Capital News photographer Sean Connor with his Art From Memory Project original artwork inspired by the story of an Okanagan Valley veteran

Capital News photographer Sean Connor with his Art From Memory Project original artwork inspired by the story of an Okanagan Valley veteran

Museum display mixes art and history

  • Apr. 6, 2011 10:00 a.m.

There is a corner of the Okanagan Heritage Museum where the staff always seem to set up the interactive part of their displays.

Even if it’s by happenstance, they haven’t broken the mould with the latest exhibit, The Memory Project: Art and Stories of The Second World War, positioning an interesting place to compose handwritten notes to servicemen and women in that same back corner.

Yet this time, the entire collection is really an interactive display, a uniquely engaging approach to telling a story that most of us think we know—the story of the Second World War.

“These are really the human stories of what someone experienced in the day-to-day,” explained Davida Aronovitch, communications coordinator of The Historica-Dominion Institute.

“It really is about those smaller stories and vignettes.”

Aronovitch represents the team which has been diligently collecting veterans’ stories and posting them on an online archive for anyone to access, since September 2009.

The stories run the gauntlet of those involved in the war, from gunners on the front-lines to the women who handled supplies, and have given new life to the dates and timelines and critical facts taught in Canadian schools.

“It’s not about their actual duties as military personnel. It’s about their memories, and their memories often have nothing to do with the actual fighting,” said Patti Kilback, with the Okanagan Heritage Museum. “It’s about the food, and the clothes and the touching friendships they made.”

But showcasing those oral histories required a visual component, so The Memory Project posted a call to artists.

The resulting display brings snippets of the online archive of veteran’s testimonials to life via pieces of artwork which young and local artists, like potter Bridget Fairbank, have created by listening to the veterans’ tales. “It is interesting how the artists are asked to just look at the website, listen to the different oral histories…and something will catch them,” said Kilback.

“Sometimes it’s just a phrase or something that really grabs them and just makes them have all these images and memories of their own.”

In Fairbank’s case, for example, the Nelson-based potter found Hubert Lalonde’s testimonial hit home, about the importance of food for him as he battled in Europe.

At one point, Lalonde said he went four days without any rations and then he also lost his mess tin to a bullet.

The only alternative was a tin can and the recording goes on to describe how he put that can to good use.

“The cook, he poured hot water in there a couple of times to rinse it out and I said, fill it up. That’s how I ate my food that night because they couldn’t get me a mess tin,” Lalonde recalled.

Fairbank’s display is of a grouping of pottery mess tins, a plate-type object with a whole through it and snippets of the story inscribed on the side.

Just down the way,  Capital News photographer Sean Connor has given the project a stylized photograph he took at Brettville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery, a spot he wound up in while tracing his father’s footsteps during the war.

Some 2,872 Canadians are buried in the cemetery, along with much of Connor’s father’s unit.

He flipped through the oral histories online and connected with a local soldier named Nigel Taylor, who became a paraplegic as a result of a hit he took in a tank.

“My dad was a tanker as well and his story sort of resonated with me. He was in Italy and he was in a tank and one of his crew members was killed when he was hit,” said Connor.

Taylor’s story describes a horrific battle in which he was paralyzed from the waist down and the other soldier he was with was killed.

“He knocked it out and said, ‘I got him sir.’ And those were his last words because an anti-tank gun got us right after that and our tank went up in flames,” Taylor says on the recording.

There are more than 1,800 such oral histories online; over 2000 have been collected and the project’s funding was just renewed in March.

A painting at the back of the display serves as a reminder of just how important the collection is for future generations.

Local artist Rena Warren has painted a colourful depiction of famous local artist Mary Bull, who passed away last year.

Bull was a nurse in the war and over tea had told Warren some interesting tales of flirting with the servicemen.

But she also mentioned how deeply it impacted her, to hold a young soldier’s hand as he lay dying and how she carried that memory with her for the rest of her life.

“To us it’s very poignant…This isn’t a story we were able to capture, but this painting, which is a portrait of her at two different points in her life, as a storyteller of her history in the service and of herself as a young woman in the service, is another kind of tribute,” said Aronovitch.

The grand opening for the exhibit runs this Saturday, April 9, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the Okanagan Heritage Museum.

Admission is by donation. The exhibition will be in the museum until the end of November.



Kelowna Capital News