Abundant with Bloom – L’univers floral des femmes de la famille Colby is an exhibition held at the Colby-Curtis Museum in Stanstead, Quebec (5 May – 8 September, 2018). The Colby-Curtis Museum is a perfectly-preserved Victorian / Edwardian house, and also home to the Stanstead Historical Society. Three generations of women lived in and shaped this house, “Carrollcroft” with their partners and children, from the late 1800s up until the 1990s. In their letters, diaries, and photographs, the women of the Colby family manifest a profound relationship with the garden that was once adjacent to Carrollcroft. The Colby-Curtis Museum archives are rich in evidence that flowers especially figured into these women’s intergenerational passion for their own and others’ gardens.
My series of ten paintings on birch panels responds to this archival evidence, while also reaching between the lines and towards the margins of what Hattie (1838–1932), Jessie (1861–1958), and Abby (1859–1943) Colby write about the garden. The exhibition text and guide – written by architectural historian, Annmarie Adams – also explore the deep connection between home and garden in the spatial experience of the women in this family. This exhibition project was inspired, in fact, by an essay that Adams co-authored with Silvia Spampinato in 2010 about the formative relationship between this house, its garden, and the women who shaped both.
I want to acknowledge that the exhibition takes place upon unceded Indigenous territory, and thus the garden that is the focus of my project is indelibly part of the history of colonization of North America. All paintings are thus implicated in the spatial politics of settler-colonization, but one in particular responds to these politics by juxtaposing Lily of the Valley with an image of a woven basket.
Lily of the Valley is known as a “garden escape” – a plant that, like colonists, settles in and sometimes overtakes non-native habitats. The painting of the basket derives from an old digital scan of the catalogue of the Colby-Curtis collection. The family owned many woven baskets; this example may have been one of the “Indian” baskets that Jessie Colby avidly sought out during a 1904 visit to British Columbia. Although nothing is known about the maker of this particular basket, it is most likely a flat-woven cedar basket made by a member of the Squamish nation. Making and selling such baskets was one way that west coast Indigenous women supported their families and communities as settlers took more and more of their land. In her essay about Squamish basket-weaver, Sewinchelwet (Sophie Frank) (1872-1939), art historian Kristina Huneault observes that for Frank and other Squamish women, basketry was a precarious but “primary means of participation in a commodity-driven settler economy” (Huneault, I’m Not Myself At All: Women, Art, and Subjectivity in Canada, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018, p 270).
Baskets like this one were important means by which the Colby family women enacted some of their most beloved activities: collecting flowers and bringing them into the house, and transporting parts of the house into the garden in order to be immersed in its pleasures. The family regularly brought carpets, chairs, tables, screens, chinaware, and utensils into the garden to enjoy meals there in warmer weather. Photographs even show tables set with vases of flowers in the middle of the garden.
Abundant with Bloom celebrates the creative and sustaining relationship that the Colby women had with the garden at Carrollcroft. At the same time, I acknowledge that the women’s pleasure in and identification with this landscape were part of the privilege of being white settlers in an increasingly colonized landscape. It is this same privilege and power that make certain images in the Colby-Curtis collection disturbing. In 1902, Carrollcroft hosted an event in which men performed with chained, trained brown bears.
The image of European-descended individuals exerting control over other living creatures summons both concerns over how these particular bears might have been treated, but also the larger tragedy of how settler-colonialists and capitalists have privileged white humanity and exploited all other life forms (and the inanimate but precious reserves of fossil fuels, water, and air) for gain and entertainment.
The capstone image in my series attempts, in a small way, to creatively rewrite this story of subjugation and injustice. Based on an archival photograph depicting Hattie Colby and her husband, John, seated in the garden on a carpet, this painting reimagines the scene of connubial happiness to include a large, crimson bear.
In my painting, the bear shares equal status with Hattie. It is seated on its own chair, bondage-free. Instead of smiling at her husband, Hattie gazes into the bear’s eyes. She is about to offer the bear a prized flower, roots attached, from the garden: a single red tulip, the symbol of perfect love.
The bear contemplates Hattie. We do not know if it will accept the tulip, or not. If in real life neither the bears nor the colonized Indigenous peoples of Canada had a choice about their relationship with settler-colonials, in my painting at least, this bear has the power to decide for itself whether it will accept what is on offer.
Gardens have been places where women have imagined and created new versions and visions of the world, including spaces of increased equality and justice (Dianne Harris, “Women as Gardeners,” Encyclopedia of Gardens: History and Design, vol. 3, Chicago, 2001: pp. 1447–50). So too do the paintings in Abundant with Bloom attempt to create such a space, where the human, animal, and the biological live and thrive together.
Abundant with Bloom would not have been possible without the Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art, and Culture et Communications Québec. I would also like to thank Chloë Southam and the staff of the Colby-Curtis Museum and archives for their facilitation of this project. And Jason Levy for his daily encouragement and understanding.