Women in Pigment and Time

Shelley Hakonson, like many Yukon visual artists, connects with audiences outside the territory by showing work across the continent. Last year the Dawson City mixed media artist exhibited in New York City’s Agora Gallery.

This week, Hakonson’s solo show The Women in my Life opens at Galerie 240 in Ottawa and runs until November 23.

I caught up with Hakonson in her studio after she had already shipped all 17 works eastward, but I’d seen several of them over the summer, so we talked about her creative process.

MW: Your paintings seem to look for a blending point between personal stories of individual women and myths from older times. Is this where you began?

SH: When I first started I didn’t really think you had to make a statement or something that mattered to you so much – it used to be something that was quite beautiful and pleasing to the eye. So that’s changed a lot.

MW: A couple of years ago I saw your paintings of Demeter, Lilith, Benzaiten (an ancient Chinese deity). You were doing a goddess series.

SH: Yes. I really like them, they’re really strong people, pre-Christian, pre-Moslem, pre-everything, that they really looked up to. And then when those goddess figures were gone, women were relegated back down to the dregs and they didn’t have any power. And they were burned as witches, and all those awful things happened, in the name of – God?

MW: So how did you start doing the goddesses in the first place – or, let’s go back even further, how did you start painting and what were you painting?

SH: I’ve always painted since I was a kid, whether it would be plates or whatever I could find – walls, chairs –

MW: You did these? (Gestures to the twining floral patterns on the backs of the studio’s wooden chairs.)

SH: Yes. But I got serious about ten years ago. I realized that what I really wanted to spend some time on was making my painting better, evolving it, having fun with it. And women were always my focal point.

Now it’s more like women’s rights and women who are in trouble and who don’t have a voice to speak, because if they do they could be killed, like the little Indian girl [in the “Devadasi” painting]. It’s a small way to make a comment, but it’s what I can do.

MW: How do you choose your subjects, do you find that you’re often looking at current events?

SH: It happens so often, there is no lack of women in trouble to paint! There is absolutely way too much of it.

Warren Jeffs is heavy in my brain right now. He was just imprisoned just last month, so I’m glad to see him go. I’m planning a painting of him looking over at a young girl. It’s going to be difficult.

(Editor’s note: Jeffs, polygamist leader of a Texas religious sect, was convicted on two counts of child sexual abuse on August 9, 2011.)

MW: Do you ever use stories of women you know?

SH: Not yet. But I might … I have pictures of certain women of my friends that I want to use sometime. With their permission.

MW: Your paintings look at women in situations that are difficult or terrible, but it doesn’t seem anti-male.

SH: No, no. I mean, the Chinese slippers [in my painting called “Golden Lilies”] looks at how women did it to themselves. Mothers and aunts would bind their children’s and nieces’ feet, because it was also another very sexually charged thing. Same with corsets, women love their corsets.

MW: Tell me about the exhibition title, The Women in my Life.

SH: I think all women in the world are in my life … I’m fortunate in my life, and I can make these little paintings to make a little point, a little jab, a twist, to show something that maybe people wouldn’t have thought of.

And there’s a [printed] story with every piece. Some galleries don’t like stories up on the wall with the pieces, so I’ve found one that does like it. I’m really happy with that, because for me they’re integral.

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

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