I have a thing for fabrics. It could be because I grew up playing between the skirt racks in my mother’s clothing store in the nineteen fifties where I came in contact with taffetas, wool plaids, silk chemises and good sturdy cottons. It could also be because as a teenager my mother tried to distract me from boys by buying me a sewing machine. Or maybe it’s because later in Montreal during the 70s, I amassed a great collection of vintage clothing thanks to the abundance of 2nd hand stores and church basement sales. Regardless of the reasons, what I like to do with fabric these days is freeze it. In January 2007 I arrived at the Gibraltar Point Center for the Arts on Toronto Island to do just that.
Since my graduation from the Emily Carr College of Art in 1986 my art practice has progressed from costume design to paper casting and photo transfers to eco-art installations. The latter work consists of creating ephemeral outdoor sculptures in tandem with the seasons; in the winter I work with ice and in the summer I use live plant materials. Over the years my art has consistently dealt with issues of the body, of adornment and encasement. My foray into environmental art began a few years ago when a sudden snowstorm blew into Vancouver and I became curious about making ice and photographing it. I had already experimented with photographing textiles in water and so it seemed a natural progression to imbed fabric in ice. I took a red silk slip and laid it in a shallow bath of water and let it freeze outdoors overnight. The next day, when I stood the slab of ice upright and noticed the almost x-ray layers of folds and seams accentuated by the sunlight piercing the colour, I was hooked. The next winter I went to the Banff Centre to create ice installations but the Chinooks made the weather too unpredictable so I planned to go Toronto Island the following year for two months to further my experiments with ice casting.
I arrived on the island with two large suitcases filled with fabric, vintage dresses, and a full alphabet of large plastic letters, long underwear and piles of snow gear. My research into past weather patterns informed me that the area would be cold enough for my projects. Imagine my disappointment on January 10th as I stood on the grass by the ferry dock in the warm sunlight. I had come from Vancouver to the cold eastern shores of lake Ontario to further my passion for outdoor installations with ice and I began to think I should turn around and head north instead.
"Green Dress" -Cotton Dress in Ice
Once ensconced in my bedroom and my studio at the Gibraltar Centre though, I was ready to wait for the inevitable cold fronts to blow in. I had been looking forward to having the luxury of time and space to let my work evolve and I assured myself that the experience would prove fulfilling. What artist does not dream of having nothing but time and a studio to pursue their creative muse? The Gibraltar Centre was an idyllic location for my art residency because the absence of urban distractions allowed me to concentrate on my work and it was close enough to the city for day trips to galleries. There are no stores or cars on the island, which only adds to its immeasurable charm. The camaraderie of the artists and islanders plus the long walks on the beach and the soothing quiet compensated for the inconvenience of travel and shopping.
The centre itself is an old school complex that houses studios and rooms for artists to live in for any amount of time. There are a few permanent artists but for the most part, stays are usually around three weeks. Artists ranging from dancers to writers and composers come with a specific project in mind and many return yearly. My studio space had once been a classroom and it was well lit, warm, clean and furnished with chairs and tables. On my first day I unpacked the various garments I had brought and hung them all around the room to inspire me. I felt privileged to be able to take the time necessary to let my project develop. In comparison to my shared studio in Vancouver, this environment felt more intimate and focused.
The cold finally arrived and I began to work outside in earnest. The location of my first project was by the historical lighthouse across the road. After reading the plaque re-telling the haunting story of a grizzly murder in 1815, I selected a full-length dress with a high collar and lace yoke and froze it in a large vat filled with water carried in buckets from the nearby lagoon. A few days later it took a few helpers to slide the three-inch thick, five feet high slab of solid ice out of its mould and stand it upright. When I returned with my camera I heard voices coming from inside the lighthouse and for a second I wondered if my work had disturbed the island spirits. Unbeknownst to me the lighthouse was frequented by tours of city children who have the ghost story narrated to them from inside its stone walls.
My photographs of frozen garments have an underwater or suspended quality that imbues them with a sense of mystery and longing: buttons surrounded by bubbles, lace trapped in cracks, pleats creating geometric patterns in the light. The effect I am searching for is poetic. Garments, being the outer shell of our psyche serve as imprints of memory and their isolation can conjure up feelings of entrapment or freedom depending on the viewer’s interpretation. My aim is to replicate the experience of translucence and luminosity onto film. As a photographer I am confronted with many challenges such as equipment failure in the cold temperatures and the unpredictability of having only the sun as a light source. My experience with ice has taught me that the ephemeral quality of this substance should never be taken for granted and to therefore document it as soon as possible because it could suddenly melt, fall over or be snowed in. I was reminded of this when I installed a blue silk slip by the waters edge. The cold winds off the lake had been spraying water onto the shoreline creating layers of icicles on the trees and so I hung the garment on a branch hoping that icicles would form on it. I took some initial shots and I planned to document the build-up as it occurred on a daily basis. I did not anticipate the heavy storms that would unfortunately impede my photography and also encase the dress in ice so thick that it disappeared altogether. I comforted myself by thinking I would shoot it when it melted but the whole shoreline became eroded and fell into the lake. I sometimes think of that blue slip on the bottom of Lake Ontario wondering if some poor unsuspecting fisherman will ever discover it.
"Icicle Slip" -Silk slip encased in Ice
I created several other ice installations with garments during my residency and each new project presented technical challenges and unexpected results, such as the frozen skirt that resembled a floating jellyfish and my experiments with the blue food colouring looking like topographical maps of undiscovered tropical islands because sand blew into them while it was freezing. I also envisioned a project that was comprised of five large slabs containing dresses that were to be stood in a circle but the ice cracked as we endeavoured to stand them upright and I had to be content with the figures flying instead of standing. I also created a series of words composed with ice letters that I then placed in the landscape. The most ambitious was the word: View, which stood six feet tall on the pier facing the lake. The solid ice letters were cast from water poured into wood moulds and left to freeze for a week. Some days I was covered in ice myself as I laboriously poured buckets of water from the lake into the giant moulds. The learning curve for this project was high but I learned a tremendous amount about mould making in sub-zero weather.
"Blue Suite Detail" -Organza in Ice, Blue Dye and Blue Food Colouring
My art practice requires patience, determination and a certain detachment when working within the context of ephemeral art. One day a writer in residence at the Gibraltar Centre came across my installation of the word: Flux and she asked me why I had chosen this word. I explained that it related to the notion of change that embodies all of my work. How we strive for security in our lives even though we know deep down that nothing stays the same and that we are all in constant flux. This mother of three teenage boys, who was at the centre to work on her novel, instantly grasped my meaning and said thank you. It is not only the work that you create during an art residency that matters. It is also the people you interact with while making your soup in the communal kitchen on a cold February afternoon.
You can view Nicole Dextras’ work at: http://www.nicoledextras.com And see her images from her residency at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ndextras