In anticipation of the loneliness of uprooting her life in Alberta to settle in Nova Scotia, Jessie Fraser was gifted Bluenose Ghosts by folklore author Helen Creighton and The Key to Weaving by Mary E. Black. Through these women and their words Fraser has found literal and figurative threads with which she weaves her makeshift heritage. In this exhibition, Fraser manoeuvres a probing exploration of archetypical themes without being mired in vague atmospheric gestures. Her thoughtful use of material (the traditionally feminine realm of textile production) is well coupled with decidedly immaterial subject matter: our mutable connection to the ongoing experience and creation of history and memory.
I can only describe it as a knowing (2020), a black weaving extending the length of the front wall, has been partially “unravelled” to reveal Fraser’s chosen quotations. While the textile work itself is woven, the content of the borrowed text forms an ambient patchwork of meaning. Rather than an interrogation, Fraser invites relations between source material and physical materials. The “unravelled” effect has been achieved through a process called Devoré, or “burnout”, where acidic chemicals are applied to woven mixed-fibre fabric, removing natural fibres and leaving synthetic fibres in place. It is a subtractive process, and Fraser has identified her use of Devoré printing and cyanotypes as part of the same creative impulse: a material interest in what isn’t there.
Viewing Young Lover’s Knot (2021) head-on, the clever placement of light sets my shadow-self between the two hanging ends of a long black weaving. The placement of the woven fabric, draped over bamboo rods, invites associations with a tent doorway, or a temporary sanctuary. While Young Lover’s Knot is the name of a weaving pattern found in Black’s The Key to Weaving, an immediate reading of the title suggests a kind of timeless naughtiness.
Displayed on the wall above is the Linen Cyanotype Series (2019), yellowing cyanotypes of handkerchief-like cloths suggesting ghosts caught on film, floating weightlessly. The prints are hung gallery-style, positioned to allow for movement and gaps, and again reinforcing the ad-hoc domestic narrative of the space. What if this was your home? (What if you were haunting it?)
Essence (2021) is conjured up as the ectoplasmic memory of weaving past. Woven crepe silk fabric, suspended from above, rises like smoke from a quilted bed pulled taut over its oak base, where the sheen of satin is contrasted with matte wool to create a shimmering pattern. The silk, a threadbare vapour, seems to almost disintegrate. As our breathing and careful steps circulate the air, Essence’s form is repeated by its shadow, dancing with itself. Ephemeral interaction (in air, shadow, and history) engages the ghosts inherent in these works- it doesn’t matter whose ghost.
Fraser’s more recent work, Laden (2022), is composed of loosely woven thread net, hanging limply over bamboo rods. It evokes fishing nets, and the weight of bags lugged home from market; the weight of a life carrying the responsibility of distinctly gendered labours, domestic and otherwise, falling away and slipping through the cracks. In the reformatting of some collective memory of gendered spaces and prescribed activities, the artist has pieced together a scattered history of her own making, a process which alludes to the ephemeral nature of historic memory, and thus interrogates what it means to “preserve”.
When I left the gallery the attendant offered some samples of fabric left by Fraser expressly to fulfil the desire for tactile engagement that we so often feel when looking at art, hands neatly clasped behind our backs for fear of our impulses getting the best of us. To me, this anticipation of need embodies what Fraser’s work knows to be true: we crave an affective connection with the imperfect past beyond untouched conceptual knowing.
Jessie Fraser’s exhibition I hope you are both well is on display until March 12th 2023 at the Nova Scotia Centre for Craft.