History and art come together for emotive showing

“Army Dreamers” features trench art and war brides.

In a display of the emotional and artistic elements of the world wars, the Owens Art Gallery presented a historically oriented collection entitled “Army Dreamers” from March 15 to April 28. Curated by Rebecca Blankert, the collection featured an assortment of “trench art” created by soldiers during World War I, in addition to contemporary pieces by Bev Tosh that highlight the perspectives and experiences of Canadian and European war brides.

Trench art was often constructed using rifle casings, empty artillery shells, gas masks, grenades, pins or buttons, and virtually any item commonly accessible to soldiers in trenches or dugouts. Because World War I was historically the first highly “mechanized” war due to technological advances in modern weaponry and warfare, these items would be viewed by soldiers as possessing immensely devastating associations and capabilities. As this exhibit demonstrates, however, these objects of war were viewed by some as outlets for expression and escape in such a terrifying world.

Many of the pieces displayed in the Owens’ exhibit consist of domestic objects, such as Corporal Frank Alexander Cameron’s “Tea Set” from 1905 and a lamp created by the Red Chevron Association of Nova Scotia. The striking contrast between the deadly purpose of the pieces utilized and the domestic purpose of the finished product could suggest an attempt to restore humanity or even household practicality to a place where both of these were frequently absent. In addition, Blankert points out that the Red Chevron Association’s collaborative effort on their lamp also represented a culmination of the regiment’s “camaraderie and connection” that identified them as “brothers in arms”.

In response to these memoirs and artistic products of war, Bev Tosh’s contemporary collection reflects the experiences of women who married soldiers and emigrated from Europe after the conclusion of World War II in order to make a new life in Canada. Tosh’s art showcases the leap of faith made by tens of thousands of women in an attempt to highlight their collective and individual bravery, which is often underrepresented in our history books and cultural narratives.

Tosh’s collage of photographs, drawings, and written messages entitled “Whispering Wall” introduces the exhibit, and is arranged to illustrate the vastness of individual experiences that are all a crucial part of our Canadian heritage. Each photo and drawing portrays each war bride in a different light, accentuating the complexity of the emigration experience and the impact that it has upon identity. A similar effect is achieved with Tosh’s collection entitled “Shoulder-to-Shoulder”, a series of painted wooden boards that also feature a diverse array of war brides and an invocation of their importance with regard to both Canadian and world history.

Through the Owens’ exhibit, both Bev Tosh and the collective trench artists successfully shed light upon perspectives and aspects of war that are not commonly discussed or explored. Trench art and the war brides demonstrate that the battles themselves are only a small part of the effects and experiences of these historical events. The exhibition also highlights the important truth that the shock of war can occasionally be countered with glimmers of opportunity and hope.

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