“Bridging Visions” of Law and Art for Women, the Family and the State

An exhibition of visual, sculptural, sonic and performance art by artists: Audrey Churgin, Dawn Dale, Ngoc Tuyen Dang, Kathy Gillis, Gayle Kells, Douglas Samuel, Cindy Stelmackowich and cj fleury who collaborated with members of the law community: Elizabeth Sheehy, Elizabeth Pickett, Kimberley Lewis, Joanne St.Lewis, Rosemary Cairns Way, Llana Nackonechny, Bonnie Diamond, Kay Marshall, Ghislaine Sirois and saxphonist Melissa Pipe.

The programming of a contemporary art exhibit linking feminist visions of law and art within the context of NAWL’s conference was seen by many as a daring and innovative move by Ottawa’s Public Art Programme. The first group show in the city’s new public gallery was also an exciting risk for the NAWL Conference planning committees and the eight participating artists, including myself. The pieces in the exhibit corresponded with eight legal quotes. Bringing the law community’s text based vision to the gallery walls, these quotes also functioned as connectors, or points of entry, to the symbolic production of the artists. The launch of Template #2: Bridging Visions, after the conference’s opening remarks, was special and new for everyone present. Bridging Visions is a component of an ongoing Templates for Activism project sponsored by the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW).

On the opening night of the conference, as well as during the seven-week run of the show, the wider arts community and general public gained an introduction to the ‘concept’ of law from a feminist perspective. Good press coverage, the gallery’s ideal downtown City Hall location, and its long hours contributed to remarkably high viewer traffic. The gallery’s comment book swelled with strong feedback about this interdisciplinary venture. Many wrote how the exhibition felt so “right” to them, emphasizing the intensity of the subject matter, or the meeting of difficult issues through art, as good, highly thought provoking experiences.

Conference attendees responded positively to the show and the participation of the artists in conference sessions. These were seen as significant and valuable additions to the NAWL event, bringing diverse people from different backgrounds to the discussion of law and social activism. Several comments suggested that the art provided a sense of seeing and feeling about law that was different from the usual intellectualized viewpoint. There was keen interest in knowing more about how ideas related to women and the law could be expressed through art’s language.

Although they expressed a desire for more time to have realized the project, participating artists found the research, preparation, exhibition and conference phases highly enriching. The growing awareness of the feminist legal community and its work stretched the artists’ perceptions about the law and its relation to public and private spheres of their own lives and their individual artistic practices. Artists’ responses to conference presentations ranged from compassion or distress over the immensity and complexity of the struggles to strong feelings of stimulation and encouragement to bring this experience into their future art and educational work. Other artists from Ontario, Quebec, BC and the UK have begun to communicate their ideas and interest in the ongoing Templates for Activism project.

Using contemporary art and developing co-creative models with activists and legal practitioners to express feminist visions of law has been an incredibly interesting journey with brilliant thinkers, whose work I truly respect and endeavour to support. Thanks to NAWL for this opportunity to extend the dialogue through your conference. Stay tuned for the Templates Web site.

Support from CRIAW, Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council for the Arts, and the City of Ottawa is gratefully acknowledged.

cj creates through drawing, shields, performance, public sculpture commissions and community projects. Her artwork is in many collections including the Canada Council Art Bank.