Lakehead University Alumni Magazine

The Art of Joyce Weiland

Women as nation builders. Art History Professor Kristy Holmes is studying the work of Canadian filmmaker and artist Joyce Weiland

Donna Jeanpierre
Published April 29, 2010

Joyce Wieland (1930-1998) is one of Canada's most influential female painters and filmmakers and her love of her home and native land was no secret.

When Wieland's True Patriot Love opened at the National Gallery of Canada on July 1, 1971, many criticized it as anti-American, as well as not being legitimate art.

In the Gallery's first major exhibition devoted to the work of a living Canadian female artist, viewers were greeted by a Plexiglas enclosure containing 24 ducklings and four ducks. The air was perfumed with a scent designed by Wieland, Sweet Beaver: The Perfume of Canadian Liberation. Recordings of loons played throughout the Gallery and the walls were decorated with a selection of Wieland's quilts and other textile works.

Until now, there has never been a book-length critical work of both Wieland's film and non-film work, and that's something Kristy Holmes, Assistant Professor of Art History at Lakehead University, plans to change.

Holmes held a Fellowship in Canadian Art from the National Gallery of Canada in 2009 and is exploring the late 1960s and early 1970s, with particular reference to several large- and small-scale international exhibitions mounted by the National Gallery of Canada, including Joyce Wieland's True Patriot Love (1971).

"What I'm doing is unique in that I talk about her film and non-film work together – her bigger body of work and how they relate to each other," says Holmes.

Originally from Grimsby, ON, Holmes graduated from Queen's University with an Honours Bachelor of Arts in History and Art History, and a Masters degree in the Social History of Art at the University of Leeds in England. In 2007, Holmes completed a PhD at Queen's with a thesis entitled, Negotiating the Nation: The work of Joyce Wieland 1968-1976, a period in which Wieland worked with Canada as a theme.

Holmes was first introduced to the work of Joyce Wieland during her undergraduate years at Queen's. What initially attracted the 19-year-old student was the artist's sense of humor. "I thought her work was funny, not boring." The film Rat Life and Diet in North America (1968), about a pair of gerbils who escape their feline captors and travel to Canada in search of freedom, remains one of Holmes' favorite works of Wieland.

According to Holmes, Wieland's art represents a significant paradigm shift in Canada in terms of both art and society. Much of her work reflects the major issues of her time: Red Power, Quebec sovereignty, and the women's movement. "What was going on in Canada that created a situation in which a woman, a white woman, felt she identified with Canada?" asks Holmes.

"Why would a woman, especially, identify with the nation, a concept traditionally seen as masculine? Women were not typically seen as nation builders. In the 1960s and 1970s, the concept of the nation was being redefined in specific ways, including the role of women." Holmes credits the Trudeau administration, especially, with changing the way women were participating in the nation state. Wieland had also been living in New York from 1963 to 1971, which bolstered her identification with her home nation, says Holmes.

With the publication of her research on such a pivotal figure as Joyce Wieland in the Canadian Journal of Film Studies (Fall 2006) and the interdisciplinary anthology The Sixties: Passion, Politics, Style (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008), Holmes hopes to raise the research profile of Lakehead University, especially the Department of Visual Arts. "People will see that there is serious research coming out of a relatively small department," she says.

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