The pandemic piqued widespread curiosity about the hardships that earlier generations endured. Many people delved into genealogical research last year as they sought to understand where they came from and gain perspective on their own lives. Art at the CAVE’s current exhibit, “Ancestral Echoes,” on display through Saturday, is a direct response to this desire to explore — and share — family histories.
The gallery put out a call to artists in April, inviting anyone to create works telling their ancestors’ stories. The response was tremendous, bringing in works by seasoned contemporary artists as well as those whose art had never graced a gallery wall. The art is emotionally arresting, as well as highly idiosyncratic, encompassing a huge range of styles and mediums.
“Everybody that comes and sees it just leaves holding their heart in their hand,” said Sharon Svec, museum manager. She believes that “Ancestral Echoes” is a way for both artists and viewers to process the tumultuous events of the past year.
“I don’t know if it was because people were losing family members due to COVID or if they were just lonely in quarantine,” said Svec, who noticed the theme of family history popping up again and again in conversation. “When folks were coming to me and sharing their discoveries about their own family and seeing how it impacted them, it just really moved me, and I thought, this is the time. We have to facilitate this as a way for people to share their stories.”
This is the gallery’s most popular exhibit since “Art of the Quarantine,” which ran July through September and showcased art created during the pandemic’s early months. The show was open to anyone, professional or amateur, and the outpouring of art was astonishing, Svec said.
Before then, the gallery had displayed works by one or two artists as a time, but “Art of the Quarantine” changed that model. Svec and gallery owner Anne John saw that people were hungry to express themselves and that visitors had an appetite for meaningful art reflecting their own experiences.
Community art shows aren’t new to the Vancouver Arts District, of course. Angst Gallery and The Artist Loft both often employed this model, but they closed during the pandemic, along with several other local venues. Gallery 360, managed by Mosaic Arts Alliance, offers online community exhibits, but it’s difficult to match the emotional impact of seeing art up close.
“Ancestral Echoes” — which can also be viewed online at artatthecave.com — is definitely such an exhibit, showcasing colors, textures and dimensions enhanced by the gallery’s bright, open space.
The artists’ statements, offering detailed explanations and interpretations of each work, make the experience even more compelling. Svec said that it’s very rewarding to watch gallery visitors approach each creation, read the artist’s own words, then turn their gaze back to the art with a more nuanced understanding and appreciation.
“Ancestral Echoes” includes notable displays from John and Svec.
John’s “My Mother’s Coat” features a self-portrait of John wearing her mother’s handmade mink coat as well as the actual coat itself on a sewing table along with family photographs, a mug, a journal and an ashtray.
Svec’s contribution, “The Old Country,” features the weathered trunk that contained the belongings of her immigrant family, brought to the United States in 1914 from Austria-Hungary. Atop the trunk, there’s a picture of Svec superimposed over a photograph of her forebears, along with pieces of Old World pottery, a boxed magic trick called “The Siberian Chain Escape,” and a toy cabin constructed by Svec’s grandfather out of fruit boxes.
“My ancestry is Swedish and Romany but because of the perception, particularly of Gypsies, I never felt comfortable sharing that. I thought, ‘I can’t be the only one who’s experienced this,’ ” Svec said. “For me personally, it was an opportunity to be brave and be myself and express the wholeness of myself. I was hoping that other people would feel safe and welcome to express the wholeness of themselves.”
Other people did indeed feel welcome to express themselves, even artists as young as Maddy Richards, 18, who painted a portrait of her Marshallese grandmother.
Erick Martinez’s striking sculpture, “LaLucha,” represents his Colombian roots.
Susan Marmolejo Kipp pays tribute to her Mejica heritage in “Can’t Shut Me Up,” and Annette Jackson honors her Native American and African ancestors with the sculpture “Shield.”
Regina Westmoreland’s fun and fearsome wall hanging, “Ancestral Spirit,” and Cindy Geffel’s ethereal “The Unknown” are an homage to spiritual family.
Several works — such as the watercolors “Key of Life” by Julia Nelligan and Malee Octavia (owner of Phoenix Rising gallery) and “Infan-seed” by Julia Nelligan — also express hope for the generations to come.
“Something that I love about this show is that you see all these unique differences and interpretations of how people feel about their ancestry, but they all share a core passion and interest,” Svec said.
“It’s just neat to see what people are attracted to. One of my favorite things is those conversations with guests,” she said. “They see the art and then you have a longer conversation with them at the end. At a lot of shows, people don’t make the time to have those conversations. This show has a special, personal appeal to it that really affects people, and I love how that brings us all together.”