By Lissa Robinson
Tucked away in the inner chamber of the Mendel Art Gallery is an illuminating exhibition by Saskatoon-based artist, Michèle Mackasey. The show, face à nous, is a poignant portrayal of the bonds shared by single mothers and their children. Translated roughly as “faced with us” or “look at us,” face à nous includes six life-size portraits, one in progress (painted in the gallery) and an audio component accessible with headphones.
Although initially the space seems too small for viewing such life-size portraits, it is in fact the perfect sized space for experiencing Mackasey's subjects and the intimate stories about the struggles and triumphs of being a single mom - often on the margins, facing prejudice and economic hardships - living in Saskatoon.
As curator Sandra Fraser writes, “Mackasey's life-size portraits reference a long-standing tradition, typically reserved for honouring the rich and influential.” By celebrating and dignifying the subjects' shared experiences, the artist eloquently undercuts the prejudices about single mothers and their families by telling their collective and individual stories. There is a somber quality to many of the paintings, but the melancholy is balanced masterfully with the artist’s use of warm and bright colours, meticulous details and delicate application of paint. The care in which Mackasey handles her subjects is especially apparent in the facial expressions and rendering of clothes which, along with the poses, were chosen by each sitter. The result is artwork which reflects individual personalities and illuminates their bond and family dynamics.
In Felicia Gay with her children, Osawask and Zoe, viewers are faced with a pregnant mother who is the central figure in a triad that is awash in golden light and lovingly portrays the bond between Felicia and her children. The detail in the faces, clothing and hands are stunningly precise, while the rich, luminous colours evoke feelings of the spiritual and the majestic.
In contrast, Dannié Boucher with her children Deacon, Xavié & Chloé, portrays a strained family unit poised in front of a high rent, run down apartment building with stuccoed walls and gravel parking lot. Though the strain is made painfully clear in the laboured and uncomfortable poses, Dannié’s love for her children is poignantly portrayed with a golden warm hue that permeates this painting, as well as the four sets of rosy cheeks and the snuggle of her youngest one.
All the mothers make eye contact with the viewer and play both a pivotal and protective role in the poses with their children. The cultural diversity in the paintings and audio is palpable and significant to understanding Mackasey's subjects. The audio piece is a rich and colourful Sonata of the artist's conversations with her subjects mixed with the sounds of domestic clatter and interaction with the children. The symphony of stories further deepens the intimacy of the portraits while creating a larger context for reading the work.
Mackasey is herself a single mother and her presence amongst these inspiring women adds a refreshing honesty and critical perspective to the exhibition. Originally from northern Quebec, Mackasey grew up in Ontario. Now living in Saskatoon with her two children of Dene heritage, she holds deep ties to Patuanak, a Dene community in Northern Saskatchewan while maintaining her francophone identity. Much like family storytelling, portraits indicate relationships within and among the family. The stories Mackasey tells through her paintings and the collective voices of her subjects take viewers on a captivating journey that encourages them to see past stereotypes and appreciate the richness of familial love.