Seeing ourselves in other’s histories

A review by Chris Corrigan, October 12, 2023

My friend Leanne Romak – the person who designed this very website back in 2014 – has a show at The Hearth, the Bowen Island Arts Council gallery. Along with artist Sonya Iwasiuk, the two artists have a small but lovely show called “Reflections: Stories of Ukrainian -Canadian ancestors” on until October 23.

Leanne’s pieces in the show are painting based on photographs taken by her uncle the 1940s. She found them poking around in the attic of an abandoned farmhouse in Manitoba in the 2010s. She has created fine paintings from these photos that have a kind of softness that blurs the shapes and places them in a kind of always-time. These uncles standing around at a wedding drinking hommade vodka could be from anytime, and the flask they are drinking out of reminds one of a contemporary water bottle, perhaps used to smuggle the contraband into the wedding reception. This particular image is accompanied by a little story of how the alcohol was made, by distilling it from soaked grain or potatoes. Little stills were set up along the North Duck River near Cowan, Manitoba and from the fire tower there you could see “all the little fires by the river.”

Images of prairie ancestors attract me. My own family on my mother’s side were settlers in Saskatchewan, some farming around Lumsden and others building houses in Regina. Prairie history is full of the memories of settler communities, many of them Eastern European communities whose cultures burned like little fires across a landscape that – especially in the case of Ukrainians – reminded them of the steppes of home from which they were driven by invasion and oppression, or lured by promises of farmland and prosperity. The conditions they found in Canada were cold and isolating and in time very tight knit communities sprang up and the little fires of co-operative spirit created the conditions for these communities to survive many decades.

Leanne’s work in this show captures the little fires of social and family life and Sonya Iwasiuk’s focuses on the images of houses, simple, functional structures on an open landscape. These buildings portray stability and community. There is only one of her paintings in the show of a single house alone. All of the others are little clusters of homes some standing side by side, some inexplicably turned away from each other, some surrounded by little unfinished ghost houses, each facing its own direction, but each inextricably linked to others. Unique and yet inescapably connected, the houses in every painting are etched with barely readable text, like the whispers of stories almost forgotten, as if the plain and standard houses are nevertheless illuminated by memory and meaning.

Both collections in this show invite us to reflect on our own stories of ancestor and community, on what is stable and longer lasting, and what is ephemeral and slips from our grasp, only to be rediscovered and reawakened by chance encounter or stray snippet of story or image.

It’s a lovely show, and it opens with a party on Saturday. Well worth checking out if you are on Bowen in the next couple of weeks.