Canada Question
Retrospective takes in artist Claire Wilks’ gaze on the female form

Retrospective takes in artist Claire Wilks’ gaze on the female form

Retrospective takes in artist Claire Wilks’ gaze on the female form

Across the street from Barry Callaghan’s Rosedale house is a condo development under construction, still in its skeletal stage. It’s an eyesore that the Toronto author and publisher is attempting to hide by training wisteria vines across the porch to block the view of trucks and bare concrete.

This is the house that once belonged to his late father, CanLit pioneer Morley Callaghan, whose presence is sequestered to a library at the front of the house. The remaining space is a reflection of Callaghan’s life with his common-law wife, artist Claire Weissman Wilks, who died of leukemia in 2017 at age 83.

There are the terra-cotta faux wall treatments running throughout, painted by Wilks’ son to remind her of her favorite countries, Italy and Mexico. The cozy kitchen was completely Wilks’ territory until after she became ill, when she allowed Callaghan to make her scrambled eggs for breakfast. There is the front room with a famed piano, where the couple would throw legendary parties, with plenty of live music, food, drink and a carefully selected invite list that could include judges and gangsters, writers and artists.

Out of the Cave, Series I (a series of untitled works), 61.75 x 88.9 cm, monoprint, 2001
Out of the Cave, Series I (a series of untitled works), 61.75 x 88.9 cm, monoprint, 2001Eric Fefferman

And everywhere there is Wilks’ art, which she produced in her third-floor studio until the day before she died. It is now Callaghan’s mission to see that the love of his life gets the attention she deserved decades ago. To find new audiences for work that was once dismissed by some as “dirty drawings.”

Every room in the house, including the bathroom, is stacked with framed drawings and prints ready for pickup. It’s less than a week before the Heliconian Club will launch “The Genius of Claire Wilks,” the first non-member exhibition in the 113-year history of the women’s arts association, curated by Christian Bernard Singer. A smaller retrospective of her drawings, monoprints and sculptures will open nearby in Yorkville at Gallery Gevik on June 11, running until the 28th, accompanied by a catalog and a beautifully produced chapbook by poet Jessica Hiemstra.

Prolific with about 900 works in her catalogue, Wilks singularly focused on the female form — her landscape as she often referred to it. She wasn’t so interested in depicting breasts as she was depicting how breasts hang. “Other people do pine trees, I do the body,” she would say.

Hillmother (series), 62.7 x 100.3 cm, Cont� crayon, 1983
Hillmother (series), 62.7 x 100.3 cm, Cont� crayon, 1983Eric Fefferman

There is something ethereal in many of her subjects’ faces, in their flowing hair and how their eyes hold emotions. But these women are also grounded in their muscles and curves, with strong hands that seek pleasure or push against unknown forces, employing negative space to great effect. Often entangled together, sometimes carnal and at times violent, this is not art that asks for permission to take up space.

In a foreword to Wilks’ exhibition at Gallery Gevik, poet Anne Michaels writes, “Claire’s figures embody every kind of possession and dispossession — through sensation, communion, solitude, loneliness, banishment, muteness, grief. ecstatic; reref. Every kind of love.”

In the house’s staircase alcove surrounded by plants of varying health, there is a most extraordinary sculpture. Its engineering becomes even more remarkable when you learn that Wilks never professionally trained as a sculptor. A cylindric vortex of women’s bodies stands a couple of feet high, seemingly spinning and tumbling, connected by strong, confident limbs. It’s art you could engage with every day and still discover something new.

A large drawing hanging at the bottom of the stairs is at first startling in its depiction of a couple engaged in mutual oral sex, but decreasingly so once you start looking at its flowing lines, the ease with which Wilks depicted the intertwined human bodies. Knowing that Callaghan often posed as her male model gives a moment of pause. But the shock wears off.

Final Works (an untitled series) 29.7 x 20.3 cm, monoprint, 2015-16
Final Works (an untitled series) 29.7 x 20.3 cm, monoprint, 2015-16Eric Fefferman

Callaghan chuckles, “A lot of people said, ‘Well, that’s interesting. But I don’t want that on my dining-room wall.’”

In many ways, Callaghan’s attempts to shut out a new development encroaching on his home parallels the couple’s lives as artists, close to, but separated from the city around them. Callaghan rails against what he views as the puritanical or Protestant ethos of Toronto, of a local art scene that never completely embraced Wilks while she was alive.

“There was a part of a cultural world in this town which Claire and I stood apart from,” says Callaghan.

This is, after all, the same city where in 1993, artist Eli Langer was arrested for child pornography for his art, and had five works seized from Mercer Union gallery. (The charges were later dropped.) That same year, Wilks had her fifth exhibition of the decade, following successful international shows during the 1980s in Venice, Rome, Jerusalem and Zagreb, Croatia. At a 1987 exhibition in Stockholm, she was introduced by future Nobel Prize winner, poet Tomas Tranströmer.

Wilks’ work would continue to earn international acclaim and land in the private collections of David Cronenberg, Margaret Atwood and the late Graeme Gibson, Joyce Carol Oates and Moses Znaimer, among many others. Callaghan rhymes off stories of her many successes, the enamored reception Wilks received overseas, but always felt that she never received the recognition she deserved at home in Toronto.

For her entire life, Wilks had the single-minded desire to become an artist.

Born in 1933, Wilks was a student at Toronto’s Central Technical School, studying art under Doris McCarthy, when she contracted tuberculosis. For three years, she convalesced, and a year after recovering, married and had four children. But she continued drawing.

Artist Claire Wilks died in 2017 at the age of 83.

When her husband gave her the ultimatum: art or marriage, she chose art. Wilks was working at a retail shop in Yorkville when she was offered a job on the switchboards at CBC, eventually making her way up to the position of visual researcher at CBC Television, for which she won two Emmys — and met Callaghan.

Wilks would produce work in series, sequestering herself in her studio for several hours before dinner each day, when she would reconvene with Callaghan to talk about their respective projects. While her earlier black-and-white drawings are notable for their frank eroticism and interrogation into motherhood — in the “Hill Mother” series, women’s bodies are literally crawling with babies — after a trip to Mexico, Wilks began producing monoprints in colour, in which her figures curl in on themselves inside mysterious earthy containers. It was Margaret Atwood who lent the series their name, “Out of the Cave.”

Her final works evolved into the Coffin series, in which bodies are constricted into even tighter spaces, dissolving into muted brown tones. Michaels observes how the figures in Wilks’ later works after her diagnosis suggest “an uncompromising, heartbreaking, slow surrender.”

Sarah Milroy, critic and chief curator at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, was not familiar with Wilks’ work until recently, but has found herself particularly drawn to the “Hill Mother” series, which she believes deserves a place in feminist art history.

“There is a kind of seeing thing fecundity in these works — with the women’s bodies often smothered by her broods of babies — that is sometimes rapturous and sometimes truly terrifying,” she says by email. “I think she had the guts to really dig down deep into the complexity of maternal experience, and I think that took enormous courage in her day — and even now they seem transgressive.”

These works seem brave even now, decades later, but Callaghan says that until the end of her life, Wilks never perceived herself as a political or liberating force.

“She didn’t set out to draw figures saying, ‘Boy, this will shock somebody or I am being revolutionary,'” says Callaghan. “She drew what she saw, unabashedly.”


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