Anyone seeking out art that challenges and stimulates will soon get such a chance at the new Elephant Head Gallery in Sydney.
Opening Saturday June 26, its first installation will feature the works of Cape Breton and Newfoundland artists Gwendolyn Aker, Charlotte Morgan, Shawna Warmington, Maria Penney, and Ryan Robson. The exhibition collection will include folklore-inspired illustration, human hair embroidery, handmade book works, large scale paintings, and multi-media installation by artists from both Cape Breton Island and Newfoundland.
The Elephant Head Gallery is located at 697 George Street, accessible via the stairs at the back of the building that houses Wentworth Perk. Aker explained that the gallery name came from her younger sister, who observed that the back of the building resembled an elephant head, with the long, enclosed staircase descending from the top floor like a trunk.
While Aker noted that there are good venues for “sellable” art in the CBRM, she had something different in mind for the Elephant Head. “I have absolutely nothing against commercial art, I’ve lived off it, but I wanted to establish a non-commercial space more oriented to a younger art community,” she explained.
Aker is a recent Fine Arts graduate from Memorial University of Newfoundland who relocated back to Sydney Mines last August. Different aspects of the move manifested themselves in Aker’s current work, and addressed the feelings of being uprooted and isolated. “I think the biggest adjustment was the lack of community around me.” Aker explained that with art school, she had access to a community of friends and fellow artists, and in particular loved having her artist roommates and best friends to serve as a sounding board and constant companionship. “Back at art school, I used to having these guys around me. We could have conversations about art at four in the morning if we wanted. I felt stagnant here.” So she got studio space to draw people to her.
The energetic Aker was excited about the upcoming exhibit, and was pleased with how the participating artists and their work complemented each other. “Our art works together in terms of style, but also in the themes we’re dealing with.” One such theme that Aker highlighted was the idea of “feminine grotesque.” On a visit to the gallery, Aker carefully showed some slip dresses that Penney had embroidered using dainty tendrils and tufts of human hair. “It’s neat because a woman’s hair is supposed to be sensuous, beautiful…yet there is also this ideal that we as women are supposed to be perfect and hairless.” The dainty slips contrasted Ryan Robson’s large scale paintings of skeletons with sensuous posture and in passionate embrace, images that interrogated standards of beauty and femininity.
Aker’s excitement about displaying her fellow artists’ work was infectious, as she moved on to show a few of Charlotte Morgan’s paintings. Her doe-eyed creations were at once cutesy and unnerving. “Even though some of her images are adorable, there’s all this turmoil going on underneath. I love her work so much because we often easily dismiss things that are cute as not having substance.” She then picked up what appeared to be a stack of small, thick, splattered papers, which opened up into an accordion book created by fellow Memorial grad Shawna Wormington. “Shawna is one of the most interesting people, and makes the least amount of sound. Her art expresses so much with so little.” Many of Aker’s fellow artists have undercurrents of Newfoundland folklore running through their art, which she said that, like cuteness, “sometimes we dismiss folk lore and folk art, it’s not taken as seriously.”
Aker then opened one of the doors in the studio to reveal a small room with a scattering of shells, weathered animal skulls, and beach wood painted a ghostly white. The work-in-progress display will be something that addresses memory. The display includes sound recordings of layered audio effects, part of Aker’s intention to have the room be “an experience that fully wraps you in the art.”
The Elephant Head Gallery will be open daily from June 26 to July 3 during the hours of 10am to 6pm. Aker hopes to have more younger artists come and visit the dual purpose gallery and studio space for future exhibitions over the course of the summer, saying, “It’s about drawing people to this space and being able to have a place where we can talk about art and ideas.”