Joyce Wieland: Writings and Drawings 1952-1971

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Porcupine' Quill, 2010 - Art - 219 pages

Joyce Wieland (1930-1998) is legendary for her contribution to the development of contemporary visual arts in Canada. A self-described `cultural activist' she is best known for celebrating Canadian national identity and bringing forward feminist issues within the predominantly male art culture of the time. Initially a painter and filmmaker, she also embraced traditional women's media such as quilts and sewn collages. In her mind, the landscape and ecology of Canada was female. Issues of gender and nationality were interchangeable. Concern with the protection of Canadian confederation and gender issues would repeatedly surface in her quilts, films and assemblages.

Wieland was left in the care of an older sister after the death of both of her parents. She took solace in drawing and creating comic strips. During her high-school years, she was encouraged to enroll in the visual art program. Later, work as a graphic designer and at an animation house provided her with techniques that would be used in future art production. In 1956, Wieland married the artist Michael Snow. Two years later, she had her first solo show and, by 1961, she was represented by Toronto's leading art dealer, Avrom Isaacs, of the Isaacs Gallery.

Wieland then immersed herself in the New York art scene, relocating there with Snow in 1962. She turned to the underground filmmaking community. Most of her own films were made during her stay in the city and shown at local festivals.

Many of Wieland's ideas, including nationalism and feminism were formulated in New York during this time away from Canada. Cooling Room II (1964) shows the influence of American pop culture and filmmaking on her work. Alongside a toy airplane and an image of a sinking ship, a heart cut out of red material hangs to dry on a clothesline. A series of coffee cups with lipstick stains mark the passage of time. The predominance of red and white suggest an equation between heartbreak, disaster and the colours of the Canadian flag. Confedspread (1967), playfully composed of numerous sewn squares of colorful plastic and synthetic fillers, is Wieland's first attempt at using the quilt format as a vehicle of expression.

More quilts would follow: Reason Over Passion (1968) echoed the words of Pierre Trudeau. Her retrospective at the National Gallery in 1971 was its first ever for a living woman artist. In it, she introduced ideas of artistic collaboration to the public by contracting groups of sewers to help create the quilts.

Joyce Wieland's prolific career lasted over thirty years and established her as an icon of Canadian art history. She is credited with introducing ideas and breaking conventions that contributed significantly to the development of contemporary art in Canada.

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About the author (2010)

Joyce Wieland (1930-1998) was an artist who, during her career of nearly forty years, broke down many barriers women faced in a male-dominated art world. As part of her strong survival instinct, she developed a sharp wit and acute ability to find the dramatic aspects of life with their humorous incongruities. She translated what she saw into visual images and words, revealing her own unique way of seeing.

Wieland worked in whatever medium and genre she required to articulate what she wanted to say: drawing, painting, collage, multimedia constructions, fabric works, experimental films, cartoons, words. Her cartoons and writing -- playing with language -- are not so well known but must be included in a list of her media. Throughout her life she wrote sporadically; she was most consistent at keeping a journal during blocks of time in her youth. She jotted down her thoughts about art, wrote profiles of people she knew, and tried stream-of-consciousness poems.

Wieland came into adulthood during an era of our history that was extremely repressive, especially for women. All of her work is grounded in her experience as a woman and her personal vision as a Canadian. That the subject of some of her earliest work was explicitly sexual is somewhat astounding, given that she began working as an artist in the 1950s when generally only male artists were `privileged' to draw and paint nudes. Regardless of the medium she chose to express herself, from the beginning, her origins fed her process of making art.

Wieland grew up in a rough-and-tumble atmosphere. Her father was part of a long line of British pantomime performers who played in the music halls and theatres of London -- including Theatre Royal, Drury Lane -- as early as 1839. George Wieland, Joyce's great grandfather was a famous nimble clown, unequaled in his time. Two of her great aunts, Clara and Zaeo, who gave Joyce a sense of family pride, were well-known dancers who also performed circus acts.

In her mother's family, the Coopers, Joyce also found a role model, her grandmother. Mary Jane Cooper Watson was an independent woman who opened a sweet shop after her husband, Charles Watson, deserted the family. Their home was in the small hamlet of Cotton Mill north of Nottingham, England where lace making was the dominant industry. Joyce claimed her grandmother as her personal inheritance for that independent spirit, just as she claimed her paternal great aunts for their daring.

Joyce's mother, Rosetta Amelia, was a feisty girl nicknamed Billy when she was young, probably because she developed a reputation as a tomboy. When she was a teenager, she left home and went off to London where she met Sidney Wieland and fell in love with him. The two began living together even though Sidney had another wife and two children.

In 1925, Sidney Wieland, Joyce's father, left England for New York. The next year he sent for Joyce's mother, who left behind in England their two children, six-year-old Sidney and five-year-old Joan, in the care of acquaintances. By the next year, Sidney and Billy were living in Toronto. When they received a letter from friends saying the children were being mistreated, they sent the money for their fare, and their friends sent them to Canada by ship.

The birth of Joyce in 1930 in Toronto was the family `accident' at the beginning of one of the worst decades in the city's history. They lived in a tiny house on Claremont Street in a working-class Toronto neighbourhood of immigrants near Bathurst and Queen Streets.

Though Sidney worked as a waiter at the largest hotel in the British empire, the Royal York, he could barely support his family on his meagre earnings. He was among the many who stole food in desperation during the Depression years; it was easy for him to pilfer meats and pastries from the hotel to supplement buying groceries. Billy did what she could, looking after the house, cooking, and sewing for the family. An accomplice with Sidney, she stitched pockets to the inside of his coat where he could hide whatever he chose to bring home, one pocket that was even big enough to hold a whole chicken. In the midst of the family poverty, Joyce discovered very quickly that she was her father's favourite; he indulged her by allowing her to eat what she wanted and do as she pleased.

Sidney Wieland's cunning, coupled with his wit, served him well in a struggle for survival. Despite his best efforts, he did not stave off the feeling of deprivation in the household, and things became even worse for Billy and the three children when Sidney died of heart disease in 1937. He left behind a family with little means of support. Billy made rag rugs to sell; Joan and the younger Sidney had to find jobs.

The three Wieland children were orphaned four years later when Billy died of bowel cancer. Joan, at age nineteen, took responsibility for her younger sister, nearly eleven years old. However, Sidney joined the army and was absent during the years immediately following their mother's death.

The poverty of Joyce's early years continued throughout her adolescence, a Dickensian existence that haunted her most of her life; she never did shake off her fear of deprivation. By the time Joyce reached adolescence and began thinking about the future, the outlook for her, a very poor working-class girl, was bleak. What would she do after high school? Joan, still her sister's guardian, knew Joyce would have been a disaster as an office worker and enrolled her in the art program at Toronto's Central Technical School. There, her artistic abilities became obvious to one of her teachers, Doris McCarthy.

One day McCarthy told her young student she had the potential to become an artist. Until then, Wieland had no idea that a career as an artist even existed, despite that earlier in her life she had felt drawn to art. At age thirteen, she had written in her diary that she `saw the most wonderful art today it ws (sic) marvelous I am happy go lucky wacky...'. And later, another day, she recorded that she `painted some great masterpieces to day.'

Soon after Wieland graduated from high school in 1948, she found a job designing packaging for a company called E.S. & A. Robinson, a job she kept for nearly five years. During those years she began taking seriously her desire to become an artist and at the same time, she had her first serious romantic relationship with a young man who was typical of the era -- he did not think Joyce could travel and make art and still be a good wife. This young man's attitude felt like a threat to her passion for her art and threw Joyce into a period of inner turmoil because it seemed she had to choose between two life prospects that were equally important to her: marriage and making art. The relationship ended when Joyce realized she would not want to marry this man.

At age nineteen she rented her own studio, an expense she could take on, given that her other costs were not high as she was living with the family of her friend Mary Karch. Two years later she moved into her studio and began living on her own, an unusual step for a young woman in 1951, especially since the other occupants of the house were men, and `wild' artists at that. She became friends with them, the beginning of her life in a circle of artists.

During the early to mid fifties, choices Wieland made firmed up her commitment to being an artist. She took a job at Graphic Associates where she met other artists, including Michael Snow whom she married in 1956. Along with a few other artists, Wieland and Snow began making experimental films. Wieland was also painting, and began a series of lovers drawings, which she continued into the early sixties.

At that time, the centre for showing contemporary art in Toronto was the Isaacs Gallery whose artists were nearly all men. These male artists, typical of their time, related to women not as artists but as sexual partners who cooked dinner and made coffee. Wieland, however, broke out of the stereotypical mold. She showed her work at the Isaacs Gallery, where she held her own in a chauvinistic atmosphere.

For the Toronto artists, New York held an allure -- in their minds that was where everything important was happening. From time to time Joyce and Michael talked of going to New York. In late 1962, they left Toronto and in early 1963 found a loft in Manhattan and moved in. Here they made friends with film makers; the world of experimental film became a big part of their life. At the same time, Wieland continued experimenting with a variety of other media that included plastics and fabric. It was while she was living in New York that she began channeling her fervent love for Canada into her art works.

In 1969, Pierre Théberge, then the Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, offered Joyce a show of her work. `True Patriot Love -- Joyce Wieland -- Véritable amour patriotique,' opened in 1971, a landmark in Canadian art because it was the first solo exhibition by a living female artist at the National Gallery. That was also a pivotal year for Joyce and Michael, personally -- they returned to Toronto to live, bought a house and settled into life in the city.

By then Joyce had developed an idea for a feature film, based loosely on the Canadian artist, Tom Thomson. She gave over her life to making The Far Shore during the first half of the 1970s. Increasingly, Wieland and Snow experienced stress in their relationship and when it became obvious that Snow was committed to his mistress, Wieland left in 1979 and began living alone in a little house on Queen Street that she and Snow had purchased when she was working on The Far Shore.

For Wieland, the break-up of her marriage was fraught with the trauma of childhood abandonment. She attempted to heal herself through her art and launched into a series of coloured-pencil drawings, which she showed at the Isaacs Gallery in 1981, an exhibition called The Bloom of Matter. Subsequently she returned primarily to painting, including many large canvases.

By the mid eighties she had built up a new body of work and in 1987 she claimed another honour: she became the first living Canadian woman to launch a major retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario. As she worked on preparations for this exhibition, she had difficulty focusing on the necessary organization required for a retrospective, and the management of her life in general had become overwhelming, even with the help of assistants.

By the late eighties and early nineties Wieland knew something was wrong; her friends, colleagues and assistants also realized she was ill. Her diagnosis was Alzheimer's Disease. Her subsequent deterioration and death in 1998 left a void in Canada's art world.

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