A century ago, Herman Kavelman, a New Dundee shopkeeper at what is currently the Emporium, embraced the exciting and relatively new technology of photography which he used to capture life around him—people going about their business, sudden spring floods, barns being raised. These were carefully preserved as 355 glass negatives. He was 89 years old when the store closed, and its contents were auctioned off in 1971. The photos went to Windsor but, through a happy series of events, returned to New Dundee, where they were brought to the attention of historian Marilyn Sararus in 2002. She made copies of the negatives, which caught artist Marion Anderson’s interest. The images were put in a folder and filed away.
Twenty years later, Anderson found her holiday plans dashed by a surging wave of Covid. “I had already decided I was going to have two weeks off from teaching, and we cancelled our New Year’s dinner, so I basically had all this space to myself. I took down the tree and put away all the Christmas decorations, and got to work. I only finished these a couple of weeks ago.”
By “these,” she is referring to her new series, From Barn Boards to Circuit Boards. With this unexpected gift of time, the multi-media artist coalesced some ideas she was mulling over. She pulled out that old folder and thought about how best to use texture and paint for her ambitious new project. “I had circuit boards left over from a watercolour I did that’s now hanging at CIGI. I wanted to make a statement on how much technology has been incorporated into our rural life and how radically the countryside has changed from when I was a child.”
Each piece starts with an idea, and from that, she chooses the medium—acrylic or oil if she wants to build up the texture, watercolour if she wants to work with absence. A signature technique of Anderson is to incorporate collage elements with three specific textures: Holt Renfrew striped tissue because “there are so few people who can actually afford to shop there,” contrasted with cheesecloth “as the complete opposite and having more to do with my background as a gritty little farm girl.” To this, she adds paper printed with French toile to represent “how there are so many different cultures and languages in Canada.” Once she applies these textures and patterns, the canvas tells her what to do. “I’m constantly flipping and turning the canvas until I can see the horizon line, or the suggestion of a tree or a cloud.”
With this latest series, she initially saw the pressures of rural versus technological, past versus present, as an adversarial sort of relationship and toyed with the title Click Delete or Battle of Waterloo, but the negativity that commentary didn’t sit well with her. She reframed the idea to consider how the ingenuity of the past has shaped our present and how innovation has always been at the heart of this county. The path, however, has not always been smooth.
In a painting called Cloud Cover, Anderson considered the practice of planting cover crops versus the ubiquitous “cloud” where so much of our data is stored. Comprised of two canvases and depicting a wide aerial view of farmland, the panels are bolted together in a way that connotes both a forced pairing and a strong bond.
This industrial joining is carried through in a painting called The Influencers, with circuit boards rising up from the bottom panels to intrude upon—and join—the top canvas in which pioneering women and men are posed at a massive barn raising. “It’s a bit of a sarcastic comment on so-called ‘Influencers’ who make their living by smiling for ten seconds with a product in their hand. The real influencers are these people who worked hard and knew a specific skill really well. Their work influenced the development of this entire region.”
Perhaps the most personal of these paintings is Reboot, depicting the farm on which she grew up in Kent County. Pointing at the ghostly grey and black structures that occupy the top of the canvas, Andersons said, “the house was there, and this is the barn where I raised my 4H calves. My nephew inherited the farm and had most of these buildings taken down.” In running a thoroughly modern farm, some erasure of the past had been necessary.
In a large piece called PowerPoint, the figures are rendered as empty silhouettes as she considered how technology has so infiltrated our lives, that we have lost any sense of face-to-face contact with people. The depiction of the barn builders standing casually on single beams at precarious heights encourages the viewer to consider the bravery, skill, and strength of these early pioneers. “If they had been born today, they’d be Olympic athletes.”
In the final painting, Memories Stick, a spectral image of a barn-raising hovers in the sky over a cityscape. It dwarfs the modern buildings—huge but intangible as though the work of so many people over a century ago continues as the spirit of the region. The deep green from Cloud Cover is echoed in this painting.
“I’ve been very cognizant of the colour scheme to ensure they all work together.” It is Anderson’s hope that From Barn Boards to Circuit Boards is exhibited as a complete series, and she would love to see them on permanent display in the lobby of a local business or industry.
For now, she’s happy to be moving on to a new series, this time full of colours and bright floral elements. “For me, the most exciting thing is coming up with the ideas. It’s waking up in the middle of the night and thinking, ‘Oh! What if that skyline was actually the shore? What if I moved the river up?’ It’s turning the canvas and feeling out what it’s telling me. That’s the real adventure.”