Visual Arts Centre of Clarington Helps Us Know Our Place, Ourselves

Will McGuirk

"The curators at the VAC have an uncanny ability to present shows by artists the public is unfamiliar with yet can relate to on a very personal level..."

With a presence in both the Clarington Town Hall in Downtown Bowmanville and at the old Mill by Soper Creek, the folks at the Visual Arts Centre of Clarington have their hands full planning for 2021.

While as of yet no exhibitions will open in the town’s political gathering centre, Hiba Abdallah‘s “100 years then and hereafter” will open in January at the VAC, and “The Hissing Folly” exhibition, which opened in February 2020, is being extended through February 2021. “The Hissing Folly” by Cole Swanson is about invasions and gatherings. The exhibit, located in The Loft Gallery, consists of a structure created from gathering invasive grass species, phragmites, and common reeds one sees silently spreading across North America. While an unwelcome visitor to these shores, the reeds have proven useful over time as a roofing material, and perhaps the lesson in all of this is how we have to learn to find some harmony with some species which seem to take up more than their fair share of room. The reeds may be having the same conversation about humanity.

'The Hissing Folly,' by Cole Swanson (image by Toni Hafkenscheid)
‘The Hissing Folly,’ by Cole Swanson (image by Toni Hafkenscheid)

Fortunately, as space has been minimized for human gatherings, we have created new, virtualized spaces to gather in. Many art galleries, like so many other organizations, have pivoted online. When the Gallery was affected by the COVID-19 guidelines last March, virtual programming became a priority for community engagement.

Events including one-on-one curator/artist studio visits, a film screening and artist talk with Lawrence Lek, and an online screening and discussion of Middle Eastern video artists’ works. Online exhibition resources such as Cole Swanson’s film of “The Hissing Folly” were also made available.

The Visual Arts Centre of Clarington Education team developed programming, including the VAC Resource page, to provide free art projects. Camps, too, went online with the “Creations from the Couch” option.

For 2021, the Gallery has had time to sit and think about the best ways for events and openings. Whatever new conditions the pandemic may give rise to, newly conceived and developed activities will ensure the safety as well as the artistic experience for each online and in-person visitor.

Experiencing the art of Hiba Abdallah had initially been slated for this past August, but one will have to wait now until February. Abdallah’s “100 years then and hereafter” is about community memory, the stories which become histories. A century ago, the globe was battling the Spanish Flu. In homes, in small towns, in the everyday lives of everyday people, what was happening on a personal level is her question. For the answer, Abdallah chose to look at the then Bowmanville and its hereafter. The work is based on her findings in the town’s archives and municipal documents, findings which everyday people of the now and then will no doubt find familiar.

The curators at the Visual Arts Centre of Clarington have an uncanny ability to present shows by artists the public is unfamiliar with yet can relate to on a very personal level. It’s easier for big galleries to get known names, but the VAC chooses to work with these lesser-known names. In some ways, these artists, because they are closer to the community, can speak to the community’s here and now and what is happening in the here and now. How appropriate that the Centre is co-located in Town Hall and its main location on Simpson Ave. It may be 2020 hindsight, but both Swanson and Abdallah seem to have had some insight into where we are now, even though these works, of course, were created quite some time back.

Arts and culture makers can provide a unique perspective on this pandemic. Artists have for a long time been able to identify and respond to current social and political conditions. No doubt the novel COVID-19 virus will provide similar responses from across the artistic community.

Today it looks as though our world may remain small for quite some time. Perhaps as we look for ways out of this pandemic, we should include our local artists in our resource kits. The art they make about what they see, hear and experience living here in our downtowns and small towns tells us so much about not just the now we are experiencing but also maybe our future, our hereafter. Let’s make a new year’s resolution to visit them more often, albeit virtually for the time being.

NOTE: At the time of publishing, Durham Region is in a province-wide shutdown with extensive measures in place to stop the spread of COVID-19. Residents are encouraged to stay at home with exception to essential trips, wash hands frequently, wear a mask and physically distance from others.

We continue to publish these stories to encourage you to explore these businesses and communities online and through social media. When possible, please order for safe curbside pick-up if offered, and prepare to explore these areas once they are able to safely reopen.