In this, its 30th year of exhibiting, the Organization of Kingston Women Artists (OKWA)
says that when it comes to public exhibition space, size does matter. “RESTRICTED in size” is the title of this month’s show at the WAG, which accommodates 26 works by OKWA members in its relatively small space. To make a point, artists were limited to submitting pieces no wider than 18”, but there were no restrictions on height.
“How do we respond when we have restrictions,” Mieke Van Geest, Co-President of OKWA, asks rhetorically. And then she affirms, “The exhibition is an example of artists’ creativity in response to imposed constraints.” Small plaques with artists’ statements accompany the artwork and, in reading each one, I learn that “restrictions” have been interpreted and expressed in many ways. For example, Carolyn Marshall, in Shhh! Quiet!, considers the auditory restriction of a visual medium, while Mary Peppard has picked up the theme of censorship as restriction in Fire! Fire! Meanwhile, Donna Brown, in Awakening, has self-imposed restrictions on colour and medium. The clay vessel fashioned by Sue Lyon (Limited Liberty) is, by definition, a restriction on its contents.
Some artists are physically restricted by a small studio where they produce only small works, and Sally Milne (Notre Dame and Chimney Pots), who works for part of the year in Paris, has transport restrictions for her canvases. Michele Reid, whose painting Confined is one of the taller pieces in the show, points to the challenge of verticality for landscape painters.
Peggy Morley (Cornwall Beach IV) and Jane Derby (Study) both agree that size restrictions are not always negative. “Working small is often a freeing experience,” writes Peggy. Jane writes that starting small is a good way to explore new ideas. And Donna, mentioned above, discovered that having fewer options makes for a more relaxing creative experience. I personally enjoyed the intimacy I felt in stepping closer to engage with the smallest of the works in this exhibition.
“But size does make a difference,” concludes Mieke, whose photograph entitled Rainy Night at Morrison’s could be reproduced in a larger size, she points out, with a vastly different impact. “Restrictions discourage full artistic expression.” And space is the issue.
For the last four years OKWA has made use of the new Tett Centre, a public space that suits the group’s needs, but has become prohibitively expensive in terms of rental and insurance costs. These, coupled with administrative complications, propelled OKWA to look for an alternative this year. Commercial galleries were not an option since they support their preferred stable of artists, while the Agnes and the Union Gallery operate with mandates that exclude organizations such as OKWA. “We need a downtown public space funded by the municipality,” maintains Mieke. She looks to the John Parrott Gallery in Belleville as a shining example.
With 13 members, OKWA was founded in 1989 at the tail end of the second wave of feminism. According to co-founder Jocelyn Purdie, there had been advances in women’s rights and freedoms, but the art world was one of many arenas that did not offer an equitable playing field. Now numbering 55, members are accepted by juried application. The group organizes workshops and art talks, and funds scholarships for young artists.
“Is OKWA still relevant today as a women-only organization?” I ask Mieke. “Members like it, and it works,” is her answer, but then she elaborates by saying many women still don’t have the confidence to push into the art world. OKWA provides a forum for mutual support. And provides exposure for women artists by mounting annual exhibitions.
The issue of gallery space is first and foremost on the minds of OKWA board members today. Michèle La Rose (Tribute to Van Gogh), sums up the situation in her statement: “Kingston could do much better."
RESTRICTED in size continues until October 27 with an opening reception on Sunday, October 6, 2-4pm.