/ARCHIVE — 2013
/serena mccarroll — three women
/THREE WOMEN centers on the creative lives of Susanna Bauer, Bernadette Greuel and Sister Maureen Maier. All three grew up in rural Saskatchewan and succeeded in forging a unique path within a place and time where options were limited. Susanna makes art from whatever she finds around her, be it pinecones, seeds, bark, feathers or road kill. Bernadette writes and recites poetry inspired by her role as a mother and farmer’s wife. Sr Maureen works tirelessly to preserve the history of her prairie sisterhood and is largely responsible for saving the convent where she became a nun at age 18.
/SERENA MCCARROLL received her BFA from Emily Carr University and her MFA from Ryerson University. She has exhibited work in galleries across Canada. Her book about moving to rural Saskatchewan, All Citizens, was published by Conundrum Press in 2012. She currently lives in Toronto.
THREE [GREAT] WOMEN
Three Women grows out of McCarroll’s unlikely adventure moving to small town Saskatchewan, where she and her partner open a café/art-shop called All Citizens. Sandwiched between the town’s only restaurant and a centre for senior citizens, their audacious enterprise would likely struggle in a big city, so what makes them think they can pull it off in Bruno, a prairie town of 500? After the steep rents in Vancouver, Saskatchewan’s real estate market attracts them with its promise of low costs and independence. However, living on the margins comes with a price. McCarroll explains: “I was in a foreign place and I needed to adapt. I needed to find community….I felt compelled to examine the lives of others in order to determine how to fit into their landscape.”1 One by one, three women come into her life, populating her blog and later becoming central figures in her work.
A world away from Vancouver, McCarroll connects with friends through blogging about life on the prairies. Trolling for WIFI spots in town, she discovers the Prairie Ursuline Centre with its “art gallery” sign out front. Inside, McCarroll meets Sister Maureen Maier. “Open-minded, down to earth, unsanctimonious, and surprisingly frank in her conversations,” McCarroll relates, “she is not what I expected.” Eventually she interviews Sister Maureen about her 56 years in the order, and how, as the last Ursuline in the building, she keeps it from the wrecking ball.
Even in Bruno, McCarroll expects there will be more individuals drawn to All Citizens. As time passes it becomes clear that few locals seem interested. Then she encounters Bernadette Greuel, another woman “of a certain age.” A self-described “Farm Poet,” she is shaped by the isolation and economic difficulties of family farming, but her poetry is filtered through a vivacious personality and irrepressible humour.
At 96, Susanna Bauer is a woman of amazing energy. Artist, collector, storyteller, and grandmother, she seeks McCarroll out, intrigued when she reads about All Citizens in the local paper. Susanna is known in the region for her quilts, and lives among a riot of works, her own and others. Stepping into her home McCarroll is transfixed, writing: “It is evident to me that her works extend beyond the visual; that they are living as she lives.”
Far from Vancouver’s artistic circles, McCarroll feels an affinity with three women who are supposedly past their prime. Each is given little choice in early life, yet despite lives of service and isolation, despite limited choices or opportunities, each woman gives meaningful expression to her life. In the face of adversity and obscurity, each one nurtures a creative spirit. Taken at face value, McCarroll’s exhibition celebrates the quiet heroism and beauty of their lives. Grappling with her own extreme isolation and economic privation, she marvels that they “managed to find outlets for their creative energy without any of the traditional support structures found in cities….They flourished in isolation and evolved outside the system.”2
If we compare Three Women with Martha Rosler’s Service: a trilogy on colonization (1976), which also looks at the lives of three women who are disadvantaged by gender and class, we see parallels despite the intervening years and social differences. Rosler distrusts “straight” photographic representation, especially portraiture, and often chooses to work with text, video, performance, installation or collage in order to force audiences to think critically about image/language and social mores. In Service, she writes three serial novellas from the perspective of a suburban housewife, a fast-food cook, and an illegal Mexican housekeeper, illuminating, challenging, and critiquing Western capitalism. First appearing as a series of postcards, and later as an artist book, Service uses the “low” (and slow) production values of mail art and the artists’ book to deal with a spectrum of gender and class problems.
McCarroll’s work not only takes up Rosler's investigation of women's colonization (nearly 40 years later), but also elaborates a socially engaged project through dialogic practice. Even though McCarroll is clearly the author, Three Women derives from her exchanges with these women. Her photographic installation frames the way we see them, but she allows these individuals to speak for themselves through the inclusion of interviews, objects, and their own non-fiction writing and poetry. In this way, her subjects direct our perceptions of their identities, and by extension, the place of prairie women/artists in Canada today. McCarroll’s work also reflects some of the shifts in social realities in the last 35 years, both for working-class women, and for artists, due to the gains made by civil rights, feminist, gay, and anti-racist activists, as well as the impacts of social media. Her subjects are contemporaneous with those of Rosler, who also narrate their own lives, but in aging they have realized their potential. McCarroll’s work also updates the framework of mail art with the blog, reflecting the shifts in dissemination practices onto the web—a de-centred, non-hierarchal space that levels individuals and allows everyone the possibility of far-flung communication and instantaneous visibility.
Rosler's work considers social contexts while examining the patriarchal control and suppression her subjects face as they try to realize their goals. In contrast, McCarroll’s subjects have gained autonomy. Though poverty and sexism still persist, McCarroll’s work recognizes the achievements of women in the face of economic privation, illuminating the importance of their work. In 1971, Linda Nochlin underlines the role socialization plays in determining an artist’s success in her essay “Why Have there Been No Great Women Artists?” She points to the importance of how such questions are posed, probing whether it is really a “Woman Problem” or a “Man Problem.” She suggests the same question might be posed about the dearth of great black artists: is it a “Black Problem” or a “White Problem”? Shifting the question changes the answer. Nochlin goes on: “[W]omen must conceive of themselves as potentially, if not actually, equal subjects, and must be willing to look the facts of their situation full in the face…at the same time they must view their situation with that high degree of emotional and intellectual commitment necessary to create a world in which equal achievement will be not only made possible but actively encouraged by social institutions.3 By tracing a deceptively simple schematic that reveals living examples of creative self-realization and achievement outside the usual channels, McCarroll gives us Three Great Women.
1 Serena McCarroll, unpublished Masters Project Paper, Ryerson University, Documentary Media Program, 2011, 29.
/KATY MCCORMICK’s Destinies Made Manifest: Reading the Washington Mall appeared at Galerie Pierre- Léon, Toronto, In October 2012. Exploring American identity, this exhibition probes the way monuments construct official narratives. Curatorial projects include Border Country (2010) and Rearrangments (2007). She is associate professor at Ryerson University, Toronto.