Our relationship to objects from the past has always been a curiosity for me. Why do certain objects capture our imagination? Why are we drawn to them? Once we establish a fascination with the object why are we compelled to collect more of the same and at what point, if ever, does this collection find significance?
Over 50 years ago when the late Jane Webster started a collection of Victorian needlework that bedecked the walls of her summer cottage in Pictou, she likely didn’t have an inkling that some day they would be recognized as one of the largest and compelling treasuries of this particular style of domestic art. A fact that likely would have gone unnoticed if it were not for Katherine Knight, a photographic artist and professor of Visual Arts in Toronto who also summered in Pictou. On viewing the mottos during a visit, Katherine knew she had found something special. She started to photograph the collection but it took her some time to understand her response.
It took a few years, but eventually a project emerged that would add another dimension to the life of the collection as it travelled from the storied walls of a family retreat near the shores of Caribou, Nova Scotia to the halls of the Canadian Textile Museum in downtown Toronto. Her work is documented in the new exhibit, Katherine Knight: Portraits and Collections.
From her office at York University, Katherine shares her story about how the exhibit evolved.
“I first met Jane Webster when she was in her 80s. She invited me to tour and photograph her guest house, the “Caribou Hilton.” At that moment I transcribed the phrases in order of how they were installed on the walls. I was instantly astonished by the wonderful motto needlework that covered the old house walls. After Jane’s death in 2009, I was given permission by her family to re-photograph the mottos more carefully.”
Katherine captured the different aspects of the needlepoint work, carefully taking apart the frames and scanning the finer details of the stitching. This would reveal a story of its own and furnish a hint of the person behind the handiwork.
Katherine’s inventory of 173 mottos is introduced through photography, video and audio recordings. She captures the collection as it appeared in the Webster cottage where the needlepoints were displayed for the amusement of family and friends.
The heart of the installation is a multi-media work Forget Me Not. Here Katherine recorded the voices of four generations of girls and women from Pictou County. Michelle and Nina Davey of Pictou were two of the hundred or more voices recorded that would be edited down to a 12 minute video. They recently watch a link to the video exhibit waiting to hear their own voices and they recited the mottos.
“The quotes were universal,” says Michelle Davey of her experience recording for Katherine. “I read, “The Lord is my Shepard” still used today during hard times,” adds Michelle who has a keen interest in antiquities as Site Manager of the McCulloch Heritage Centre.
“In the end 70 different voices draw attention to the mottos,” says Katherine. “As they recite the mottos through memory and interpretation their voices produce a somewhat disquieting air that reverberates across time.”
There is little information around the providence of the mottos as most of the individual needlepoints are anonymous. “The collection was curated by whim and fancy as Jane Webster, family and friends would meander yard sales and auctions,” says Jane’s daughter Janet Willworth, who makes her home in Halifax but still enjoys her summers in the pastoral setting of the Northumberland Strait.
Portraits and Collections is a companion exhibit to Kind Words Can Never Die: A Personal Collection of Victorian Needlework. Here 70 of the needlepoint objects from the Webster collection appear in their natural state, examining the idiosyncrasies of a handcraft that was all the rage 150 years ago and speaks soundly to the strict Victorian ethics of this moment in time. Girls, as young as six and seven would spend time stitching the popular aphorisms and biblical phrases on needlepoint kits that were most often mail ordered from the States. They were stitched using a satin thread and then hung on the wall in specially designed frames. For most families the displays of the needlework spoke to their own values and the expression of the messages in the parlour a definition of their own status.
“We never fully understand the past,” adds Katherine. “But the phrasing in the mottos gives us a sense on how important the virtues of the family and the home were during this time. Over half of the mottos have a religious reference. It gives us the sense of how religion was an important part of their lives. Mottos reflected the importance of domestic life. The home mattered. The mottos give us a reflection of society at that time and the adherence to strict Victorian ethics.”
Katherine says that she is very grateful to the Webster family for the access to the mottos after Jane’s death. “In some ways my interest in a private collection is out of step with the meaning of the collection to its owners. Without their act of generosity no public record or inventory would exist. Thus there are many intriguing collections that stay private.”
Portraits and Collections and Kind Words Can Never Die exhibitions will run until June 25th at the Canadian Textile Museum.
Katherine Knight studied at NSCAD in the 1970s. It was during this time that she was introduced to the Pictou. In 2002, she purchased the old Simpson farmstead that used to house the summer store for workers of Maritime Packers. Caribou Mottos, Buoys and other on-going projects allow Katherine to celebrate the landscapes and narratives of Caribou Harbour.
Professor Knight joined York University’s Department of Visual Arts in 2000. Her previous academic appointments include a four-year stint as dean of the Faculty of Art at the Ontario College of Art and Design. She also taught at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax and Georgian College in Barrie, Ont. and was a resident artist in the photography program at the Banff Centre for the Arts. In 2000 Katherine Knight was awarded the Duke and Duchess of York Prize for excellence in photography.