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Lesbian artist featured at Winnipeg Art Gallery

Sheila Spence exhibit captures 20 years of photos

Sheila Spence, Untitled (Portrait of a Male), 1986. Silver print on paper. Collection of The Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Standing at the centre of two decades of her life’s photography, lesbian artist and activist Sheila Spence reflects, “when I look at this work… I certainly see my journey more clearly.”

Sheila Spence: Pictures of Me, an exhibit opening Nov 13 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, provides visitors with an intimate look into 20 years of the artist’s work. From the arresting individual portraits she shot in the 1980s to the photographs of her recently revisited Families series, Pictures of Me not only captures a glimpse into the evolution of Spence’s work, but also the artist herself.

Trained throughout Canada and Great Britain, Spence had her first exhibits at Winnipeg galleries in the mid-1980s. Since then, her photography has been seen across the world in the United States, Mexico, Finland and Serbia.

In 1991, she collaborated with local artist Noreen Stevens to form Average Good Looks, an artist collective that fought homophobia through a series of billboard ads. In 1993, they created a billboard campaign with images of same-sex couples and individual gays and lesbians, with the tagline “Gays and lesbians. Your family.” They expanded the campaign west of Winnipeg, into Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and Saskatoon. 

“The minute I saw the body of work,” says Mary Reid, the exhibit’s curator, “I thought ‘of course we should be doing an exhibition.'” Selecting 75 pieces from prominent periods in the artist’s solo career, Reid says the curatorial process was largely a collaborative effort between her and Sheila. “As it happened, I wore the title of curator and she wore the title of artist.” The end result is a telling collection of photographs that reveal the artist’s undertaking of themes such as identity, relationships and community.
One of the most intriguing periods in Spence’s work is her Families series, which she began in the late 1980s and recently came back to. The photographer’s family portraits are anything but average. Raw and honest, her portraits bring into focus the complex connections that bind her subjects together or distance them apart. From the composition of each photograph and the body language, position and emotion of its subjects, the viewer is presented with a story into which they can read into the beginning, middle and end.

“I think that with Sheila’s family photographs, all the things that aren’t in the traditional portraits are laid out for the viewer to think about, connect and bring forward,” says Reid. In Bernadette, Jude and Katherine, taken in 1988 (featured below), Spence challenges traditional notions and representations of what a family looks like. As the spectator’s gaze is guided across each of the four frames, they are given space in which they can contemplate the nature of the relationship between the three individuals. Twenty years later, one cannot help but wonder what those same photographs would like if they were taken today.

Spence says she considers herself an artist who “every now and then” feels she has to speak up for a social cause. This was the case again in 1998, three years after her collaboration with Average Good Looks had concluded. Exploring her community, Spence captured a series of photographs of youth from West Broadway, one of the roughest areas in Winnipeg. Once they were first displayed, the stark depictions of the reality of the subjects ignited a heated reaction from local community members and fired political debate. Now in 2008, the selected images from the series Portraits of a Neighbourhood: Images of West Broadway are just as relevant as they were when they were first developed.
About her hometown, Spence says that “Winnipeg does not read in my work the way it does Guy Maddin’s.” Having resided in Manitoba throughout most of her life, she states that “there’s more to a location than climate. My people are here, this is where my life is, and I think that is what you’re looking at on the wall.” Walking through the exhibit, one begins to articulate the sense that Pictures of Me is exactly what its title describes. Each photograph captures a different piece of Spence’s life, and chronicles a story that is still evolving. “I have a sense of where I am today,” reflects Spence, “but that changes daily. The world can change over night.”