"Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye"
Bev Tosh, "Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye," (detail), 2003-05, oil on wood panel,
BEV TOSH, One-Way Passage
Kelowna Art Gallery, Kelowna
Ends September 18, 2005
By Portia Priegert
Calgary-based artist Bev Tosh explores an under-appreciated aspect of women’s history in One-Way Passage — the lives of British women who raised families in Canada after marrying Canadian servicemen during the Second World War.
A major component of the exhibition, which blends personal narrative with broader social history, is a series of sensitively rendered oil portraits of more than 40 war brides on their wedding day. Tosh paints on planks of rough-hewn plywood, using the wood’s materiality — heavy grain, sharp cracks and profuse knotholes — as formal compositional elements for portraits that capture a likeness but also hint at each woman’s personality.
The choice of plywood works symbolically on several levels. The use of a commonplace building product as a substrate evokes the war brides’ descriptions of themselves as ordinary women who have led largely unremarkable lives. As well, when the warm-hued wood is lightly painted, the grain can sink into the background yet also rise to the fore, creating a veiling effect that calls to mind both wedding traditions and the vagaries of memory.
The women’s faces are rendered most distinctly, their figures, in whatever finery was available during wartime shortages, markedly less so, although occasional details — whether the blooms of a bridal bouquet or an ornate lace collar — are highlighted. The women, who bear names like Doreen, Ruby, Vera and Olive, are clearly of a place and time. Yet Tosh retains their individual character by capturing subtle nuances such as an impish smile, a bookish gaze or a tender hand gesture.
The paintings, approximately four feet high and one foot wide, lean against the gallery wall and against each other, creating a zigzag formation that suggests the women are planks from the same tree, mutually facing an uncertain future. They are perched on beams meant to symbolize the rail journey after so-called bride ships docked in Halifax after the war. While actual railway ties might have evoked stronger (and more olfactory) associations to train travel, Tosh has affixed a chain of small metal tags imprinted with the names of the stations where the women disembarked: Trochu, Keremeos, Portage la Prairie and Indian Head, to name a few.
Tosh, the daughter of a war bride, interviewed more than 100 women about their experiences and pins a clutter of photographic documentation to the gallery’s walls. The war brides experienced homesickness, hardships in a harsh climate and struggles with husbands wed after whirlwind romances. Some marriages ended, but many endured, and hundreds of thousands of Canadians can trace their ancestry to these women. Yet despite the passage of nearly six decades, memories of youthful adventure remain strong. “We had no idea it would still be frozen,” one woman says in an interview played from an antique radio. “We hadn’t seen anything like this living in the south of England . . . It was wonderful. It was magnificent.”