Things Float Up Magical

Rosemary Scanlon made a digital garden once. And working in Photoshop for hours a day drove her to pick up paintbrush and watercolour again.

Through the Looking Glass shows the results at Baked Cafe on Main Street in Whitehorse, along with new images she completed this fall.

Scanlon is interested in story-telling images of all kinds, from digital internet files to amateur snapshots in family albums, to tapestries.

Yes, tapestries, the 15th century’s favoured wall hanging in many parts of Europe.

When the Whitehorse-based artist was completing her Masters of Fine Arts in Glasgow over the last two years, she spent time studying – among others – the Unicorn Tapestries, a series of seven tapestries from 1495-1505 now hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

“Tapestries were originally intended to depict everyday scenes, such as hunting,” Scanlon explains. “So this is the background idea, visually and conceptually, for some of my paintings, including the hunt.”

In particular, she adopted the mille fleurs (thousand flowers) approach from the textiles. Her repeated tree-and-plant motifs create an almost flattened horizon for the image of the modern-day hunter with his dogs and pickup truck.

Scanlon became interested in the cultural uses of physical images and digital images when she was researching the use of archives in art for her MFA dissertation.

She became especially curious about the shift from physical to digital photo albums. Fewer and fewer people have a shoebox full of photos that they would grab if the house was on fire and they had to run out the door, she notes.

“There are these little pieces of our lives all over the internet and we’re constantly recording our own history,” she says. “So I like to use a lot of amateur photography and also the kind of strange things that can happen in those photographs.”

Her digital garden project, macro garden, grew out of this research. Made with 282 macro-lens images of gardens found on the internet, Scanlon created a wallpaper print a little larger than five by three metres.

But the garden metaphor remains embedded in the original digital images, she says.

“I think of macro garden as a massive imagery on the internet, just these huge masses of imagery that are out there collecting together, continuing to grow,” she says.

Scanlon currently works one day a week at Yukon Archives. This provides time to paint and to pick up other jobs such as working with Emma Barr as a set decorator for the forthcoming movie Red Coat Justice that was filmed near Whitehorse this summer.

Influences from both these jobs appear in Through the Looking Glass.

October and November saw a lot of people coming into the Archives to research the bodies that were dug up during excavation for the sewage treatment plant in Dawson City, for example.

“That meant I was looking at a lot of images from the Gold Rush era, which you can see in some of the silhouettes,” she says. That also accounts for some of the unpredictable elements in her pictures – the architecture of the small house in the hunt, for example.

Other layers of unpredictability are simply about imagination and memory, as the exhibition’s title suggests.

“I think there are also a lot of things that just float up, that surface after a while. The ten images in this show are all a bit magical and fantastical,” she says.

One scene in Red Coat Justice that stayed with Scanlon was when the fictitious RCMP officer set fire to a field of poppies, to end an opium trade that the script-writers imagined in the context of the historical Klondike Gold Rush.

The colours and smoky lighting appear in a transformed way in whorl of sleep.

“What’s more important, the idea of a place as it rests in a person’s mind, or what’s really there?” she asks.

Scanlon is exploring that question through her time in the Yukon, too. She lived in Whitehorse from 2006–07 and returned this fall.

“That first time was a strange time because my fiancé’s father [the late MLA Todd Hardy] had just had a bone marrow transplant. So we were taking care of the house and all the animals,” she recalls.

“It was an experience that had a huge impact on my life. I realized while I was in Glasgow that I was looking at my time here through memory, with a mythical sense of time.”

Scanlon will continue the watercolour series during her time as one of two artists-in-residence at the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture in Dawson City from December 9 to January 3.

“I started making them at the same time I was doing that digital wallpaper and working a lot in Photoshop,” she says. “I think it was an actual need for me as an artist to work with something in a tactile way.”

But she doesn’t choose one medium over the other.

“I think they influence each other, and the ideas really flow back and forth from one to the other.”

Through the Looking Glass continues at Baked Cafe until January 6, 2011.

Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.

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