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Flax helps weave together past of Poland-raised artist (The Vancouver Sun, Saturday, May 10, 2003)
Michael Harris

Plants spring up in the work of Joanna Staniszkis at Waterfall Building

If you've not yet visited the galleries that populate Arthur Erickson's Waterfall Building at the approaches to Granville Island, then you may find yourself admiring the architecture before you manage to enter the Ballard Lederer Gallery.

The Ballard, though, is the centrepiece of the precinct, featuring a massive glass wall-cum-ceiling that leaps from a surrounding moat up to the roof's tip. And through this wall of glass, the large-scale works of Joanna Staniszkis, collectively titled Linen's Edge, are shuddering as gently as a laundry line in the breeze.

But take a moment before you enter. For the next two weeks, while examining the greenery around this building, so intrinsic to much of Erickson’s work, you'll also spot a series of waifish-looking plants in the moat. These are flax plants.

Flax, you may recall, is the plant from which linen is derived. "Could there possibly be a connection between these plants and the work inside the gallery?" you'll then astutely wonder. And the answer, of course, is yes. Erickson buildings are famous for confusing the inside and outside and Staniszkis' exhibition plays up this feature brilliantly.

At the entrance to the gallery, we are met by an untitled set of linen dresses dancing around a large plume of potted flax plants. On my visit, the flax was just beginning to reveal miniature violet buds. The tendrils of green flax creep over the shoulders of the linen dresses, as through longing to embrace their textile reincarnation.

Natural textiles (linens, silks, cottons) are like the texts we write in books. Text. Textile. The words are linked etymologically by the Latin word textilis (Won't that impress your dinner companions?) And so the link between our stores (texts), and our clothing (textiles) is a metaphoric one: both ore formal preservations of a passing, green, instant. Mortal plants can be made into lasting fabrics. Or a vital story can be preserved in a lasting book.

Staniszkis' work conflates these ideas of textile and text; her linen works, printed with images of people, leaves, birds, and (in a metaphysical trick) flax itself, are always telling stores.

Haunting stories. Insistent stories. Stories of home.

I was lucky enough to meet Joanna on my visit to the gallery and her own stories made the work all the more rich. Growing up in Poland, she tells me, "all we had was linen." (Rural Polish linen is not the same, it must be noted, as the linen bought at Holt Renfrew). The artist hated the fabric as a child. But while hanging the crinkled sheets and melancholy strips of linen for her show, Staniszkis waxed nostalgic on her first home.

Fabric from an earlier life can be used to tell a history. For this how, the weaving and manipulating of linen becomes a way for Staniszkis' present self to reach back into the story of her childhood in Poland. To celebrate the Polish connection, Staniszkis even designed linen dresses for a group of women to wear while handing out perogies at the opening.

While free perogies are all I ask for in a party, Thursday's artist reception went further. In the expansive courtyard, the gallery's guests milled about while watching the premiere of a short film, Out of Flax.

The film, projected behind a waterfall, was lent an irresistible shimmering effect. Watching a recorded film in such a manner can remind you of the layers in a person's past - one layer saved on the record and another one rushing by, forgotten.

   Copyright 2007 (C) Joanna Stanszkis All Rights Reserved.
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