University of Calgary: Can art change anything?

On Friday, December 5th from 11:15 to 11:50 am, artist Teresa Posyniak and the Law School at the University of Calgary invite Calgarians to attend the 20th anniversary of the installation of the sculpture "Lest We Forget." 

In conjunction with the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, this event will be an opportunity to collectively reflect on Posyniak's installation LEST WE FORGET which was installed at The Law School at the University of Calgary (2nd floor of the Murray Fraser Hall) twenty years ago.

Installed in 1994, it is her personal response to violence against women starting with the Montreal massacre of 14 women on December 6th, 1989.  

Guest blog by Teresa Posyniak, November 30, 2014 

Building a memorial to murdered and missing Canadian women wasn’t something I’d thought of back in 1989.  At age 38, with a six-month old daughter and 2 year old son, I had delayed motherhood to pursue an MFA and establish a career as an artist and instructor at The Alberta College of Art and Design.   

My 80’s work, The Sanctuary installations - large, contemplative, full of metaphors relating to vulnerability and resiliency - never overtly reflected my social activism.  All that changed after the Montreal massacre of 14 women on December 6th, 1989 at L’ Ecole Polytechnique.  This tragic event and concern for my kids’ future pushed me to make a strong art statement about violence against women. 

Would my daughter Kaia ever be safe, even at university?  Would my son, Nick, grow up to be like his father, Clarence Hookenson - considerate and respectful of women? 

As I began exploring ideas about violence against women through drawings and paintings, I thought of my own experiences – of being sexually assaulted, of helping out girlfriends who’d been attacked, of growing up around an aunt, mother of 5, who lived in terror of my uncle’s rages, and of sexual harassment which nearly derailed my graduate studies at the University of Calgary.

Can art be a vehicle for social change? 

I was at a loss how to express these hopes and fears through art.  While I admired some political art of the past, I was also aware that socially engaged art sometimes sacrifices aesthetics for the big message or conversely, leaves the viewer bewildered, unaware of the artist’s ideas.  And there’s the big question, can art ever be a vehicle for social change?  

My inspiration came in early 1991 when I read a “femicide” list of murdered women compiled by Mary Billy of B.C. in This Magazine (formerly called This Magazine is about Schools).  I was fascinated by Ms. Billy’s idea that rather than focussing on the names of the men who murder women, we should instead remember the female victims’names, “make their deaths count for something”. 

With that in mind, I designed and built a sculpture upon which I wrote each woman’s name and age of death, adding more as they sadly appeared regularly in the local media.  After the names of the Montreal 14, I pointedly added those of nine local aboriginal sex trade workers (not identified as aboriginal on the sculpture) whose murderer(s) had not yet been found.  I felt strongly that not enough attention was focussed on investigating these unsolved murders. 

Was it because they were First Nations or Metis?  They were someone’s daughter, mother, aunt, sister or friend as well!  These questions continue to rage today.      

LEST WE FORGET - name side detail 1.jpg
Lest We Forget unfinished side

I was unprepared 

Lest We Forget, constructed with paper, wood, styrofoam, paint and leaves – all easily destructible materials- was never intended to be a public sculpture.  During its first exhibition, curated by Muttart Gallery  director Richard White in 1992, it attracted the attention of University of Calgary law school alumni Judy Maclachlan who felt that this sculpture, if placed in the Law School (then under construction), would serve as a reminder to lawyers and lawmaker of their responsibilities. 

Once Dean Sheilah Martin secured approval for the sculpture’s placement in the building’s airy main foyer across from the Law Library, the need for the protection of a glass and steel case posed another hurdle. 

Lest We Forget made it past the proposal stage due to the generosity of Bahaa and Emily Faltous of Moli Industries who designed, built and installed the protective case at a significant discount.  Fundraisers paid for the materials.  

Helen Zenith of Newzones Gallery of Contemporary Art (my representation at the time) convinced the The Alberta Foundation for the Arts to buy Lest We Forget and permanently loan it to the Law School.  It took almost two years and the efforts of many to see this project to its conclusion.    

I was unprepared for the depth of emotion and the exposure to the victims’ families’ trauma.  Some called me to tell me about the tragic deaths of their loved ones.  I added names to the sculpture when requested, even responding to a Calgary Sun reporter’s request to include the name of a mother of five who was randomly murdered in Pincher Creek while minding the family store alone.  

Before its installation, Suzanne LaPlante Edward, the mother of Anne-Marie Edward - one of the Montreal 14 - visited my studio while on a cross country tour to promote gun control.  I also received a visit from the extended family of an aboriginal woman murdered while working in the sex trade.  They brought the woman’s 18-month old son to see the sculpture and took his picture next to his mother’s name.  Ten years later, he left a rose and a card at the base of the memorial after the annual December 6th vigil. 

Lest We Forget

Sign of Hope 

I’ve always believed in the power of art.  Did Lest We Forget change anything? Did it increase anyone’s awareness?  I’m not sure. 

Twenty years after its installation, we will formally gather again to remember the women and to talk about ways we’ve moved forward and what needs to be done. 

To me, that’s a sign of hope.

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