Portraits and Collections is the culmination of a multidimensional project by Toronto artist Katherine Knight. Her documentation of a local Nova Scotian’s personal textile collection and its rural setting examines the idiosyncrasies of a needlepoint craze that was all the rage in Canada 150 years ago. Through Knight’s meticulously conceived inventory of 173 stitched decorative mottos owned by collector Jane Webster, a nuanced reading is introduced about the persistence of memory, tradition, and narrative. She responds to the allure of this singular collection through photography, video, and audio recordings, revealing how an object’s meaning can shift as it passes from hand to hand. Knight has captured the entire collection both as a series of individual objects and as they were hung throughout the collector’s home in thoughtful, at times witty, groupings—ultimately creating portraits of a collection. Room by room, she photographed the home’s living spaces where Webster kept the textiles on permanent display for the enjoyment of family and friends. Knight’s images are transformative records that provide close-ups of these delightful examples of handwork from another era.
Through music and spoken word, the exhibition resonates with the spirit of the mottos’ largely anonymous makers. For the multimedia work Forget Me Not (2016-17), which is at the core of the installation, Knight recorded the distant yet familiar voices of four generations of girls and women from Pictou County, Nova Scotia, where the collection is housed. As they recite the mottos through memory, imitation, and interpretation, their voices produce a somewhat disquieting air that reverberates across time. In adjacent galleries, audio recordings of traditional hymns and popular songs, from which many of the needlepoint texts and images are traced, are performed by York University music students, building sustained human connections through the intimacy of individual voices.
Portraits and Collections is Knight’s way of connecting with and caring for this collection and the woman who selected, lived with, and shared it with friends and family for much of her adult life. As Knight creates and amasses her own series of images and sounds into a personal body of work, she participates in the human impulse to collect. Through this process, she has evocatively called up a past and given it new character by translating tradition, history, and memorabilia into a project that extends the reach of Webster’s legacy into a new creative endeavour.
Portraits and Collections is a companion exhibition to Kind Words Can Never Die: A Personal Collection of Victorian Needlework, curated by Anna Richard. Kind Words Can Never Die is the first public exhibition of Webster’s comprehensive collection of Victorian stitched mottos. These textiles are shown alongside documents that tell the story of their original nineteenth-century cultural context. Images from the 1940s to the 1970s, selected from family albums, attest to the pleasure this lovingly displayed collection of mottos brought into the lives of Webster’s friends and family.
Organized by and presented in partnership with the Textile Museum of Canada