Shared memory

Sarah Smellie
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Nicole Russell and Sarah Feltham find a common thread

On a rocky island, a female figure sits with her legs folded. She has a turtle shell on her back and an urchin on her head, like a helmet. There’s a compass in her belly, and a small red house has been built on her knee. Behind her, a little blue monster has snuck up out of the ocean.

The Celluclay sculpture, called “Tangled Without Release,” was made by artist Nicole Russell.

“This creature is afraid of everything,” says Russell. “So she’s staying in one place without moving, and all these houses have been built around her. She has everything she needs to get up and move: she has a compass, she has these shells of these creatures that take their homes with them, she has legs. But there’s her fear, which I wanted to be a sea monster, because I wanted her fears to not be real.”

“Tangled Without Release” is part of a new Craft Council exhibition at Devon House, called “Following Memories.” The show features sculptures by Russell and hooked rugs by Sarah Feltham.

Russell and Feltham, who say their friendship is like a sisterhood, have been working on the pieces for “Following Memories” since 2009.

“‘Following Memories’ is a title and an idea for the show we came up with that fit with the work we were both doing,” says Feltham. “It was also a push for us to keep making art and to give us something to focus on.”

Russell’s sculptures — a man with a moon on his head, a crow perched above a red house, a woman’s bust made of winding tree roots — are all inspired by a dream she had in which she was constantly trying to reach a red house, but could never get there.

“For me, this project was about following dreams and things that happened in my past and things that I’d like to happen in my future,” says Russell.

Feltham’s bright, intricate rugs are all based on photographs of her family and the places where they grew up: a Deer Island harbour scene with waters full of fish, a cluster of family on a fishing stage, and colourful houses with dark windows.

“For me,” says Feltham, “the idea was about starting at a particular point, at a photograph, and then working from that point to develop my own interpretation or my own story from it.”

Her piece “Deer Island, Dream Island,” the harbour scene teeming with cod and flanked by women standing atop salt fish, Feltham used an old photo taken from a boat off Deer Island, where her family lived before resettling in Glovertown.

“I’ve only been to Deer Island once and so it’s based on my interpretation of that photograph and my idea of the place,” she says. “The idea of the cod fish and the fishery there, and the woman on either side, framing it in, is based on the woman supporting the fisherman and the fishery. Those figures were based on a photograph of my grandmother. So there was a little pocket of photographs that I put together to create this.”

Feltham and Russell both live in Conception Bay South and worked separately on their pieces, though it was a joint project right from the beginning. So although they mostly worked alone, they would seek each other’s input and, ultimately, each other’s inspiration.

“Even though we were on our own paths and doing our own work, it was so nice to pick up the phone or run over to Nicole’s studio and say, ‘This is what I’m doing, this is what’s happening, why is this not working, what do you think?’” says Feltham. “It was great to bounce those ideas back and forth, and to know that you have that support there from that other person. More than anything, we both know we’re going to be really honest with each other and when something is working really well or needs be to revisited, we’ll say so.”

“I think, too, that we started to feed off each other,” adds Russell. “I would see her work and then get inspired and put some element that she had in my work, and vice versa.”

Though each worked from a different interpretation of the show’s title and theme, Russell and Feltham say they weren’t too surprised to that the shapes, colours and feel of their collections fit together so well.

“Even though they are very different pieces of work, they have this common thread,” says Feltham. “Nicole tells the stories of her dreams and her subconscious, and I tell the stories of my interpretations of my background and my family. And all of that comes from the same place.”

“Following Memories” and “A Sullen Silence” open Saturday with a reception at Devon House from 2-4 p.m.

Also opening Saturday in the Devon House Annex is “A Sullen Silence,” a collection of quilts by St. John’s-based textile artist Heidi Wagner.

Wagner made all the quilts herself and then, reflecting on the abandoned communities of rural Newfoundland, she broke them down to make them look old, lost, and left behind.

“I used bricks, sandpaper, wire brushes ­and a sander to break the quilts down,” says Wagner. “It was a really difficult thing to do to my work. The process, though, relates to the idea of the show, reflecting the work that has been put into a quilt and how it came into being. Maybe it was made to keep people warm or to tell a story about someone’s family. So doing that made me reflect about how these things come to be and the work that goes into them and how they then get left behind, and how people have moved on and houses and communities have been left behind.

“It was such a hard thing to do, it was awful,” she says, laughing. “Now all I want to do is make quilts and give them to people!”

Organizations: Devon House, Craft Council

Geographic location: Deer Island, Glovertown, Conception Bay South Newfoundland

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