An invitation from a neighbor at her rural retreat on Canada’s east coast was the impetus for the latest research-creation project of Visual Art &Art History Professor Katherine Knight. It’s been a decade-long undertaking, culminating in an exhibition currently on view at the Textile Museum of Canada in downtown Toronto.
“In 2006, my neighbor, Jane Webster, invited me to view her collection of 19th-century needlework mottos that she had installed in the ‘Caribou Hilton’, an old house adjacent to her home overlooking Caribou Harbour in Pictou County, Nova Scotia,” said Knight. “Nothing prepared me for the beauty of walls crowded with rows of stitched messages, familiar and yet distant from contemporary life. The words called out with a singsong echo of women’s lives and hours spent diligently stitching. The mottos connected me to lost stories, to the house that contained them, and to Caribou Harbour itself.”
Webster had gathered 173 decorative mottos, displaying them in groupings in various rooms of the house. Knight, an award-winning photographer and filmmaker, photographed them on location and then individually, and published an online inventory at www.cariboumottos.ca. She shares her artistic and scholarly research on these evocative materials in the multi-dimensional documentary exhibition Katherine Knight: Portraits and Collections, now at the Textile Museum.
The exhibition, curated by Sarah Quinton, is an homage to both Webster (who died in 2009) and her collection, and the time and place that gave rise to it. Through photos, video and audio recordings, Knight brings to life a handicraft that was all the rage 150 years ago, and offers viewers an intimate glimpse into domestic life and society in 19th century rural Nova Scotia.
Portraits and Collections resonates with the spirit of the mottos’ anonymous makers through spoken word and musical experiences. At the core of the installation is the multi-media work Forget Me Not, featuring Knight’s recording of the voices of four generations of girls and women from Pictou County as they recite the needlepoint mottos.
Adding another dimension and enhancing the human connection are new audio recordings of some of the traditional hymns and popular songs of the period that inspired many of the needlework texts and images. These songs – performed by York music students, soprano Marta Woolner, mezzo-soprano Kristen De Marchi and baritone Ray Billiald, and recorded by Cinema & Media Arts student Nicolas White in 2016 – are integrated into Knight’s 12-minute film for the exhibition, scored by Jonas Bonetta.
One of the songs the students recorded is the comic ditty, “What is home without a mother-in-law”, composed by A.P. Nutt with lyrics by Grace Carleton, published in 1874.
“Through the Caribou Motto series and other ongoing projects, I observe and celebrate the landscape and narratives of Caribou Harbor, Nova Scotia, drawing attention to a rural community and the landscape that anchors my creative practice,” Knight said.
Knight will give a public talk about her approach to interpreting objects in collections on Wednesday, April 19 at 6:30pm (free with gallery admission). Portraits and Collections is a companion exhibition to Kind Words Can Never Die: A Personal Collection of Victorian Needlework, curated by Anna Richard.
Knight’s research and development work for Portraits and Collections is supported by the SSHRC and the Ontario Arts Council. The show is a Primary Exhibition of the 2017 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. It runs at the Textile Museum of Canada, 55 Centre St. to June 25. For information about gallery hours, admission and directions, visit the Textile Museum website.