Blyth's Stevenson to complete "ana" thanks to Ontario Arts Council grant
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Blyth-based artist Kelly Stevenson has a busy period ahead of her after receiving an Ontario Arts Council grant to finally complete “ana”, a project a decade in the making for the artist.
Earlier this month, Stevenson received the good news. The project is one she began when she was a university student but, for a number of reasons, she could never quite bring herself to complete.
The inspiration behind “ana” is Stevenson’s cousin Sarah, who, in 1997, lost her battle with anorexia. Sarah was 18 at the time and Stevenson was just six. The loss and the circumstances around it have weighed heavily on Stevenson for years.
As a university student, Stevenson said she worked on “ana” day in and day out, to the point that much of the very serious subject material became commonplace to her. Returning to the project all these years later, Stevenson has found it harder to face some of the aspects of the work now that all that time has passed.
“‘ana’ is a project extremely close to my heart and one that at times can be almost too painful to work on,” Stevenson wrote in a Facebook post on her artist page. “But my ultimate goal has always [been] to try and honour Sarah, and start a larger dialogue about the illness that ultimately took her from us far too soon. I want to try and give her a voice back.”
In an interview with The Citizen, Stevenson said that when she lost her cousin when she was six years old, she thought of Sarah as being so adult-like at 18, 12 years older than her. However, now an adult herself, Stevenson can look back at her cousin and know she was “just a kid” when she passed away.
Stevenson began working through the trauma of the situation as a university art student and “ana” began as her thesis project. She worked on it for eight months during her time in university, producing 19 four-foot-by-six-foot drawings. She never felt it was finished, however, and always felt the project was both “unfinished and unresolved”.
One of the reasons Stevenson felt this way, she said, was rather practical, in that they were all so big that there was no way she could see all 19 of them displayed together at the same time. With that in mind, Stevenson said she always envisioned “ana” as being an installation piece, rather than a collection of drawings hung on gallery walls. She felt there was another solution out there waiting to be found to allow people to experience the art in a more interactive way.
Stevenson, who has been increasingly working with embroidery and fabrics in her art, decided to have her art printed on large pieces of translucent fabric and hung from the ceiling of a gallery space (she and her father Carl are currently working on creating the hanging mechanisms). She also said it’s important for the art to be presented properly on the fabric, which is why some of the edges will be rough and frayed and there is a certain “messiness” to them, even in their final form.
When Stevenson first came up with the concept, she said she couldn’t really remember seeing anything like it before, but that artists are now increasingly working with fabric as a medium.
As a condition of Stevenson’s grant, the project has to be completed within the next two years, though she doesn’t suspect she will need the entire two-year period. As for a gallery to exhibit “ana”, nothing has been confirmed yet.
One stroke of luck for Stevenson along the “ana” journey was that she commissioned high-quality, professional photographs of the art to be used in the printing process just before the pandemic, having the pieces displayed in the Bainton Gallery in Blyth’s Memorial Hall. After March of 2020, accomplishing that again would have been a lot more complicated.
As for the process, Stevenson said it has been very difficult, saying she would step away from it at times, finding it too difficult to continue. For reference photographs, she would comb through old family photo albums, newspaper articles and other materials and that process could take its toll on her. Furthermore, the creations include faceless body images of those coping with eating disorders, and “going down that rabbit hole”, Stevenson said, was another difficult aspect of the process.
Stevenson said her mental health has improved in recent years, which is why she felt equipped to return to the project. She said she has struggled with her own mental wellbeing at times and, during those periods, she didn’t feel equipped to take on the subject matter or face the rejection of proposing the exhibition to a gallery and potentially being turned away.
With “ana”, Stevenson hopes to reframe some conversations about eating disorders and those who struggle with them, something she feels is often misunderstood in the media these days. She says the focus on eating disorders is often the physical ramifications, but that what’s missed is that it’s very much about control; someone controlling one thing they can control when other aspects of their life are beyond the person’s ability to control.
Another aspect of focusing on the physical toll of eating disorders, Stevenson said, is almost a form of dehumanization, with people forgetting that behind every body is a person and she hopes her work will help give those people a voice.
To that end, a very personal aspect of the exhibit will be a table, located in a central location in the gallery space featuring photography, news articles and items that belonged to Sarah to reiterate the human element of the art and the subject matter in an effort to “give Sarah her voice back.”
“This installation, consisting of 19 large-scale drawings and a box filled with family photos, objects, articles and drawings, strives to put the humanity back into the portrayal of eating disorder sufferers,” Stevenson said in describing “ana” on her website.
“Taking references from photos accompanying articles, medical textbooks and from anorexia- and bulimia-based online communities, and juxtaposing them with family photos, the work pushes the viewer to see the person behind the emaciated body they inhabit. The image of the healthy, very much alive person is seen through the keyhole, like shells of bodies that have been pushed to the edge.”