Brigitte Clavette and Anna Torma are among Atlantic Canada’s most acclaimed artists. Their professional achievements have been recognized with some of their province’s and the country’s highest awards: election to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, the Strathbutler Award, the Kjeld and Erica Deichmann Award for Excellence in Craft from the Province of New Brunswick for Clavette, and a Lieutenant Governor’s Award for High Achievement for Torma. Their high standing with their peers is evidenced by, among other things, numerous provincial arts grants and grants from the Canada Council for the Arts. Their works are included in museums and art galleries worldwide, including the Royal Ontario Museum and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum for Clavette, and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and the Museum of Art and Design in New York, for Torma. Both artists are also laureates of the highest award for the fine crafts in the country, the Saidye Bronfman Award, which Torma won in 2020, with Clavette following in 2022.
Clavette / Torma: Resisting Constraints at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery honours that specific achievement, but also celebrates their central role in the fine arts of New Brunswick. Each artist is represented by work from their most recent production, some of it exhibited in their home province for the first time.
Saidye Bronfman Award Laureate, 2022
For over thirty years Brigitte Clavette has mentored students in the art of metalsmithing as a teacher and head of Jewelry/Metal Arts at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design. While she retired from her administrative role in 2017, Clavette continues to teach at the Craft College, imbuing her unique sense of metal’s expressive potential to yet another generation of young artists. An artist for whom narrow definitions such as “fine craft” and “fine art” cannot contain her remarkable practice, Clavette’s work often sits outside of the practical limits of jewellery and metalsmithing. Unwearable and unusable, much of her work can only be defined as sculpture, should one feel the need for definitions at all. Clavette rarely does. Her works, she says, are “functionless,” but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t useful: “The objects I create are for use, whether contemplative or functional. They invite ritualistic moments, such as burning incense, a prayer or sharing a meal.”
This new work combines cast and found natural objects with raised silver bowls (or “skins,” as the artist prefers), displayed in arrangements on white “mats,” each featuring drawings or watercolours that serve as both the base for the objects, and the context within which they cohere as sculptures. “I have distinct creative phases,” Clavette says. “It can be through design, or drawing, and then suddenly it’s an unusual object that I found somewhere. Or I decide to cast metal—so I cast metal. The other side of me that is methodical and meditative wants to make a bowl, fashion it and hammer, hammer, hammer it until I have the shape I want. Or I can make some sort of painting or watercolour that can start to inspire me—and these things go together. And I like creating pieces that you could use as a table centrepiece.” All of the works in Resisting Constraints have just that ritualistic feel, of a cornucopia say, with its ancient echoes of harvest rituals and fertility rites, or of an advent wreath, with its candles signifying the countdown of the weeks towards Christmas.
Clavette’s works suggest both waste and preservation. Food scraps are cast in bronze or silver, fragments of bone and hair, of plants, are also cast, or simply presented as they were found. “With each piece,” curator Denis Longchamps writes, “she invites the viewer to question abundance, the way we get it and its purpose in life, to examine our daily rituals and routines, and to consider our wastefulness.”
Our shared cultural spaces, here in Canada, have been mostly secularized, demystified and stripped of any sense of the holy. Yet many of us still hunger for a sense of the sacred. What else, really, is the pull of art, of nature, and of other ineffable experiences that, for many, have mostly replaced the more traditional religious observances of their ancestors? Even in our overly technological times, ritual retains its power to calm, to soothe, to suggest meaning amidst chaos. And in contemplating Clavette’s complex and beautiful constructions, we can immerse ourselves in objects that Sarah Alford has identified as being “in a perpetual state of becoming.” In so doing, we can slip free of our constraints, and can perhaps become something more ourselves.
Brigitte Clavette was born in Edmundston, New Brunswick and studied at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and UNB. She has taught at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design since 1985. She exhibits regularly, most recently in the internationally touring Colloquy, which featured metalsmiths from Canada and the United Kingdom.
Saidye Bronfman Award Laureate, 2020
Since moving to New Brunswick from Hamilton, Ontario, in 2002, Baie Verte’s Anna Torma has built a reputation as one of the leading textile artists in the country, blurring— some would say erasing— the tired distinctions between fine art and fine craft. Her embroideries are equally based in her medium’s histories and in her own: in her biography, her roots, her family, her dreams, and her imagination. As the peer assessment committee for the Bronfman award noted, her work is, “rich in storytelling and powerful in narrative,” and “intimately embodies uncertain human experiences of kinship, aggression, love, fear, loss, aging and death.” Torma works at a scale that belies the domestic roots of much embroidery, easily inhabiting the white cube of the art gallery. Her work teems with images drawn from folk art, from children’s drawings, from folklore and fantasy. Found and created, her images fascinate in their exuberance and invention. Traditionally, embroidery has been seen as a ‘polite’ art, a domestic chore seemingly aimed at keeping women’s hands from being idle. The samplers on many of our walls are evidence of skill and accomplishment, and often feature the name of some ancestor and their distant dates (1825, 1904, 1977, and so on), a tangible link to our pasts. But as feminist art historians have been claiming for decades— following artists— embroidery and other needlework have aesthetic power and possibility that transcend their proscribed norms, providing “a weapon of resistance to the constraints of femininity,” as Rozsika Parker wrote in The Subversive Stitch. Anna Torma’s work shows no constraint, thankfully. Rightly described by the Bronfman peer assessors as “fearless and emotive,” her work proves that there are no limits to what needle and thread can convey in the hands of an artist of such ability.
Torma’s work starts as drawings, and it is the fluidity and flexibility of that medium that comes across so clearly in her embroidered panels. The four works in Resisting Constraints are part of a new series she calls Black and White. “I figured out a new technique for collaging on silk surface with black silk fabrics and hand embroidery,” she writes. “On a white silk base, I made the drawing first, then cut out loosely the black elements.” In these works she combines the line ‘drawing’ of embroidery stiches with the cut-out shapes of appliqué, building her images in blocks and lines like a collage. The wildly imaginative birds and animals that people these works are joined in some by small figures, representations of sculptures by her husband, Istvan Zsako, a biographical element that roots these works in the day-to-day life of her home and studio in Baie Verte. “The black and white forms are related to my previous series like the Abandoned Details,” she writes, “they speak about imaginary creatures, fragmentation, and nature.”
Torma works incessantly, with no less than three series of works ongoing since 2020 (Black and White is joined by Covid Collab with Istvan Zsako, sculptures made from scraps and leftovers from both of their studios, and Floral, a new series of double-sided works that she describes as carpets, with imagery drawn from her extensive gardens).
Anna Torma was born in Tarnaörs, Hungary, in 1952 and graduated with a degree in Textile Art and Design from the Hungarian University of Applied Arts in 1979. In 1988 she and her husband fled then-communist Hungary for Canada, moving to Hamilton, Ontario. In 2002 they moved to Baie Verte where they continue to maintain studios. Torma’s most recent exhibition was the nationally touring Permanent Danger, organized by the Textile Museum of Canada.