Wednesday, 6 February 2019

The Art of Cheryl Wilson-Smith

     If 21 Pillows was a film feature you could imagine a parade of B-list actors hopping in and out of each other’s beds. But the movie that came to mind when I took a closer look at Cheryl Wilson-Smith’s amazing glasswork splayed across burlap pillows was the animated film by Brad Bird, Ratatouille. 
     In the film the harsh food critic Anton Ego, when first tasting this modest French dish has his taste buds set alight. And then his mind. He recalls a sad day decades ago, turned better by the hot meal his mother made for him. Mr. Ego becomes a child again, momentarily removed from his adult burdens, but his day has changed for the better and he skips away from the restaurant eager to return. 
   Similarly I was sent back in time when I began taking photographs of Cheryl’s work for this article. Careful and patient work went into creating thousands of glass pieces that mimic rocks of various kinds. Cheryl received financial support from the Ontario Arts Council and laborious support from her husband and son. They all spent days and nights in Cheryl’s studio in the basement of a dance hall in Red Lake. Each piece is made of layers of coloured glass and fired together. When you see the work up close you’re likely to be in awe on that front alone. Placed on pillow-shaped sacks that mimic landscapes the glass-rocks look like topographies that you might find all over the world, but in miniature.
     The glass-rocks are not arranged by the artist. That’s your job if you head down to the gallery. So in the photos for this article are the contributions of those who placed and arranged the stones. This democratization of art, the sharing between artist and viewer is a lovely feature of Cheryl’s work. I first thought of the enjoyment and challenge of scrambling up and down, in and around disorganized boulders in different parts of the country. Chippewa’s rock pier came to mind.
My 65 Million year old friend from Mexico.
     Another memory jogged by the show was when I travelled with Mexican friends to a small town in the mountains near Guanajuato. A modern road cut into the side of a mountaintop revealed layers of multi-coloured sediment. Curious, I approached the sediment and to my amazement there were thousands of small fossilized sea creatures embedded into one layer. I pulled out a fossilized cretaceous ammonite shell, the size of my palm.   
     It hit me like a speeding bulldozer. I suddenly realized that the mountain I was standing upon was in the middle of a continent, in a desert! And formed from what was once the sea bed of an ocean! My heart skipped a beat and my mind leaped into a bizarre kind of overdrive. The closest poets get to describing this feeling is by relating it to a religious experience, but it was greater than that because it connected to something incredibly real. I was holding a sea creature that was at least sixty five million years old. In a desert. At the top of a mountain. I had a nature-numinous moment, understanding intuitively how short and humble our lives are in comparison to how vast nature is. God. Art. Politics. Human history. All of it, just a blip.
     So like Anton Ego, I was transported to other times and places, not with food, but a sculptural installation in a gallery. And my day was bettered for it.

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