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.