With the start of the new school year comes the opening of a new season at the Foreman Art Gallery in Lennoxville, led off by the exhibit 100 miles around us. The exhibit is being presented by the Montreal-based artist collective Mere Phantoms, but came about as a result of six weeks of collaboration with secondary five students at Alexander Galt Regional High School last spring.
“We basically built most of the exhibition with the students, and then we went back to our studio to look at the work created by the students and try to create a cohesive exhibition from that,” explained artist Maya Ersan, describing it as a back-and-forth process. “We went in asking them to look at their immediate surroundings and to talk about where they go to rest, where they got o get away from their parents, to get inspired, locally, and to translate that into shadow. Some things that came out were very local, and some things came out that were not very local at all.”
Ersan and her artistic partner, Jaimie Robson, were in Lennoxville earlier this week to help set the exhibit up at the gallery in advance of Wednesday night’s opening. Asked about the idea behind their work, Robson explained that Mere Phantoms has developed a very particular style, over the years, that relies on three-dimensional paper cut-outs, light, and viewer engagement.
“It draws on various traditions of early cinema and early animation; shadow puppetry is certainly a big influence in the work,” the artist shared. “These are all mediums that we have dabbled in or been curious about in our early days.”
“The medium has no value in and of itself, it’s just paper and these kinds of negative spaces you’re creating in the paper,” Ersan added, pointing out the tiny illuminated scenes that now fill the gallery. “The paper looks interesting on these illuminated plinths, but the work really comes alive when you create the shadow projection with the paper. It’s a landscape on these plinths, but once it’s projected onto the walls, we really want it to feel like you’re in this vast area of rolling hills and farmland and animals and cities.”
Ersan said that the work relies on situating the audience as giants overlooking a miniature landscape, only to be overshadowed when the lights turns on.
The Mere Phantoms said that the experience of working with the high school students came from the gallery after they had agreed to come and hold an exhibition. While their work tends to rely on interactions from its viewers, the two artists said that they had never before engaged in collaboration on this kind of level.
“We broke down the process that we use in creating exhibitions,” Ersan said, when asked how they approached the task of working with students three days a week over the course of six weeks. “We start from a curiousity, an idea, and then we move into sketching and planning. Then we go into maquette making, and then we go into creating these sort-of more elaborate paper structures that are kind of engineered.”
“It was wonderful,” recalled Galt Art teacher Sigal Hirshfeld, “Students could come in and visit with the artists at lunchtime as well. It was a great opportunity for students to see what it’s like being a professional artist.”
“They started asking, how do you even make a living from this?” Ersan laughed. “I think it’s interesting for (students) to be exposed to a career option that might not be so obvious. There’s very practical jobs that students think of at that age, but this is also something you can do.”
Hirshfeld explained that the partnership came about because of an effort that the Bishop’s gallery has been making to try to reach out to the community more. That, coupled with the “Une école accueille un artiste” artist residency program offered through the Ministry of Education, Leisure and Sport (MELS) allowed the art students the opportunity to engage with visual art in a way that no other Galt student ever has in the past.
“The whole process was very rewarding,” Hirshfeld said. “Some were reluctant at first but they opened up over time.”
“We gradually got to know the students,” Robson said. “They’re teenagers, so they’re not at the easiest place in life, and when we first arrived it wasn’t the easiest to get them to engage with us. Over time some of them really opened up and took to the project.”
“I was really surprised by the turnaround in some students,” Ersan said. “A few students who completely ignored anything and everything we said the first couple of weeks turned out to be the most engaged at the end.”
Asked about the challenges involved in the process, both of the artists made passing reference to the fact that six weeks is much longer than the average high school art project would last, but ultimately said that what really shocked them was the obstacle that student cell-phone use posed. In many cases, the artists explained, there was very little engagement with the project on the part of the students until they could be coaxed to leave their phones alone.
At the end of their time at the school, the Mere Phantoms and the classes they were working with used part of the school’s library to create a miniature version of what is now be on display at the Foreman Gallery.
“We realized that a lot of them had never been to an art gallery before, so the idea was very abstract to them,” Robson said, noting that many classes made special trips to come see the work.
100 miles around us, inspired by the everyday lives and landscapes of local young people, will be on display in the Foreman Art Gallery until December.