Red Trench Redux

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What happened was wrong. It’s time to make amends.

October 19, 2012 — It was probably the most controversial piece of art ever commissioned by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

It had a prominent place, hanging in a large open stairwell between the East and West Blocks of Confederation Building, where it was seen by thousands of people daily.

And then it exploded into controversy when a politician of the day pointed out that the Red Trench resembled a “giant vagina.” Much chatter ensued in the news and on talk radio, followed by half-hearted defence from government of its own art procurement program. Finally, the offending sculpture was taken down and placed into storage, where it remained for about five years until it found a home in the Arts and Administration Building at Memorial University.

It was one of the most terrible indignities ever committed against art and artist in this province.

The massive sculpture was the work of the late Don Wright, and was commissioned by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador during the 1980s. The co-founder of St. Michael’s Printshop, Wright was a soft-spoken, sensitive and gentle man who didn’t like to talk a whole lot about his work, preferring to let viewers draw their own conclusions.

Born a hemophiliac, Wright contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion and succumbed in 1988. He didn’t say very much publicly about the Red Trench before he died; so we are left to speculate on his artistic intent. However, it is difficult to deny the clear and unmistakable reference to female genitalia in the sculpture.

That said, Wright’s intent was not erotic or pornographic, according to those who knew him at the time. 

“This hangs like a skeleton over the government, that that sculpture has been pushed down where it is,” artist and arts critic Peter Bell told me, in 1990. “For anybody to try to impute any kind of diseased motive to Don Wright’s work simply doesn’t know anything about Don Wright.”

Because he lived and died before the dawn of the Internet, there is not a great deal of information available online about Don Wright or the Red Trench. However, I have spoken with people who knew the artist, and spent time with him when he was inspired to create the Red Trench.

Retired geology professor Ian Emerson was friends with Wright during the early 1980s, including 1983, when he witnessed a ritual that was the genesis of Red Trench.

“Every day during the spring and summer months of that year, he would walk down to Clear Cove, not too far from his place (in Port Kirwan),” Emerson said. “With a stick, he’d draw a line in the sand pointing out toward the water. The idea was that the sun would rise, at the same time the (tide) water would come into the trench. The light would then strike the edges of his little trough and that’s where he got the genesis of the idea for the red trench… He always sat down and put his feet on either side of the trench so a lot of his drawings had his feet in there, and he often had his pug with him so that would sometimes end up in the drawing too.”

Carolyn Emerson, Ian’s wife at the time, remembers it well.

“I recall he was using a cane then because he was hemophiliac, and was dealing with a lot of swelling and pain in his joints and knees and stuff. At that point was using cane to get around. He talked about going down to Clear Cove in the morning and drawing this trench perpendicular to the beach line, so it was pointing out into the ocean, and he would watch the sun come up and the waves come in, and the changing pattern of the wave action on the sand. I remember at the time Ian and I picked up sticks and drew some trenches as well and sat there watching, appreciating the experience of being in that place with Don.”

Wright performed this ritual every day, weather permitting, usually by himself and always at sunrise. “The sun would have been higher when I was there,” Ian Emerson said, adding that Wright sketched and painted the trench many times before creating his controversial sculpture.  He says Wright was hurt terribly by suggestions that his creation was sexually exploitative.

“Obviously Don didn’t intend that at all. And he was really, really disappointed – that is the lightest word I could possibly use – that people saw his art that way, and possibly could think of him that way. He was really upset… He said, ‘Now I know I have to be more careful of my symbolism and think about other ways in which my work might be interpreted.’ … It became a political issue rather than an art issue. For someone who knows nothing about art, it became a pretty easy target.”

Pat Grattan was chair of the province’s art procurement program when the Red Trench controversy hit its peak. She said a lot of people saw the work because of its prominent location.

“And people going through there started calling it rude names and sniggering about it and it kind of went from there. My understanding was that it was politicians who were doing the sniggering. The comments were crude enough that I think women who wandered through that space and heard those comments felt very uncomfortable.”

Grattan said she understands how some women would feel discomfort in that situation. “We are talking about the Eighties when sexual imagery in everyday life (was not common). I don’t know how it would be received today. I’d like to think better, but I don’t know… Whatever the genesis of the image, I don’t think you could deny that there was some – intentional or not – vaginal resemblance.”

Grattan feels the controversy distorted people’s perceptions of other works by Wright that clearly had nothing to do with the Red Trench. “Years later I remember the arts council in Burin wanted to bring him down there to give a school workshop and one of the local priests got wind of it and stopped that from going ahead, which was from my perspective grossly unfair to the artist and deprived the children in the workshop session of having a great teacher.”

In 1987, not long after the Red Trench furor died down, Wright produced a show of works called “Falling” that foreshadowed his impending death. This is how art critic Anne Lamar described that show, when I interviewed her in 1990:

“I had no idea that Don Wright had AIDS or that he was dying,” Lamar said. “The arts community was very respectful from that point of view… I remember going to that show and being really taken aback and really shocked. I found it horrific and depressing… I thought I knew what was going on in the show but I didn’t understand why he was doing it.

“There was a point in that show where you feel like you were being dragged,” Lamar continued. “There’s all these images of the root cellar, and the falling images themselves… (which) always seem to me to be spiraling out of control into an unknown… To me, these last pieces that he did were a very personal kind of terror, a personal lack of control… I find these final works immensely disturbing from that perspective.”

When we regard the Red Trench in its historical and cultural context, and consider it within the arc of Don Wright’s brilliant artistic career, there is really no way to impute any crass motives to the work.

I think – and many art critics agree – that the Red Trench is about birth, life and the fecundity of our natural world with the female reproductive organs playing an essential role.

It is time to make amends to Don Wright, for the way we scorned and insulted him.

And it is time we restored some dignity to his most dramatic piece of work, by moving it to a more prominent place in our cultural milieu. Its current location is pleasant and bright, but it still feels to me like the Red Trench is hidden from the mainstream, as if we are still embarrassed by it.

It is time we moved it to a place where people go first and foremost to appreciate art. I can think of no better venue than The Rooms, with its dramatic architecture and soaring interior spaces.  Let’s make the Red Trench a permanent installation in The Rooms.

We owe it to Don Wright. And to ourselves.

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Recent comments

  • shawn o'hagan
    November 27, 2012 - 09:29

    this is a piece that a lot of contemporary young artists here in newfoundland don't know. so happy that it's being discussed again. i constantly miss don.

  • Peter Morris
    October 25, 2012 - 08:41

    For current background on Red Trench, I posted much of the following on the comments section for Peter Jackson's column but thought it would also be helpful to post here for those interested. Red Trench is publicly displayed at MUN. It has been since it was installed in the early 1990s in what was then the new Arts Building Annex. At the time, the university also developed a pamphlet to go along with the exhibit (it was placed on the wall adjacent to the installation) that provided context of the piece, including Don Writght's process in developing it.. Its placement is prominent and very public. Hundreds of students, faculty, staff and visitors to MUN see it every day - tens of thousands over the course of the year. They come from all over the province and all around the world. It's placed in a heavy traffic area. And if viewers wanted a closer look, they can take the glass elevator ride to the top floor in the annex which takes passengers the full length of the several stroies high installation. For those interested in seeing it, the Arts and Administration Building is the main MUN building on Elizabeth Avenue (with the flags in front). Just walk through to the back of that building to find the Annex and Red Trench is installed in the atrium on the wall opposide the glass elevator.

  • Peter Jackson
    October 22, 2012 - 15:26

    My problem is the omission of a key timeline in the Trench kerfuffle. Some advocates scolded people for daring to even suggest the resemblance, as if it didn't exist. Wright didn't speak up till after the fact. You suggest we need to "make amends" to Wright. I agree his excellent contributions to the local art scene are worth celebrating. However, I think some perspective is owed to those poor sods who were ridiculed and berated simply for not feeling comfortable with a giant vagina on their wall. It was the wrong idea for the wrong place. More to come in my Wednesday column.

    • dawn
      October 23, 2012 - 09:23

      I'm with Peter on this one and I not only think it looks like a vagina, but a not so clean on at that. I wouldn't want to have to see it every day. Sorry if that makes me less of an "art appreciator", but it seems ot me that ppl can do anything under the guise of art.....there was a dead dog on display here in Halifax. And it was "art".

  • Geoff Meeker
    October 22, 2012 - 14:23

    Peter, your criticism is off base. If Wright actually did acknowledge that the resemblance to a vulva was intentional, I didn’t see that back then. Nor did the people I interviewed for this entry. Clearly Wright was coy about it. But there can be no question that there IS a resemblance and it was deliberate – I said as much in my conclusion. The point is that Wright’s intentions were not prurient. By calling my blog “one sided,” I suspect you think otherwise; that you think Wright was playing a sniggering joke on the government. I certainly don’t agree with that. I sought out the people I interviewed for this column. They were surprised to hear from me and are not seeking “beatification” for Wright. Further, the suggestion to relocate Red Trench to the Rooms was mine, not theirs. My blog is an opinion piece, but I did conduct three interviews to add depth and perspective. When is the last time you interviewed and quoted someone in your column?

  • Christopher Richardson
    October 21, 2012 - 11:53

    I did the original Here and Now pieces on The Red Trench. I believe I did two. I'll never forget going to Don's studio and interviewing him about the piece. I asked him directly(because I was sent out with that charge from the executive producer of Here and Now) if it was a symbolic vaginal representation. I can still see the slight smirk on his face ... Twinkle in his eyes as he said - no not at all. One can bring what one may to a piece of art. He was actually quite patient and gentle with the brand new journalist in his studio. Then I was told to go up and question the construction workers about what THEY thought the piece resembled. You can imagine the comments I got on camera from that visit. Finally, I came back - edited my piece - and brought my intro into Billy Kelly to be approved for Glen Tilley's broadcast. I was coy in my intro - not quite sure how to approach it. Bill Kelly was not having none of that. "Vagina. Vagina. Lets not leave people guessing here. Lets just put it out there - just say what everyone is already thinking." So I went back to my typewriter (what?? What was that?? Typewriter???) and banged out an intro that didn't hide behind innuendo or euphemisms. I sat there amazed as I watched Glenn read my copy ... He really pushed the word 'vagina' too: "some say its a VAGINA ... Described as art." I remember feeling quite sad when I learned of Don's death. I was so green in my reporting experience and he knew it. But he was very gentle with me that day in his studio. And I never forgot it. The construction workers - however - are a different story.....

  • Peter Jackson
    October 21, 2012 - 08:58

    Don Wright did talk publicly about the Red Trench before he died. He admitted he vagina resemblance was, at least in part, deliberate. I don't know why this important fact has been conveniently forgotten over the years, but I suspect it has something to do with keeping his artistic beatification on track. Wright was a great artist, and worthy of tribute. But this summary of the Trench story is sadly one-sided.

  • Judy Snow
    October 20, 2012 - 14:42

    I am old enough (and then some) to remember the uproar. To display the Red Trench prominently at The Rooms would speak to our cultural growth in this province. To continue to allow it to languish in relative obscurity screams the opposite.

  • Chris O'Neill-Yates
    October 20, 2012 - 10:15

    I grew up in Port Kirwan and I knew Don Wright to be a rare and beautiful human being. He always took an interest in us kids when many adults did not. He always made time to chat with us whenever we dropped by and to teach us to draw, to make kites, to bake gingerbread men. We all loved him. I remember Don Wright organizing a bus trip for children from Port Kirwan to come to St. John's and see an art exhibition at the Arts and Culture Centre. I was one of those children. It was my first gallery show and I have never forgotten it. On one of my many visits to Don's studio in Clears Cove when he was busily working on what would eventually become the Red Trench I asked him what he was making. He explained that he was capturing water flowing into trenches he'd made in the sand in Clears Cove and the light from the sun reflecting on it. It made perfect sense to me. Don had always spent a lot of time walking, keenly observing and he took his inspiration from everything he saw around him. So, needless to say when this crass, obscene interpretation of the Red Trench hit the media those of us who knew this kind, gentle soul were horrified. Twenty five years after his death, you're right, Geoff, it is long past time to make amends to Don Wright and his family. If the Red Trench is not an individual's artistic cup of tea, that is one thing. We are all entitled to our opinions on art, or anything else for that matter. But the indignity and insult committed on this remarkable man - one of our most talented artists, the co-founder of St. Michael's Print Shop, an institution which has allowed our artists to flourish - needs to repaired. It won't undo the harm done. But would speak well of our society's respect for its artists. Better late than never.

  • Barry Parsons
    October 20, 2012 - 08:37

    Thanks for this thoughtful reflection on one of the most inane episodes in the history of art in the province. Working at MUN, I get to see this piece every day and to me it evokes images of the sea relating to the genesis of life. I agree that this piece does need and deserve a place as a permanent installation at The Rooms. The Red Trench is not only a great art piece by an important and influential contributor to the local art movement, it is now also part of the history of our reaction to artistic expression. The piece has some damage in the upper section, which I believe I once read was sustained during its time in storage. The Rooms is the appropriate place for such an important piece to be properly preserved and professionally curated.

  • doug xu
    October 19, 2012 - 16:09

    It is sad to say, as an artist born in Newfoundland that unless the picture includes some form of Newfoundland Outport it is never understood or appriciated. If the typicial ugly colored salt box is not the main focal point ....nar a glance will be given..SO SAD. I lived in St.John's at the time of the Red Trench and was not surpised at the uneducated comments. Hanging this work in the ugliest salt box of all ...The Rooms ..would be an even greater insult to the artist. Newfoundland Artist living away.....thank God