Massachusetts-born artist explores vestiges of Newfoundland’s past

Joan Sullivan
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There’s a there-but-not-thereness to the work of visual artist Carol Bajen-Gahm. She’s inspired very much by the landscape and its physical residues, and yet there is something incredibly subtle about her tones and her edges — something even haunting.

 Bajen-Gahm’s solo exhibition, “Vestiges,” is open at the Christina Parker Gallery, and runs until Nov. 30.

Originally from Massachusetts, in 2002 Bajen-Gahm came to spend a month as a resident painter at the James Baird studio.  She and her husband “loved it so much,” she explained as she stood amidst her work, about to be installed for the upcoming show.

“And it was January. We came back the next year and looked for a house.”

Last year they became permanent residents.

A few years ago she invited R & F Handmade Paints of Kingston, N.Y., to come and conduct workshops on encaustic (hot pigmented wax) techniques. Half of those were done at her studio, and half at St. Michael’s printshop.

“And when they left they left all their equipment. They said, ‘Now you can teach encaustic.’”

Surprised but unfazed, she and her friend and fellow artist Margaret Ryall then attended an R & F training session and became certified teachers.

Before this, she worked in oil paint, making “very abstract images. Now I see the possibilities of encaustic, although I use it differently than other people. I like to use clear wax, to make translucent surfaces, and paint over and under them.”

More than a dozen small pieces, part of her “Shoreline” series, seem organic and fragile and sieved from the coastline.

“We live right on the Torbay beach and it changes so radically, even day to day. I think it’s because it’s all so much rock and it slams against itself.”

These are collographs with mixed media; sand from three different Newfoundland beaches — Torbay, Bell Island, and Sandy Cove — and tobacco netting, which is a very fine mesh tobacco farmers spread over entire fields to protect the vulnerable young crop. “It’s just beautiful.”

To create these works, she first made a collograph print, then glued it to a board, and then “infused it with wax. It took quite a number of layers for the paper to absorb it.”

A “Traces of Presence” series of paintings is done in traditional Newfoundland and Labrador colours, like the old dory buff and the more recent, 1970s heritage tones introduced to jazz up the St. John’s downtown.

Their imagery, though, is neither necessarily dated nor modern, but of an interior all of her own.

“I’m really interested in the old buildings that deteriorate, sheds and old houses and the Cape Spear Battery. I wanted to put in a little more intimation of architectural stuff. It’s not real, although the shapes are Battery shapes.”

And the colours?

“There’s a lot of cement, broken walls, ice on the floor, things growing. That’s intriguing to me. And I want a kind of minimalist contrast, a contrast between some kind of velvety colours and the roughness of things like the Battery or the deteriorating houses.”

Another series, “Riddle Fence” came from a workshop on this “almost lost art,” which included actually making a riddle fence.

“There is a theme to my work, of ephemera, vestiges, things that have either disappeared or are in the process of disappearing.”

Building from that, though, there is much that is present.

“I like to make it mysterious. An aim of mine is to have someone walk into the painting, and maybe go someplace a little scary.”

Then there’s her “Torbay Cod Flakes,” based, in part, on an old photograph.

Cod flakes “used to be everywhere. I became fascinated. They are such mysterious places. They are huge, but rickety.”

Infrastructure that existed; emulsions of chance and connection that are screen-projected now: these are both strong elements in Bajen-Gahm’s work here.

As she explained it: “The paintings look back in time. These prints are about looking down on a beach.”

One shows what you remember, and the other what you might see.

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Massachusetts, Torbay Kingston, N.Y. Bell Island

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