‘Her Story’ exhibits portraits of working mothers

Pina Hare, left, reacts with delight at the unveiling of her portrait by Madonna Aeschlimann (looking on) during the opening of her exhibit ‘Her Story: Portraits of Working Mothers’ on at Debajehmujig now through August 6. photo by Michael Erskine

MANITOWANING – The KB Reynolds Mastin Gallery at the Debajehmujig Creation Centre in Manitowaning was bustling as the official reception for the opening of a unique exhibit got underway. The works, portraits of working mothers created by artist Madonna Aeschlimann adorned the walls of the gallery, curated by Debaj’s Joahnna Berti.

Ms. Aeschlimann is a full-time artist who was born one of 10 children and raised in the rural farming community of Massey. She  is a graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design. The artist has had her works featured in exhibitions from British Columbia to Ontario and identifies as an “art educator, homesteader, wife and mother” in addition to her role as artist.

She also thanked her family, Roland and Phoebe, for “shuffling to make space” in their small straw bale house for her work on this project as her studio is not accessible year-round and so her easels and paints had to come into the family home. It took roughly a month and a half to complete each of the portraits.

She noted that the inspiration for this series of portraits stems from her “acute awareness of wanting to be seen by her parents from the perspective of ‘to see is to know, to know is to love’.” That innate awareness has gifted Ms. Aeschlimann with an empathetic ability to “look at faces and see the story below the surface that she wants to acknowledge and free.”

“Debajehmujig Storytellers is delighted to host this exhibition that celebrates the beauty of 12 working mothers on Manitoulin Island,” said Ms. Berti during the opening ceremonies. “The phenomenon of the working mother affects women in large and small communities. Our modern lifestyles encourage and perpetuate a pace that seems humanly impossible to maintain. We are living through a great transition in our social structures and networks as the lines between men and women’s roles evolve and change.”

Ms. Berti noted that most of the women who were approached had expressed their honour at being invited into the group and all were deeply interested in and supportive of the artist’s intent. “The women were courageous, honest and compassionate about their busy lives.”

Ms. Aeschlimann’s work, her use of colours, her choice of backgrounds and other elements leap out at the observer from the canvas with the full force of her subjects’ remarkable personalities. An Islander walking down the hallway past the portraits will be struck by how many of those subjects they recognize.

“I don’t struggle with ‘in the moment,’ opening up myself to people, allowing them to see me in my world, but I feel very vulnerable when that moment is captured in a picture for me to see,” said Ramona, one of the working mothers whose portrait shows her at her keyboard, brow furrowed in concentration on the piece she is playing. “Sitting for this project really caused me to search that out. This for me is who I am, what I love to do, where I am truly free.”

“I think that being a mom and being a working mom is a fulfilling life,” said another subject, Pina. “I feel like time is going by so fast and my children are growing in amazing ways. Having my portrait painted during this time will help me remember who I was at this point.”

She described how she feels in having her portrait painted as “a once in a lifetime experience. I think it is fascinating to see how others view you as a person. To see that reflected through their art is a privilege.”

“We the audience are treated to the rare and special gifts of a visual artist, exploring the changing roles of women in our time,” said Ms. Berti.

Ms. Aeschlimann was also effusive in her acknowledgements during her address to the opening crowd, particularly focussing on the contributions of Ms. Berti, Debaj Artist in Residence Barry Beaver, Samantha Brennan and the entire Debaj crew for their ongoing support, but also stressing her immense gratitude to the subjects of her works and their families for allowing her to capture their essence on canvas.

Ms. Aeschlimann has included a self portrait in the exhibit, since she is also a working mom. 

“I saw so many aspects of myself in so many of the women and this awakened a passion for my creativity in a new way,” she said. She expressed surprise at the repeated theme of red colours in so many of the works, and how large a role that colour played in her own portrait.

“It is a deeply passionate colour and I am reclaiming it,” she said.

‘Her Story: portraits of working mothers’ will be on display at the Debajehmujig Storytellers Creation Centre at 43 Queen Street Manitowaning throughout the summer until August 6. Gallery hours are from 10 am to 5 pm Monday to Friday.