Sisters put on a show

Joan Sullivan
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Bonnie Leyton and Leanne Averbach present multi-media exhibition that tells family stories

"Teacups & Mink" is a duet of two artists - Bonnie Leyton, a painter and sculptor, and Leanne Averbach, a poet and performer. They are also sisters, a relationship integral to the exhibition.

The title itself merges two symbols central to their family. The teacups come from an idea their entrepreneurial father once had, that customers who brought in a teacup got a mattress tax-free (he operated a furniture business at the time). Tea was also an important custom of European home life. Mink represents wealth and comfort, the good things the Averbach family acquired through hard work.

"I Carried Her on My Back Before She Was Born" (clay and acrylic).

"Teacups & Mink" is a duet of two artists - Bonnie Leyton, a painter and sculptor, and Leanne Averbach, a poet and performer. They are also sisters, a relationship integral to the exhibition.

The title itself merges two symbols central to their family. The teacups come from an idea their entrepreneurial father once had, that customers who brought in a teacup got a mattress tax-free (he operated a furniture business at the time). Tea was also an important custom of European home life. Mink represents wealth and comfort, the good things the Averbach family acquired through hard work.

The multi-media exhibition is packed with pieces, each carefully detailed and depicting some tale, or incident, or even a saying, embedded in family lore.

There are two books, hefty, dense square wedges rich as torte with artwork and writing. There are acrylic on paper paintings, monotypes, a kind of quilted wall hanging of squares of pictures and rectangles of writing in watercolour, clay sculptures and a painted chair.

And there are mounted poetry excerpts, and a 12-minute animated film that Averbach created from her poetry, archival photos and Leyton's imagery, and which has won numerous awards for best short video, in L.A., New York and Palm Beach. It was screened in last year's St. John's International Women's Film and Video Festival.

Averbach and Leyton have collaborated before. For example, Leyton's work is on the cover of Averbach's first volume of poetry and her CD. They were also, despite their nine-year age difference, very close. So when they decided to work together on a family project, well, what could go wrong?

"We thought it was going to be like a piece of cake," said Leyton. "Oh, we'll just talk about the things we've talked about all our lives, the angst and the complaints and the good things, and we'd agree on everything. But as it turned out we agreed on very little."

"Our reference points were very different," Averbach said. "The things that impressed Bonnie early in life were different than the things that impressed me. We also saw things quite differently. The different ways we sensed the family. We went through quite a bit of struggle."

"It was a struggle, because at first we thought, oh, gosh, something's gone wrong," Leyton said. "But it really was a good thing for the show. It gave it much more layering. Because it was more difficult, we had a lot more discussion, we went a lot deeper than we might otherwise have gone, we went below that superficiality."

"And came out the other end feeling we were very much in sync," Averbach said.

"Teacups & Mink" resembles a story told in chapters, and it traces their parents' lives back to the very beginnings.

"Our grandparents were in Russia escaping the pogroms, and they were trying to get into Canada, where they did have some connections," Leyton said. "And it was just a horrible, horrible couple of years. They were an extended family, so they were travelling together. My father was about seven years old when his aunt went into labour."

It was a true crisis, as they were on the run, and they had no one to help them, Leyton said.

"They were frightened to death because everybody was their enemy as far as they could tell, but there was a house that had a light on, so my father took a chance that this would be a friendly house. And he carried his aunt. He was only a little boy, but there was no such thing as little boys in that generation. They went to the house, she gave birth to a little girl, and my father always said, 'I carried my wife on my back before she was born,' because he married his cousin many years later."

That meeting, too, was another journey.

"Once they got to Canada they all splintered," Averbach said.

"My father's parents just wanted to get off the train, so they ended up in the east, and my mother's parents wanted to go as far away as they could from Russia, so they ended up in Vancouver, which is, actually, closer to Russia," Leyton said.

"They didn't see each other again until she was 18 and he was 25," Averbach said. "And they fell in love and got married. Their lives unfolded in various ways. They started with nothing. My father came, he had a dollar in his shoe, literally. He dropped out of school in Grade 6 and he supported his parents and his two sisters. Selling newspapers, selling fruit on the streets, a true self-made man. He made quite a success of himself. A classic immigrant story. That's why we wanted to share it. We felt there was something universal about it."

Universal and particular, and remarkable. And it's only the beginning. There are many such episodes, narrated in an artful blend of media, found here.

In developing this exhibition, Leyton said she thought a lot about "what is a family?" And she distilled the concept into something that "the stories that only biological families share." Which they now impart to us.

"Teacups & Mink" continues at the Craft Council Gallery until April 24.

Organizations: Craft Council Gallery

Geographic location: Russia, New York, Palm Beach St. John's Canada Vancouver

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