There’s an intimacy to story telling. As a listener, you have to sit close enough to be within earshot of the storyteller. Even in a group, you feel as though you are being spoken to individually. If you are the teller delivering your personal story, it’s as though you are telling secrets to a trusted listener. At the KSOA earlier this month, this is exactly what happened.
Ashley Clark, the impetus behind this event, has a story of her own. She was born with Mayer Rokitansky Kuster Hauser (MRKH) Syndrome, which means her body has no reproductive organs. Ashley calls herself an MRKH warrior, and so she is, despite her calm and friendly demeanour. The $800 proceeds of the storytelling event will be shared by the Kingston MRKH Conference—a medical meet-up for women with this syndrome—and the KSOA.
In preparation for the dual fundraiser, eight individuals with stories to tell were paired with eight artists who produced work in response to the stories they were told. And so the storytelling fundraiser became a heightened event in four intimate settings created around the WAG. Each one encouraged listeners to gather close, listen, look and regroup to experience another story. As the afternoon progressed, the tellers spoke on a rotating basis in 15-minute intervals to close to 50 listeners.
Tia Gillespie, the illustrator paired with Ashley, created a watercolour entitled Resolute. It is a detailed, almost photographic rendering of two open pages of Ashley’s journal, in which she documented her daily psychological struggle with a condition that, although invisible, made her feel ashamed.
Brie Robertson is the young artist who made an acrylic painting entitled Born This Way. It depicts a pensive man in his early 20s, with expressive eyebrows, slightly unruly dark hair, and multi-coloured eyelids. Rainbow splashes in the background refer to Tyler Anglin’s coming out story, but you have to listen to discover that he also battled cancer as a young child.
When Teri Wing was asked to participate in this endeavour, she chose to illustrate Leah Riddell’s story. Riddell, who is deaf and speaks in American Sign Language (ASL) through an interpreter, has fought all her life to overcome the myth that people with deafness can’t be successful. She currently runs her own business educating those with hearing about those who are deaf—their language, their culture and their capabilities. Teri’s portrait of Leah, entitled Butterflies are Deaf, is based on a little known fact: Butterflies “hear” through vibrations. The portrait presents a side view of Leah, in which a monarch butterfly is blooming in place of her ear. At the margin of the painting, in subtle gray, Teri has rendered the sound wave created when she used an app to translate the artwork’s title from spoken word to symbol.
Malasia, by Queen’s Fine Arts graduate Leigha Stiles, is a large, chaotic abstract acrylic painting that speaks loudly not only about Malasia Liston’s mental health journey, but also that of the artist, who has experienced psychotic episodes herself. In this case the pairing of story teller and illustrator enabled an expression of shared experiences. The dominant red of Malasia aptly symbolizes fear and mania.
Fahd Abou Zainedin is a Syrian refugee whose family was brought to Kingston by artist Gaylan Fitsell. When Gaylan was offered the opportunity to illustrate Fahd’s story, she gladly accepted. Her mixed media piece, entitled Took 3 Countries, combines realism and symbolism to depict Fahd’s flight from Syria, where he was captured and held for 10 days in a cold dark 3-foot by 3-foot cell, to Jordan, Finland and, finally, Canada. Elements in Gaylan’s artwork include the figure of Fahd’s wife in a tree, crying; the flags of the first three countries in his journey; the maple leaf and helping hands of our own country; and spreading orange tree branches symbolizing new life and hope.
“He’s a daredevil in the biggest sense of the word,” remarked artist Sherry Pringle, a friend of 80-year-old Franz Moeslinger, who tells a story of living out the war years and their aftermath in Germany, Denmark and Austria. Sherry was familiar with Franz’s life story and knew how much he loves fast cars, downhill skiing and mountain climbing. And so she created Conquer, an acrylic painting of purple-hued, snow-capped mountains rising out of the clouds—a metaphor for Austria overcoming the dark days of war while the Austrian people embrace the light to reclaim their lives.
Bathed in luminous golden light, Layna, by Natasha Jabre, expresses the culmination of a process of self-realization by Layna Reise, aged 23, a transgender woman since January 2017. There is the beginning of a smile on Layna’s lips, but the faraway look in her eyes hints at a past filled with teenaged anger, depression, stress and confusion about gender identity. A fortuitous news broadcast in 2016 about legislation governing sex change surgery spurred Layna to research and learn more about the physical alteration that finally brought her relief.
Poverty, depression, anxiety and sexual assault marked Hannah Ellsworth’s young life. She was a lost girl, paralysed by a fear of relationships, school and then employment. Sara Perosa’s large abstract oil painting called Inner Longing swirls with turmoil as impressionistic rivers of blue curl through the surface, but two circles of calm, the opposite of whirlpools, offer respite, a safe place, a place where Hannah can find herself by working hard, accepting defeat and persevering.
These personal stories and the accompanying artworks have been compiled into a book entitled Show and Tell: The Art of Story Telling. It’s available at the KSOA for $20.