Interpretations of History

Back in 2005, artist Catherine Beaudette was in search of history.

Having traversed Europe, on numerous occasions, she felt the desire to explore her home and native land, which led her to explore what was left behind during the Gold Rush era in Dawson City.

As artist-in-residence at the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture, she put an ad in the paper. She posted bills around town beckoning people to scour through their personal collections for little pieces of history.

Initially, pickings were slim – until she uncovered tales of the Han First Nation.

“Of course, I’d read Pierre Berton, but none of this was in Klondike,” Beaudette says.

Eventually, the Montréal-born artist found herself holed up in a small room in the Dawson City Museum, routinely creating watercolour paintings of the objects she’d unearthed from the climate-controlled storage room.

And as she compared the display items with the vast selection of items that were archived and omitted from the collection, Beaudette says her true art project took shape for the show, Confluence, which is on display at the Yukon Arts Centre Public Gallery.

“On the one hand, [the museum] is really being conscious of their First Nations heritage and culture; but on the other, it’s not part of the story.

“I’ve put things together that would not exist together in the museum.”

Each watercolour painting acts as a pseudo display case, juxtaposing artifacts to tell what Beaudette pieced together as the story of Dawson City. A Royal Doulton Bunnykins mug is painted above a child-sized moccasin and fur mitten. Furthermore, a birchbark basket and a rusted can of diced carrots are painted side by side.

“These don’t exist in the museum, so in some ways I’m re-creating my own little museum where I’m telling the story,” she explains.

“I’m trying to sort of re-frame perspective and re-align relationships that did exist.”

The title of the show, Confluence, makes two references to the content: the union of the rivers in Dawson and the union of the gold miners’ and First Nations’ histories.

Beyond that, the exhibit examines the authenticity of historical records.

“A hand constructs history.

“It’s not just like you go around and everything is history, and you put it there. No, somebody framed it into history,” Beaudette says.

“And, you know, that’s why we live in a postmodern time where a lot of history has been reconstructed, maybe through a feminist perspective, or an outsider perspective or Han First Nation perspective. That’s re-framed a lot of stories.”

The paintings in Confluence are reminiscent of pages from a historical or scientific catalogue with blank backgrounds and an absence of titles. A numbering system is used to distinguish whether the objects came from the museum, the Han First Nation or from private collections.

Using soft washes of colour, Beaudette develops a weathered-yet-detailed aesthetic in the works. And while she often works in oil, she says the watercolour medium is most effective for this subject matter.

“Watercolour is so fresh and alive and you can almost see the movement of the water. So I like the idea of doing something kind of old and stable in this sort of fluent, almost-irreverent medium because they’re so opposite,” she explains, referencing a piece depicting a wooly mammoth bone.

“The thing I like about painting is that it’s an artifice: they’re representations; they’re not real. So, I’m the ‘hand’ making this museum and I can insert any artifact within what I would consider Gold Rush artifacts.”

A crinkled poster advertising Beaudette’s call for objects hangs alongside the paintings. She admits there were a number of creative obstacles in the beginning, but she inevitably developed a project that combines both archaeology and fine art.

“I don’t come up with a concept and make the work. I react to where I am and what I’m seeing and, through that, even through the painting and the process, I kind of learn,” she explains.

“I find objects are really alive. You’re holding something that somebody held years ago.”

Catherine Beaudette’s exhibit, Confluence, is on display at the Yukon Arts Centre Public Gallery until May 24.

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