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Traces artist tracks the lives of 12 Black Rock Terrace residents

By in Culture
This wide-angle view of the Snelgrove Gallery features Donna Bilyk’s individual portraits, right, and a group painting, far left.
This wide-angle view of the Snelgrove Gallery features Donna Bilyk’s individual portraits, right, and a group painting, far left.

Two missing canvasses in a three-by-four grid of paintings might make Donna Bilyk’s MFA exhibit Traces seem incomplete, but the blank spots are integral to her show.

Bilyk began studying for her BFA in 1985. After a 20-something year hiatus from school, she completed her bachelor’s from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta in 2011. Now she’s fast-tracked her master’s at the University of Saskatchewan.

Her graduating exhibit, now on display at the Gordon Snelgrove Gallery, takes inspiration from Bilyk’s time working at Black Rock Terrace, a seniors’ independent living complex, in Lethbridge.

The show focuses on 12 residents from the complex who were happy to share their stories with Bilyk and collaborate on her project.

The two blank spots on the grid, which sits on a wall opposite the gallery entrance, represent the residents who have passed away since Bilyk began her work.

The grid, titled “In Memory of,” consists of 10 solid-coloured paintings, each painted in a different colour. The pieces are arranged in such a way to correspond with her exhibit’s other works.

For instance, on the left side of the gallery, 12 large portraits of the residents Bilyk came to know line the walls. The first portrait in the line of works corresponds with the top left painting in the grid. The third portrait in the line corresponds with the third spot in the grid’s top row — a blank spot.

The grid, Bilyk said, is meant to represent the institutionalization of the residents at Black Rock Terrace.

“You’re in a system where you’re all a group but the grid separates you,” Bilyk said. “You’re all kind of clumped into a rent payment and a room number, and, I mean, there’s care there but it’s just that now it’s an institution in a sense.”

The portraits Bilyk painted counter the grid; they are much more personal.

The portraits, however, still fit the institutionalized theme of Bilyk’s exhibit as the residents all appear very similar in the paintings. Bilyk used photoshop to simplify the portraits. She employed the digital medium and its filters to alter and dissolve her reference material in order to plan out the images she would paint onto canvas.

She explores the personalization of the Black Rock Terrace residents much more thoroughly at the back of the gallery.

Tucked away behind a separate wall in Snelgrove’s back corner are what Bilyk refers to as her closet drawings. Bilyk wanted to create something less conceptualized to show the subjects of Traces, something she could display in a separate exhibit that would be recognizable to the residents of Black Rock Terrace.

In her closet drawings, Bilyk recreated important photographs from the lives of her 12 subjects in charcoal drawings. These prints were never meant to be included in the Snelgrove exhibit, but Bilyk decided to include the drawings after her supervisor insisted.

In the centre of the Snelgrove gallery, Bilyk included a little bit of herself in a work titled “Pieces of Me.” The acrylic painting is an abstract image of hair clippings against the white backdrop of her bathroom sink. At first glance it might be mistaken for a snow storm or trees standing in the winter landscape.

Bilyk wanted to include a piece of herself that had been removed.

“Just like [the residents have] been part of my life but they’re not attached,” she said. “My hair, of course, once you cut it it’s gone, but it’s still part of me, it’s a piece of me but it’s not me literally.”

Traces closes on March 15 with a reception that night from 7-10pm.

Photo: Brett Smith

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