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The Lipstick Caryatids, April 2019

At the centre of Shaughnessy Village in Montreal, Canada, is a mansion, from which the district gets its name. Once home to some of Canada’s most powerful and wealthy families, Shaughnessy House is today part of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), a world-class museum and sculpture garden whose mission is to share knowledge about the built environment. From the 1930s to the early 1970s, however, Shaughnessy House was home to single women of various backgrounds and ages. From “My Mother’s Home”, a palliative care facility for older women, to “The Residential Club for Girls”, a halfway house for young, working women, Shaughnessy House was a space of refuge and community, shared with the Sisters of Charity, the order of nuns who oversaw the space. 

Caroline Alexander leading the line of performers, Lipstick Caryatids, 13 April 2019. Photo: Lisa Graves

Shortly after she moved to Montreal, Cynthia learned how in 1973 a photographer named Brian Merrett had heard that the house was going to be sold and demolished. Hoping to save it, he photographed its interior and shared the images with heritage activist Phyllis Lambert, who later purchased and restored the building. Among Merrett’s images is a photograph of what was, then, the bedroom of four young women. In this space, he captured a special detail: marble caryatids that adorned the pilasters on a fireplace surround. Wonderfully, the residents had added their own irreverent embellishments to these figures, giving them rouge, mascara, and bright red lipstick. (Hammond 2021) Merrett’s photograph of the lipsticked caryatids is one of the very few traces of the decades in which Shaughnessy House was a home to women. Sadly the fireplace was lost in a fire prior to Lambert’s purchase.

As part of Promenade Parlante, in spring 2019 Cynthia developed a performance piece for the site of the CCA. Working with 15 architects, artists, art and architectural historians, Cynthia and the rest of the Promenade Parlante team met approximately 100 attendees at the entrance to the CCA grounds on a sunny day in April. All attendees were given a mp3 player with a short audio piece in English and French, set to gentle music. Once everyone pressed “play”, they were brought past the CCA’s gates, where they discovered fifteen women standing motionless on the institution’s vast lawn, dressed in white and wearing bright red lipstick. As the audio piece described the building’s gendered history, the white-clad women walked slowly in a line until they faced the long white façade of the CCA. In the moment that the attendees heard how Lambert saved the building, the performers all blew the building a kiss. As the contemporary embodiment of the lost lipsticked caryatids, these women offered the first commemoration of the former occupants of the Residential Club for Girls, and made a gesture in homage to Phyllis Lambert, thanks to whom this building – and many others – survive today.

Blowing kisses to the CCA. Photo: Lisa Graves

Special thanks to Shauna Janssen and Caroline Alexander for their support in this work, to Wanda Potrykus for sharing her research on the building’s gendered history, Brian Merret for his beautiful and inspiring photographs, to Lisa Graves for her stunning documentation of the event, and to Jason Levy for editing the video below. A huge thanks to the women who made this performance possible, and magical: Caroline Alexander, Shahrzad Arshadi, Mélanie Binette, Penelope Cumas, Valentina Davila, Catherine MacKenzie, Yildiz Ipek Mehmetoglu, Tania Gutiérrez Monroy, Laura O’Brien, Véronique Proteau, Avery Reid, Hannah Silver-King, Alex Tigchelaar, Julia Tischer, and Avery Zhao.

After the kiss. Photo: Lisa Graves