For the first time, Katie Ohe will exhibit SCULPTURE PRAYERS in its entirety since she began making them. This body of work consists of a series of wall sculptures, all made from the hard and harsh material of steel. Paradoxically, Ohe’s work is extremely approachable and intimate. This series of sculpture reference the deeply spiritual East Indian – “Celebration of Life,” a cultural ceremony that involves the releasing of small vessels into flowing holy waters of the Ganges River. In this same way, Ohe’s sculptures become an offering, a state of contemplation and communion.



For many years, the life and work of KATIE OHE has been the inspiration and excitement for colleagues, students and the community at large. She is extremely well respected as an instructor and artist both nationally and internationally. She has exhibited around the country, and was recently apart of the Alberta Biennial Of Contemporary Art 2000 in Edmonton and Calgary. Ohe currently teaches at the Alberta College of Art and Design, where she also studied. Her work is represented in many collections, including the Canada Council Art Bank, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, the Shell collection and the Glenbow Museum.



In Varanasi, India thousands of believers gather annually to celebrate Divali; the festival of lights, by releasing small, handmade vessels containing votive candles onto the Ganges. These vessels intermingle on the surface of the water, flowing together and separating, their tiny flickers warding off darkness and welcoming Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. Thousands of tiny bright prayers penetrate the darkest of nights to create a metaphor for hope, community and the celebration of life. Inspired by this individual/communal gesture, Katie Ohe produced Sculpture Prayers (1996 – 2002) – 19 wall-mounted steel sculptures, each of which personifies an intimated friend to which she offers the sculpture as a secular prayer. Hung together, their shadows dappling the white wall’s surface, these works tell the story of how Ohe’s life and artistic practice are tightly intertwined.

For over 4 decades, Ohe’s artistic practice has made evident her dedicated work ethic; her interest in symbolic imagery; and her deep understanding of the discipline of sculpture. Central to sculpture’s history is the figure, portraiture, and a concern with human scale and viewer interaction. These themes recur frequently in Ohe’s practice. Her clay busts of close friends and family (circa 1980 to 1997) reference historical portraiture, as they are commemorative and celebratory expressions of admiration, honour and love. Shortly after beginning the Sculpture Prayers, Ohe stopped [producing the clay busts. Importantly however, both the clay portraits and the Sculpture Prayers trace a history of a community from the perspective of an artist who has been active here since the late fifties. Earlier clay portraits represented artists, Eve Koch and Roy Kiyooka; pianist, Colleen Athparea; and Ohe’s mother-in-law Mary. Sculpture Prayers continue to record Ohe’s personal relationships with artists such as Janet Mitchell, Carroll Taylor-Lindoe and Isla Burns to name a few. The sequentiality of the clay busts and Sculpture Prayers, and the fact that both these bodies of work commemorate Ohe’s intimate friendships, encourage us to believe that these series are closely related and serve as personal counterpoints to her better known, public commissions. Father Prayer (1996), the first in the Sculpture Prayer series, derived directly from Ohe’s 1996 public commission for the University of Calgary’s Swan Mall, Seats of Learning. Research for this public sculpture generated the imagery of the vessel which is the core of each sculpture prayer. The vessel, based on a Buddhist prayer bowl, is shaped to fit Ohe’s palm and subsequently this form determines the scale, weight and balance of each tripartite sculpture. Like the metal bowls, boxes and paper boats used to release offerings on the Ganges during Divali, Ohe’s vessels support an image which conveys the sculpture’s symbolic content; a crow, a crown, or the Indian deity of yoga, Patanjali. The vessel balances on a rounded rim which denotes the horizon or “waterline.” This horizon is the collar of the “cage” below which roots the sculpture through its downward pull of gravity. Ohe imbeds these sculptures into the wall with two steel prongs that continue from the rim, finely balancing all parts to equal a whole. As if with a nod to a Brancusian and later a Minimalist/Post-Minimalist concern with the horizon, Ohe shifts the sculpture from the floor to the wall centering the pictorial focus at the vessel’s core.

Ohe uses modern, industrial materials such as chrome, aluminum and steel, which also firmly connect her to the history of Modernist sculpture. However, any macho aesthetic seems to wane in her hands, as she works tirelessly to illicit unexpected forms, decorative surfaces and layered, allegorical meanings from these materials. The fluid linearity of the Sculpture Prayers suggests the pictorial qualities and spontaneity of a sketch. Quenten’s Song #2 (2001) combines oscillating lines of steel rod to create a form reminiscent of scientific diagrams of sound waves. This long staff of waves, symbolic of Quenten Doolittles rhythmic music, meets at the vessel like mortar and pestle, recalling Tibetan singing bowls and strikes. Mysore Crow (1997) pays homage to her friend Norman with whom she visited Mysore, India. Here, Ohe uses linear form to create a physical and metaphorical relationship between the viewer and the image by drawing the viewer into the voluminous crow’s mouth. Similarly, Ohe exploits steel’s pictorial and metaphorical qualities in Crowchild (1997) where the open skeletal crow’s head and chainmail pouch below contrast the interior and exterior; the skeletal and membrane; vulnerability and protection; and the organic and geometric. Although more subtle than Ohe’s earlier kinetic works, she continues to balance elements on joints and pivots to signal the potential movement embodied in each sculpture.

Her best known kinetic, public sculptures, such as Zipper (1975), related to a Minimalist tradition stressing geometric purity, unity and reductionism. During the 1980s, Ohe’s “regionalist” (1) production reflected larger sculptural trends that encouraged figuration, narrative, metaphor and an investigation of subjectivity. Sculpture Prayers, perhaps more than any other of her series to date, complicates the ideology of Modernist purity and autonomy with an overt feminine subjectivity. Modernist subjectivity is essentializing, universalizing and champions artistic autonomy and genius. Yet Ohe’s Sculpture Prayers celebrates a personal, idiosyncratic, partial, subjectivity which is continually shaped by the contingent territories of memory, experience, perception and the imagination. Unlike the earlier clay portraits, the Sculpture Prayers are personifications: not literal depictions of subjects, but evocative, poetic sketches of things you cannot know.

Sculpture Prayers leaves behind any monolithic unity for a relational arrangement of parts which operate syntactically. When displayed together each sculpture becomes a “subject” or “agent” (in the Lacanian sense) that writes an extended metaphor that is the history of Ohe’s existence. These representations constitute self-representations – embodying the way in which Ohe herself experiences a person, event or a place. They bring Ohe’s voice into material existence as active translations of the world. Unlike the Modernist ontological self, Ohe’s Sculpture Prayers represent a self who dynamically shapes and is shaped by her everyday, existential relationships to the world around her in a celebration of life.

Diana Sherlock


(1) Mary-Beth Laviolette, “Katie Ohe,” Artichoke, 2:2 (June 1991), 42.

/Calgary independent curator, DIANA SHERLOCK, has worked as an artist, administrator and curator at; the New Gallery, the Walter Phillips Gallery and the Media and Visual Arts Department at the Banff Centre for the Arts, and Stride Gallery. Since deciding to work as an independent curator in 1999, Sherlock has produced large group exhibitions such as Trace (Calgary’s Artwalk Festival 2000 at IMCA); and the 2002 Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art, co-curated with Edmonton Art Gallery Senior Curator, Catherine Crowston. Currently Sherlock is researching an exhibition about beauty for the Walter Phillips Gallery at the banff Centre for the Arts. She teaches at the Alberta College of Art and Design.