The artist in residence tradition offers unique opportunities to visual artists, offering them studio space in a creative location while giving them a chance to develop a unique body of material. For many such artists who get chosen for these stations, it’s a dream come true.
Lately, the City of Edmonton has been offering such opportunities in some rather different areas of its operations. For instance, Edmonton painter Jeff Collins got the crack at being its first artist in residence, working in the Urban Forestry department. He was given studio space in the Westwood Central Services yard, a place not normally known for creativity unless they painted the odd street sign here and there.
After him, there has been a slate of artists tackling various areas of life in Edmonton, including the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers (that was painter Juan Lopezdabdoub), the Office of the City Clerk at Edmonton City Hall (painter Jennie Vegt), and the Indigenous Relations Office (that was multidisciplinary artist Dawn Marie Marchand). Others have tackled the otherwise unknown Multicultural Health Brokers Co-op and ASSIST Community Services Centre, even the site specific Kennedale facility, whatever that is.
Now, it’s Candace Makowichuk’s turn. The former director of St. Albert’s Profiles Gallery is a prominent local photographer who has been chosen as the ninth of these artists in residence. Her station is unlike all of the others, since it focuses on those places of eternal rest where most people either drive past or enter for solemn reflection, tears, and remembrance of loved ones who have passed.
The artist in the land of eternal peace
Edmonton has now followed Calgary and Vancouver with having an artist in residence at its cemeteries. It’s a rather unseemly proposition but one that speaks highly of how a municipality can engage the masses with art and help bridge the gap in bringing members of the public closer in to the many facets of running a city.
All of that is certainly important work, and it’s being done with the utmost respect for the dearly departed.
“It’s just worked out that we’ve had some really interesting departments that wanted to participate. The cemetery one … it worked out really well. They had a space at Mount Pleasant Cemetery and they really wanted to showcase the history of Edmonton’s municipal cemeteries … and showcasing their beautiful parkland. It was an interesting opportunity,” said Jenna Turner, director of communications with the Edmonton Arts Council (EAC), the facilitators of the initiative that operates as part of the City of Edmonton’s Art of Living cultural plan.
Since Makowichuk started in May, she has been wandering among the headstones with her camera and gentle disposition at her disposal. Being a cemetery artist is a special position, she said.
“I’ve gotten a few comments from people: ‘oh, that must be creepy … the energy must be so weird there.’ That made me think a bit about it. I’ve never found cemeteries to be gloomy, spooky, morbid type of place. Rather, it’s full of respect. [The visitors] are very quiet, contemplative. People don’t come there with anger,” she said. “It’s not bad energy.”
She has been following the EAC’S regular bulletin where artistic opportunities are brought to a wider readership. Through that online newsletter, she has seen some of the other residencies appear but this was the first one that really appealed to her.
Cemeteries are exactly her kind of place, she admitted, noting that she has early and fond memories of them in fact. She remembers being a little girl in Milk River with a father who was a teacher.
“We tended to move around Alberta a lot. This was ten miles from the American border. On my bike – I’m sure I was 11 or 12 – going to hang out and look around at the cemetery. Every one that I see in our travels, I usually say that we have to pull over and take a look.”
She used to drag her own kids through nearby Little Mountain Cemetery in Edmonton’s northeast. They’re not bad places, she said. There’s lots to explore. Think about how much about a family or an entire culture can be gleaned from how the dead are memorialized. It’s that whole historical point, she continues. It brings one to imagine what life was like a hundred years ago where a flu epidemic could take the lives of so many people, including many young children.
Filled with beauty and peace
Artistically speaking, you could also study how headstones often have beautiful designs with special lettering. “I could go on with the symbols that are on the headstones probably for five years.”
Considering all of the convergence of history and art at hand, she is dedicating her residency to cyanotypes and bromoil, which is an oil printmaking process that dates back to the mid-19th century. Perhaps appropriately, the resultant images often have a haunting, ghostly feel to them. Maybe it’s better to describe them as ethereal and spiritual.
She might break out the gum bichromate, liquid light, tin type, or silver gelatin printmaking processes later if she feels like it.
And that’s where Makowichuk will be until her term ends in December. Her only requirements are to develop a body of work during the six-month period, while also interacting with the staff and general public in and around the cemeteries in return for getting paid $25,000 plus another $3,000 in art supplies. She intends to work with the staff to help them develop their own creativity, producing their own photographic images using a variety of tools, including cellphone cameras, hand-coloured black and white prints, and some basic darkroom work.
At some point later this year, she will offer the fruits of her labours at a public exhibition. She also said that she wants to produce a photo book for each of the seven cemeteries.
“I feel that it’s going well,” said Teena Changarathil, supervisor with the City of Edmonton’s Cemetery Sales and Operations. She already considers this to be a successful awareness campaign to showcase the beauty of the properties.
“Candace is spending time with my team and also visiting our sites multiply. Publicity has been pretty amazing, surprisingly.”