Passion in local artist's work speaks out for her
August 17, 2017
For Charmaine Lurch, keeping her mouth shut most of the time while growing up has turned out to be a significant virtue.
As a quiet child who didn’t say much, she expressed herself through art.
“I didn’t really need to speak,” Lurch recalled. “I just drew the things around me and that could be anything. I was encouraged and I kept doing it.”
Inspired by a wealth of cultural experiences, academic studies and formal art education, the award-winning arts researcher and interdisciplinary artist has been making significant contributions to Canadian art.
To celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary, Lurch was among 36 highly talented artists included in an exhibition, ‘Every. Now. Then: Reframing Nationhood’, that was launched at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) last June.
The exhibit on the AGO’s fourth floor Contemporary Tower, explores the questions, ‘Where has Canada come from, what it is now and where is it going’?, through the eyes of some of the country best emerging and established artists.
Acknowledging that Canada’s sesquicentennial represents a narrow slice of time in the larger historical record of the land, the artworks featured in this exhibition engage with a broad range of cultural, traditional, spiritual and land-based stories. At the heart of the exhibition is the belief that Canada is a dynamic work in progress anchored by strong Indigenous voices and a complexity of cultures and identities.
Lurch’s sculpted piece, ‘A Mobile and Visible Carriage’, retrieves written, archival, and present-day data to produce contemporary art objects that articulates the story of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn.
The former slaves established the first cab company in Upper Canada and the first form of public transportation in the provincewhich was a single-horse carriage painted red-and-yellow called ‘The City’, owned six homes they rented to other fugitives fleeing slavery in the United States and co-founded Trinity Church on King St.
“The carriage is made of wood, but painted to look like steel,” said Lurch whose installations often meld sculptural and pictorial elements. “I made a silhouette of it because I wanted to talk about all of the information that’s missing. I like that interplay of negative and positive space that a silhouette can hold. The light I put around it represents, for me, how we as a people are thinking about moving forward.”
In 1985, Dr. Karolyn Smardz Frost – an award-winning author, historian and archaeologist – excavated the Blackburn’s home.
“I knew about that dig, but I was travelling at the time,” said Lurch. “The Blackburn’s were always on my radar, but it was when Karolyn’s book came out that they really became part of my personal work.”
‘I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land; The Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad’, which won a Governor General Award for non-fiction, recounts the extraordinary lives of the ex-slaves who came to Canada via the Underground Railroad and arrived in Toronto in 1843, becoming prominent and prosperous residents.
The floor sculpture combined with ‘Revisiting Sycorax’ which examines Shakespeare’s classic story ‘The Tempest’ and ‘The Phenomenal Henrietta Lacks’ – she was a Black tobacco farmer from Virginia who succumbed to cervical cancer at age 31 in 1951 and whose tissue samples from her tumors were taken without consent during treatment cultured into the HeLa cell line -- formed part of an art exhibition Lurch presented nearly two years ago at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.
‘Conversations in Flux: Visible Presence Unfolding in Time and Space’ was a multimedia, multidimensional sculpture and paint installations used to animate evidence of a visible Black presence in North America. Constructed with wire and paint, the objects were bent and shaped into various forms depicting Black populations inside and outside of hyper-visible and invisible states of blackness.”
From a social location as an extremely proud Black woman, Lurch’s art reflects the ways that Black people are positioned in the Canadian landscape as having little or no history in the spaces they inhabit.
“Taking form as artistic constructions, my sculptures and painting are articulations on how Blackness becomes both hyper-visible and invisible, purposefully or unintended in these spaces,” she said.
The intersection of science and art is visible in her construction and manipulation of wire shown in her larger than life sculpted bees.
Over the years, she has worked closely with biology and environmental professor Dr. Laurence Packer whose main academic passion is the study of wild bees.
“He has shared his knowledge of bees which I intertwine with Blackness,” she said. “I get these complex ideas that I can see clearly. Part of creativity requires language so that you can translate it as well because it is not always apparent in the work because it’s not literal. When you see the bees, you can see through them because of the way the wire is wrapped. It brings on a certain notion of invisibility. You can see them and not see them because of the spaces. If you see me draw and you see me bend wire, it’s the same motion. It’s just a 3D way of drawing in space.”
Always in demand to showcase her creativity, Lurch was selected to take part in the second annual public art exhibit in Toronto with 100 brain sculptures designed by internationally recognized artists, personalities and thought-leaders
The exhibit, which runs until August 31, aims to raise awareness for both brain health and diseases like Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
“This is such an important cause and that’s the reason I decided to be part of it in the midst of tons of work,” she said.
Lurch’s sculpture, Cognetica, addresses how brains are built and expanded through ‘our encounters with each other’.
Her work is on display at Union Station in the York concourse.
Born in Jamaica and a Canadian resident since age six, Lurch completed high school at C.W Jeffery’s Collegiate Institute, graduated from Sheridan College’s Art & Design program and studied at the Ontario College of Art & Design and The School of Visual Art in New York City.
She returned to university as a mature student to secure a Master’s in Environmental Studies at York University.
“I did that graduate program because I needed to understand my art at a deeper level,” she said. “For me, it was about how bodies are seen in the landscape and to be more specific Black bodies in the landscape.”
Though most artists encounter financial instability, Lurch – a first-time judge for this year’s Ontario Science Centre annual ‘Innovation in Mas’ Award, has always had the support of her parents and other family members.
“I figure my parents were always supportive because they were fearful I couldn’t do much else as I was so quiet,” the mother of two children and wife of a firefighter said. “I found a passion, I practiced and got better and better. My dad passed away and my mom is my biggest supporter because she knows how hard I work. My sisters collect my art which means it didn’t have to sit under my bed.”
A Toronto District School Board educator for nearly three decades , Lurch partners with Inner City Angels – an award-winning arts education charity that provides interdisciplinary arts programs to young learners -- to inspire students through interactive, fun and engaging art programs.