Sarah Maloney has created an intense and intimate garden, full of beauty and meaning, in a 30-year retrospective of her work, currently on a six-venue Canadian tour.

Sarah Maloney’s Pleasure Ground: A Feminist Take on the Natural World, organized by Art Windsor-Essex. Co-curated by Jennifer Matotek, executive director of Art Windsor-Essex, and Laura Ritchie, former MSVU Art Gallery director, the exhibition began its run with a showing at MSVU Art Gallery, in Halifax, from March 9 until June 1, 2024.

Sarah Maloney Collect – Arrange, 2021; Botanical Studies II, 2005-2007. Photo by Keely Hopkins. (Courtesy of MSVU Art Gallery)

The high-ceilinged, modernist MSVU gallery became an intimate space of interior and exterior worlds with hand-made mirrored dressers and grand portraits of embroidered flowers in blue and white Chinese vases, along with handknit bones and organs.

Sarah Maloney, Vertebrae, Sacrum, Coccyx, (detail), 1999. Photo by Keely Hopkins. (Courtesy of MSVU Art Gallery)

Maloney is both sensual and serious as she examines the female body, gender, the history of flowers and women, economic and colonial history, and cultivated landscapes—all with a joyful, provocative openness about sexuality.

Maloney jokes that her decorative textile art in Pleasure Ground would have been considered “sculpture for girls” when she was studying metal and stone sculpture at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in the late 1980s.

Her art changed radically when she became a graduate student at the University of Windsor. She rebelled against the concept at NSCAD that sculpture needed to be minimal and built of traditional materials; and she became pregnant, “which changed everything,” she says.

“I wasn’t ready for my thesis show and I had all this work to do after Mollie was born.”

Unable to pour bronze, she inserted her childhood crafts of knitting, sewing and embroidery into the traditionally male dominated world of sculpture.

The exhibition’s earliest piece is her 1993 bronze and beeswax sculpture, ‘Milk and Honey.’ A bowl or womb or, as she says, a spiked mine, the work refers to the experience of pregnancy.

Sarah Maloney, Skin, glass beads, nylon thread, acrylic armature, 2003-2012. Behind it is Milk and Honey, beeswax and bronze, 1993. Photo by Keely Hopkins. (Courtesy of MSVU Art Gallery)

She left bronze in favour of textiles to talk about the female body, creating three enormous silk panels embroidered with female anatomy. Maloney also knit sculptures of bones and organs, including a startling pink squishy brain, materially like a winter toque, and white kid gloves, printed with the bones of hands which conjure up stifled women of Edwardian and Victorian eras.

Maloney’s hanging skin of a complete female body suit is an amazing feat of work. Made from thousands of tiny, pinkish and tan beads, it is a durational work that took her from 2003 to 2012 and is her latest piece depicting the female body.

By the early 2000s Maloney was exploring flowers, textiles and furnishings through a feminist and historical lens. The ornately upholstered pillar studded with bronze milk ducts, ‘Botanical Study: Milk Ducts,’ 2005,  is surprising and amusing. In it, interior female anatomy–historically feared, maligned, and neglected–is exterior, and as in-your-face as a fancy piece of furniture in a buttoned-down drawing room.

A Victoria-era fainting couch is studded in bronze tulips as the artist uses the Dutch tulip crisis of 1637 to talk about the 2008 economic collapse. Maloney perceives her flowers and furnishings as figurative and she thinks of stifled 19th century women, themselves, as part of a grand home’s collection of furniture, art and china.

Sarah Maloney Tulip Series & Collapse, embroidered cotton on fabric & antique fainting couch, bronze, fabric, 2009. Photo by Keely Hopkins. (Courtesy of MSVU Art Gallery)

In reading Charlotte Gray’s biography of sisters Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill, as well as by their own written works, Maloney was inspired to create the 2021 Collect-Arrange series.

“They were well-educated, articulate women who came to Upper Canada and longed for their English garden and fell in love with the local flora and fauna,” says Maloney. They, like many, did not understand “what colonization was doing to people, place and resources.”

A marvel of stitchery, sensuality and beauty, the exquisitely embroidered flowers, in Chinese blue and white vases on plush velvet, burble below the surface in a melange of colonialism and feminism.

The gold framed works feature British Museum vases holding flowers informed by botanical illustrations from historical British collections. In relief on the gold frames are small plant forms, local native species, derived from images by 19th century Nova Scotia botanical artist Maria Morris Miller, from the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia’s collection.

Sarah Maloney Collect - Arrange, embroidered cotton on cotton velvet, plaster with imitation gold leaf, walnut, birch plywood, 2021. Photo by Keely Hopkins. (Courtesy of MSVU Art Gallery)

During the isolation of  COVID-19 Maloney, herself, became intrigued by the plants and flowers around her, as she did the same walk everyday in Nine Mile River.

Her masterful and playful hall-of-mirrors suite of women’s dressing tables, exploring voyeurism and the construction of femininity, were inspired by seeing ladyslippers during an artist’s residency at Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland. She was allowed to pick a few plants to study in order to make exquisite bronze sculptures which position the flowers as small, female figures looking at themselves in a mirror on top of hand-built dressers in the 2010 Reflection series.

Wanting to “push beyond” a traditional plinth, she discovered the genus name for ladyslippers includes the Greek word cypris, referring to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. She thought of Aphrodite or Venus–both frequent nude figures in Western art–at her vanity.

58) Sarah Maloney Reflection: Showy Ladyslipper, maple, bronze and mirror, 2010. Photo by Keely Hopkins. (Courtesy of MSVU Art Gallery)

Flowers continue to be figurative and sexual in a luxurious series featuring portraits of pairs of tulips embroidered on sumptuous swaths of found paisley fabric. Maloney does not perceive these duos as male and female. “They’re lovers in general. They’re dancing, they’re courting, there’s an equal relationship there.”

Two bronze sculptures, ‘Water Level’ 2012-2016, of water lilies, and ‘Pleasure Grounds,’ of a multitude of pitcher plants lying on the floor open to collect water and insects, draw attention to Maloney’s interest in landscapes as cultivated and constructed.

Sarah Maloney Water Level (detail), bronze and steel, 2012-16. Photo by Keely Hopkins. (Courtesy of MSVU Art Gallery)

“I think of these as landscape sculpture. In Canada we have the Group of Seven beaten over our heads in school and reproductions hanging in the hallways. I was thinking of different ways to talk about landscape.”

In ‘Water Level,’ the bronze lilies are as tall as some people and positioned like table tops, as if a viewer could put a drink on a lily pad and wander around greeting friends. The viewer becomes immersed in, entangled in, a natural world.

Maloney is also interested in the history of water lilies as ancient plants often featured in creation myths. “We are microdots in their history.”


Sarah Maloney Reflection: Pink Ladyslipper, aspen, bronze and mirror,2010. Photo by Keely Hopkins. (Courtesy of MSVU Art Gallery)

The reproductive organs of plants, the artist embraces the sexuality of flowers. Both pitcher plants and lady’s slippers are suggestive of genitalia, a reminder that “you don’t have babies if you don’t have sex–it’s the circle of life.”

This exhibition is the first major survey for Maloney, a widely-exhibited artist and member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Artists.

Sarah Maloney Tulip 2, embroidered cotton on fabric, 2009. Photo by Keely Hopkins. (Courtesy of MSVU Art Gallery)

In conjunction with Pleasure Ground: A Feminist Take on the Natural World, a 160-page book, being released by Goose Lane Editions with involvement from the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, is scheduled for release in June 2024. The publication features essays by Laura Ritchie, as well as textile scholar and curator, Sarah Quinton, and Art Gallery of Nova Scotia CEO, Sarah Moore Fillmore.

The exhibition tour will continue on to the Beaverbrook Gallery, July through early December 2025; the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, Charlottetown, P.E.I., late 2025 to early 2026; the Dunlop Art Gallery, Regina, AB, in 2026, and at the Moose Jaw Museum and Art Gallery, 2026 to 2027.