By Paul Gessell
As a child growing up in Newfoundland, Helen Gregory was always dragging home birds, frogs, mice and other creatures, both dead and alive. Little Helen also loved to dig in dirt and create special “biospheres” for insects.
“My parents didn’t know what to do with me,” says Helen, now grown up and, if all goes according to plan, soon to be a temporary artist in residence at the Canadian Museum of Nature. “My mother always said ‘Helen played with dirt longer than is natural.’”
Well, Helen Gregory made a career out of her unnatural love affair of nature. She is now an artist, working on her Ph.D. and exhibiting her splendid paintings of bird and animal specimens at the Museum of Nature.
The exhibition of 11 larger-than-life paintings of dead birds and one giant squid runs until Sept. 3. This is probably the wisest pairing of art and venue ever made in this town.
One of the paintings, Blue Tanagers, was even inspired by four blue tanagers in the collection of the Museum of Nature. The hand-lettered specimen tags on the small South American birds are included in the painting. The actual specimens rest in a case just below the oversized painting.
Blue Tanagers, like all the paintings, have a decided Victorian air to them. The Victorians loved to collect everything possible from the natural world. Every true gentleman, and many a gentlewoman, loved gathering plants, fossils, shells, and other offerings from nature.
Gregory’s specimens, in some cases, are painted atop what appears to be Victorian wallpaper. So, the paintings fit in perfectly with the newly restored Victorian architecture of the building.
Surely, the museum should acquire some of the paintings for permanent exhibition. Actually, one of the paintings, of a giant squid, is owned by The Rooms in St. John’s. The squid is a specimen in the collection of that Newfoundland institution where Gregory’s show was first seen in 2009.
In St. John’s, the exhibition was curated by Lisa Moore, the popular fiction writer who just happens to have a background in visual art.
“Under the gleaming varnish and atop the Victorian arabesques of gold and copper, the artist engages with an ancient taboo – playing with dead things,” Moore writes in an exhibition catalogue. “But Gregory’s close attention to detail makes her subjects appear almost life-like. They inhabit a space between death and decay.”
Elsewhere in her essay, Moore describes Gregory’s work as “a potent cocktail of the sinister and the fanciful.”
Indeed, there is something a little creepy about paintings of dead things. But Gregory has found a way to aestheticize death in a pleasing manner, stir our emotions and generate a feeling of peace and joy.
Unrequited Death. Until September 3. Canadian Museum of Nature, 240 McLeod St. www.nature.ca