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Ministers of Home Economics

Posted on April 26, 2016 by Maple Creek

The Story Pool – Madonna Hamel

This past month I’ve been working feverishly on a collection of collages inspired by the ubiquitous and loaded symbol of The Apron. Who knew that a lovely bit of linen could be such a hot-point, marking an enormous and almost overlooked cultural-historical shift in how we perceive work, home and, above all, the spirit of service, as opposed to the imposition of enslavement?
I have learned, by taking on this exhibition, that the real problem lies not in expressions like “women’s work,” “domestic arts,” or “home economics,” but in the ways we undervalue or overlook all things pertaining to them. Women don’t have to do “men’s work,” study “fine art,” or become “Minister of Economics” to be valued. The world has to perceive women differently, more inclusively, not dismissively.
Today we can make choices geared more to our abilities and passions, and less to cultural constraints. Nor do our choices need to be driven by the deep desires of my own younger days: those desperate needs to be noticed, approved of and taken seriously by men. And, whether we stay in the home or go into a field (both literally and figuratively) or both, the apron can continue to serve as both toolkit and shield!
As I play with titles for each of my thirteen art pieces, I realize that each image holds a story, would serve well as my next column. (And if these stories interest you, the exhibit will be on the walls of Prairie Wind and Silver Sage in Val Marie, as of the 13th of May, when it opens for the season. Sherri Grant’s aurora borealis photos will also be on show!) I hope you find your story somewhere in these micro-histories. Please feel free to share them with me.
Prisoners of Civilization (Inspired by the aprons of Jaqueline Carlier and her mother Eva Legault.) One day Jaquie Carlier came into the café with a grocery bag and handed it to me. In the bag were aprons so delicate and finely embroidered I feared touching them with my mucky hands. They were obviously “my good apron,” the kind women put on just as the guests arrived. One was made of handkerchiefs, the other fanned out, like a sheer crinoline. These were the treasured “feminine touches” that brought a civilizing effect to the raw wild prairie that faced the stunned new arrivals, duped by the recruitment posters that promised verdant, bucolic pastures, plenty of babbling brooks and lush groves. A pressing need for farmers drove the deceptive advertising campaign. An earlier attempt at luring “adventurers” longing to break from their life as “prisoners of civilization,” failed to bring travellers set on staying and homesteading.
Chicken Linen (Inspired by a flour sack apron of Vi Laturnas.)
When Viola presented me with a flour sack apron after mass one Sunday I squealed with delight.
“This is Museum Gold! I don’t know what happened to all those aprons made from sacks, but am I ever glad you kept yours!”
“Well, you can barely see the print. We bleached the writing right out of them. Same with the pillow cases and tea towels and what not. Oh and…here’s a poem.”
I’d been given the poem “My Mother’s Apron,” about the apron’s myriad functions, by just about every woman who donated one. But this one was dedicated exclusively to the floursack and is attributed to Colleen B. Hubert.  The sack’s uses belied the resourcefulness and troubleshooting skills of the homemaking homesteader, the kind of women who would politely remind me they were,
“Farmers. Plain and simple. Not farmers wives, farmers too!”
Here’s a verse:
As a strainer for milk or apple juice
To wave men in, it was a very good use.
As a sling for a sprained wrist or a break,
To help mother roll up a jelly cake,
As a window shade or to stuff a crack,
We used a sturdy, common flour sack!
It Takes Six Generations (Inspired by aprons of Metis and ranching women.) I love the plaque that stands before the old 76 Ranch, now inside the gates of Grasslands National Park. It reminds us who is in charge: the land and the weather, basically. And if you don’t respect the land when you get here, “the land will extract it out of you.” Either way, the land will get its due, and if it has to break you before you can break it, it will. In order to enter into any partnership we have to get humble, right-sized, and  teachable. The natives of the territory knew this before we got here, and tried to impress their understanding of generational inheritance upon us, reminding us that every decision we make will reverberate “for six generations,” just as decisions made “six generations ago affect us now.”
Without Them We’re Not Worth a Dam! (Inspired by the apron of Lena Gunter via Jack Gunter.)
It was a beautiful letter attached to Curly Gunter’s cowboy hat, hanging in the PWSS Museum, that inspired my exhibit. He lists all the ways that pioneer women helped their families to survive the deprivations of farm and ranch life. The letter was written by Jack Gunter, Curly and Lena Gunter’s son. He arrived one day with a box of his father’s memoir, “Mustang Wrangler”, a ripping read about a search for grazing land for his horses that took him from Val Marie to Dawson Creek, B.C.! He also presented me with a tin box containing a lovingly folded red gingham apron that belonged to his mother, as well as a framed portrait of her.
A National Treasure Map by a National Treasure (Inspired by art of Lise Perrault.)
When I first arrived in Val Marie I was mesmerized by a painting of the village hanging on the Palais Royale, our movie theatre and town hall. The piece was a stunning example of naïve folk art, or as it’s called today, outsider art. While living in Memphis I got to see some of the most revered pieces of the genre up close and personal. The American South has always treasured its folk artists, carvers, engravers, map makers and painters. They are the people’s artists. They honour the people, places and things so integral to our daily lives they easily go unnoticed. Prairie folk art has the same ethos, though we are slower in appreciating it. Thankfully, Radio-Canada honoured her oeuvre with a tribute after she died.
Lise’s paintings manage to be child-like and sentimental, yet the handling of her materials demonstrate her expertise: her colours are sharp, clean and faithful, never muddy, the sign of a professional. When it comes to the heart and soul of the Grasslands and its landmarks, “she gets it.” Her work is as moving as that of a Georgia O’Keefe or William Kurelyk.  Imagine my glee when Lise Perrault originals kept popping up all over the village: on banners hanging from lampposts, in homes as landscapes on bits of shelter belt wood or on the bones of animals, and on the hotel wall as a bison scape.
When I heard that Lise was in a care home in Ponteix, I asked Theresa and Casper if they would take me on one of their visiting-the-elderly-and-sick rounds.
“Sure,” shrugged Theresa, “but be prepared.  She doesn’t even know who we are anymore.”
Sure enough, when we arrived Lise was docile and her gaze was fixed on some far off spot. I was assured that this was not the Lise most folks knew, and, looking at pictures of her dancing a jig with a rattlesnake in one hand and glass of homemade wine in another, I tend to believe them.
Lise loved the bison, more than just about anything or anyone, one of her children wryly observed later at her funeral. On my visit  I presented her with a bison print blanket I’d made. Her eyes landed on the multiple skulls forming a patchwork on the cloth and they lit up. She gasped, “Bison!” and pointed to her bed, gesturing to me to lay it atop her bedspread.
Then she faded away. She died a week later.  I made a vow to her, as I stood looking down at the open casket, that I would not let her art die away with her body.
Madonna was a CBC writer-broadcaster for a couple decades and won awards for music documentaries. She lives in Val Marie, working on a book and continues singing and songwriting. For comments you can reach Madonna at madonnahamel@hotmail.com

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