Fairy Tails, an exhibition that shows multiple and new levels of familiar stories, is bound to please a wide audience. The exhibition, curated by Mount Allison University fine arts professor Anne Koval, features nine artists—Amalie Atkins, Aganetha Dyck, Meryl McMaster, Sylvia Ptak, Vicky Sabourin, Diana Thorneycroft, Anna Torma, Laura Vickerson, and Janice Wright Cheney—who use a wide variety of media, including photography, film, appliqué, and found objects, to tell their stories. The works are beautiful and strangely soothing, although some also possess disturbing undercurrents that echo those in many classic fairy tales.

The title of the exhibition, Fairy Tails, is not a typo. Koval told me that it refers to the ambiguity between humans and animals, and even to animalism. One example is the talking Big Bad Wolf, with his tail sticking out of Grandmother’s nightgown. Fairy tales are all about role reversals.    

Vicky SabourinCuriosities (Chest) (2016)
Mixed media and found book (Walter Crane, Beatrice Crane, Her Book (The 2nd), 1879, 1983)
Installation shot, Fairy Tails, Owens Art Gallery
Photo: Roger Smith

The Brothers Grimm version of Little Red Riding Hood is an example. Although there exist many sanitized versions of the story, the Grimm version is grim: things do not go well for Red Riding Hood or her grandmother, both of whom end up being eaten by the wolf. It was intended as a cautionary tale for children to stay on the straight and narrow, and has also been seen as a metaphor for rape and the violation of women. Sylvia Ptak’s Little Red Riding Hood: A Retelling is a series of three found books that she has transformed into magical objects, shown open in glass cases. Ptak uses all sorts of materials to change the books into what, at first, looks familiar but turns out to be anything but. They are small sculptural collages that resemble old fairy-tale books or, perhaps, medieval books of the hours that have been unearthed and put on display. Visitors need to spend time with all three works. In one, there is what appears to be a written text, but it turns out to be meticulous stitching of brightly coloured threads forming an exotic, glyph-like imaginary language.

Koval has put together an exhibition that allows these nine artists to stimulate our imaginations and perhaps lets some of us revisit our childhoods. 

Another small work in the exhibition that caught my attention is Aganetha Dyck’s Cinderella’s Other Shoe, which is, indeed, a shoe, but it has been partly modified by beeswax deposited on it by honeybees who attempted to make it their home. Although the shoe is a found object, the handiwork of the bees is the artist’s invention. She placed the shoe in a hive and let the bees do their thing. The result is remarkable. It is a comment on ecology and the possible extinction of honeybees, but it is a very beautiful object in its own right. Both Dyck and Ptak prove that good things can come in small packages.

Aganetha Dyck, Cinderella’s Other Shoe (c. 1995-1998)
found shoe and beeswax; work completed by honeybees
Installation shot, Fairy Tails, Owens Art Gallery
Photo: Roger Smith

On a grander scale are two works on cloth by textile artist Anna Torma, who just won the 2020 Governor Genewal’s Award—Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in Fine Crafts. These wall hangings show Torma at her best. She is a master of hand embroidery, and her works are the equal of any painting. Permanent Danger 3 is appliqué on a found vintage quilt, and Permanent Danger 2 is embroidery and appliqué on linen. Medium aside, the quality of craftsmanship is self-apparent, but it is the content that separates her from other textile artists. In this series, she creates a fantastic world that would be right at home with Hieronymus Bosch. When I first encountered Torma’s work, some years ago, I was reminded of the Bayeux Tapestry, a work I had the chance to see a couple of times, because of both the style and the quality of her embroidery. The hangings are displayed at the Owens so that one of them is away from the wall, giving viewers the opportunity to see its backside and discover how it was made. I found the backside nearly as visually interesting as the front. You have to admire the intensity that she puts into her art—or, dare I say, craft.

The exhibition nicely ties together the nine artists’ takes on the theme of tales or, as the curator puts it, tails. A further example is Janice Wright Cheney’s The Lucivee in Captivity. Her diorama-like installation, featuring a faux stuffed Eastern Cougar of her invention, is worth an entire article. Vicky Sabourin’s Curiosities is, as the title implies, a cabinet of curiosities, but, unlike at most exhibitions, viewers are actively encouraged to open the drawers and examine their contents. I am certain that children will love discovering the secret contents of the drawers; I know I did.

Sylvia Ptak, Little Red Riding Hood: A Retelling (Book 2) (2019)
Cotton gauze, acrylic paint, found book
Installation shot, Fairy Tails, Owens Art Gallery
Photo: Roger Smith

As I stated above, this exhibition has something for everybody. I would love to be in the gallery in the company of a school tour of young children. They would enjoy Amalie Atkin’s twenty-five-minute film Requiem for Wind and Water, which, despite the title, is an engaging fairy tale. It is wonderful when art can operate at different levels. Many books have been written in an attempt to psychoanalyze fairy tales, and I am sure that there is wisdom in some of them, but I just remember them from childhood as stories of make-believe worlds. Of course, like many children, I enjoyed being scared out of my wits by tales of being eaten by a wolf and baked in an oven by
a witch. The world of our imagination can be a wonderful thing. Koval has put together an exhibition that allows these nine artists to stimulate our imaginations and perhaps lets some of us revisit our childhoods.

Curator: Anne Koval
Owens Art Gallery, Sackville, New Brunswick
January 10–April 1, 2020