiences of the women and how difficult it must have been.

“Even when I find it hard here, it’s hard to imagine how much more [difficult] it must have been,” says Vellenga. Unmentionables runs from Oct. 2 to 28 at Arts Underground.

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