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Aganetha Dyck in her Winnipeg studio. Photo Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press, March 28, 2007. Reproduced with Permission.
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Aganetha Dyck, "Shrunken sweaters," from the "Sizes 8 - 46" series. Photo Courtesy Peter Dyck.
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"Hockey mask with beeswax"
Aganetha Dyck, "Hockey mask with beeswax," from the series Sports Night in Canada Photo from William Eakin.
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Aganetha Dyck, "Hive Scan," photo print, 24" X 30".
AGANETHA DYCK - Homage
Twisting natural process into fine art, this Winnipeg-based master artist elevates everyday objects.
By Brian Brennan
The newspaper headlines, predictably playful, talk about her “cooking up a honey of a show” or “minding her own beeswax.” With help from swarms of honeybees, veteran Winnipeg artist Aganetha Dyck makes provocative sculpture and mixed-media installations that explore how knowledge is transmitted between humans and other species. “I have millions of collaborators,” she says with a laugh. “I look after them well.”
Dyck has been sculpting and drawing collaboratively with honeybees for about 18 years. The process, which can take years to complete, involves placing a foreign object such as a shoe, skate or football helmet inside a beehive and waiting to see what the bees will make of it. The wax-covered forms that emerge from this unorthodox technique are always surprising. “They remind us that we and our constructions are temporary in relation to the lifespan of earth and the processes of nature,” writes Victoria curator Cathi Charles Wherry. “This raises ideas about our shared vulnerability, while at the same time elevating the ordinariness of our humanity.”
Before starting her bee-assisted artwork in 1991, Dyck used other unconventional approaches to making art — shrinking laundry and frying buttons to turn the routines of housework into metaphors for creative process and a woman’s interior life. A late starter as an artist, she experimented with several different forms before finding her voice.
Dyck doesn’t recall having much interest in making art as a child, growing up in a Mennonite family in Marquette, a hamlet 50 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. She did, however, have a passion for interior decorating. “We had to clean the house every Friday, and I would redecorate the two-room log house where we lived,” she said in an interview withBorder Crossings magazine. “But how much interior decorating can you do in a log cabin? I was pretty limited.” Raised to believe that the ultimate destiny for a young woman was to marry well, she worked after high school as a business machine operator until she met a department store employee named Peter Dyck. They married when they were both 20, and raised three children.
In 1972, when Aganetha was 35, she moved with her family to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, where Peter had been appointed manager of the local Eaton’s department store. A couple of years later, she became a volunteer at the Art Gallery of Prince Albert. As what she calls a “corporate wife,” she was expected to do some volunteer work, and she chose to spend her volunteer time cooking meals and providing car rides for visiting artists. “From the beginning I knew I belonged,” she says.
In 1975, Dyck began to break out of the social mold that shaped the lives of middle-class women of her generation. She enrolled in the local community college, took weaving courses from fabric artist Margaret Van Walshem, and studied drawing with George Glenn, a painter with a master’s degree in fine arts. He told her she should forget about drawing mountain scenes and create art from where she came from, and what she thought about. “But I’m a homemaker. All I know is housework,” she said. “Then make art from that,” he replied.
Initially, Dyck thought Glenn’s advice was worthless. But she did start using housework techniques to make sculpture. She crocheted with bits of copper wire and rope, and took the finished sculptures to Glenn to see what worked and what didn’t. “I knew I had a voice but I didn’t know what it was,” she says. She found it when a friend accidentally shrank a sheep fleece that Dyck planned to use for a weaving project. “She phoned me and said she was very sorry, but the fleece was stuck in her washing machine and she couldn’t get it out,” Dyck told Border Crossings. “I jumped in the car, took my knife and scissors, and cut it out. It was really gorgeous; it was shaped like the agitator. And it was just as hard as a rock. I was very excited.”
Encouraged by the result, Dyck tried the same technique on some castoff woollen sweaters. She collected more than 600 of them from friends and the Salvation Army, turned them into felt by shrinking them in her washing machine, and arranged the shrunken objects so they looked like clusters of people. This marked the start of her ensuing artistic journey, transforming everyday objects into otherworldly creations by using techniques derived from housework.
A visiting curator from Regina’s MacKenzie Art Gallery, Carol Phillips, saw Dyck’s work and organized a solo show for her in 1976. The same year, Dyck’s husband was transferred back to Winnipeg, where she rented a studio in an old warehouse formerly occupied by a button manufacturer. Dyck bought the leftover stock for $500 and began to experiment, alternatively deep-frying, boiling, baking and finally canning the plastic and fabric buttons. Floating in the mason jars like rotting relics, the transformed buttons, rendered useless by her creative act, suggested a tension between preservation and decay.
A chance 1990 discovery at a Winnipeg apiary led to Dyck’s use of beeswax in her art. The apiary had a sign on the wall — “Bee-Made Honey” — that seemed to be carved in honeycomb but was, in fact, made from a mold the beekeeper had inserted in the hive. “I could see then that the bees were natural sculptors,” she says. “I knew I wanted to collaborate with them.”
Working with beekeeper Phil Veldhuis, Dyck produced installations such as The Library: Inner/Outer, which featured a collection of beeswax-coated handbags that she transformed into book-like objects by slicing into them with a sharp knife. “Her ‘books’ record history in a way that bridges traditional notions of written and oral history,” wrote Joan Borsa in the catalogue essay for a 1991 Canadian touring exhibition featuring the installation. “She embellishes the historical records with memories, associations and emphases that carry a particular voice, a particular location.”
Dyck has learned many things from bees since she started working with them: “Patience, respect, play and, of course work.” The bees have also turned her into an amateur biologist and environmentalist. “They say that 30 to 50 percent of the world’s edible crops are pollinated by bees,” she says. “If they are endangered, so are we.” Her research work has included residencies with beekeepers and entomologists in England, France and the Netherlands, and she has been featured on David Suzuki’s CBC television show, The Nature of Things. Her concern for the disappearance of honeybees in the wild has led to her handing out flower seeds to her studio visitors, hoping this will result in new nectar sources. “The bees will be around a long time after we’re gone,” she says.
Dyck’s installations have been featured in indoor and outdoor exhibitions in Europe and the United States as well as across Canada. In February 2007, she was given Manitoba’s $30,000 Arts Award of Distinction both for her arts community involvement as a gallery board member and mentor to emerging artists, as well as for her achievements as an artist. In March 2007, she won a $25,000 Governor General’s Visual and Media Arts Award. “It’s an affirmation of my career,” she said. “I’m honoured.”
Now 70, Dyck remains busy with her bee work and other installations, frequently assisted by members of her family. Husband Peter, who she refers to affectionately as “my full-time assistant — whenever I need assistance,” is spending his retirement years documenting her creative efforts through photography, accompanying her to exhibitions, and helping with installations. Eldest son Richard, an artist in his own right, collaborates with Aganetha by making soundscapes and digital scans of beehive interiors. Daughter Deborah looks after her website. Younger son Michael, also a computer whiz, keeps her up-to-date on bee-related activity in Europe and elsewhere. “We’re a very close-knit family,” she says. “They always come and help out when I need assistance at the apiary.”
Current and upcoming Dyck projects include a residency at the Prince Albert Art Gallery where it all started for her in 1974. She has exhibitions planned at Waterloo, Ontario’s Canadian Clay and Glass Museum (June 15 to September 14, 2008) and the University of Saskatchewan’s Kenderdine Art Gallery (October 2008), plus a five-year virtual exhibition presented on-line by Calgary’s Glenbow Museum.