February 20, 2024

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Sheilagh O’Leary’s ‘A Sea Change’

Sheilagh O’Leary’s ‘A Sea Change’

Feature Image and all images: Rotary Arts (https://www.facebook.com/RotaryArtsCentre)

Sheilagh O’Leary’s solo exhibition, A Sea Change, at the Tina Dolter Gallery at the Rotary Arts Centre in Corner Brook, Ktaqmkuk (or what is colonially known as Newfoundland and Labrador), honours her Mi’kmaw matrilineal lineage, and highlights the power of feminine energy, water, and its essential role in spiritual and cultural practice. As an intersectional feminist with mixed-Indigenous and Irish ancestry, O’Leary’s work embodies the stewardship of water, revealing the complexities of power, colonialism, and environmental sustainability.

At 59 years of age, O’Leary has been working in photography for over 30 years, with publications like Island Maid: Voices of Outport Women (2010) with Rhonda Pelley, which documents rural women’s lives pre-fishing moratorium and received a Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award, as well as, Human Natured: Newfoundland Nudes, introduced by Lisa Moore (2007). As a filmmaker, arts educator and photographer, O’Leary’s artistic practice is rooted in analog black and white film photography (she doesn’t own a digital camera), which she hand-develops and prints in her home darkroom. Despite her role as Deputy Mayor of the City of St. John’s (which began in 2017), O’Leary will soon graduate from a low residency Master of Fine Arts (MFA in Visual Arts) program at Memorial University Grenfell Campus. Through her studies she began exploring the layers of her own mixed settler-Mi’kmaw identity, and her matrilineal lineage. The result is A Sea Change, a stunning exhibition of cyanotype photographs, textiles, portraits, and self-portraiture.

“There are so many layers to identity. This research is about my mother’s cultural erasure and to reconcile for her past personal history” says O’Leary. “She was trained her whole lifetime to be embarrassed and ashamed of who she was. Like many of her female contemporaries from the west coast of Newfoundland, she was taught to bury who she was and adopt other identities. My mother’s story is obviously reflected into my story and continues into on my daughter’s.”

O’Leary’s mother’s story of her Indigenous heritage and the erasure of her as a French-Mi’kmaq woman who grew up outside of Stephenville in the 1930s (19 years prior Newfoundland’s Confederation with Canada) is central to A Sea Change. As a politician, artist and academic, O’Leary is very familiar with how systems and institutions work to maintain patriarchal power. Her life’s work as an artist and politician is to combat these systems from within.

“I am a feminist. That is my guiding light in my world. From an early age, I understood the systemic discrimination against women and girls,” she says. “I knew that I needed to delve into the history of my roots on the west coast and my mother’s Indigenous identity. To understand what it means to carry the weight of all those layers. We are complex people, with multiple identities, and that’s the beautiful thing about humanity.”

A Sea Change examines the embodied realities of masking and the consequences of living with a hidden lineage. O’Leary’s work aims to unveil obscure truths and honour the courage it takes to confront and reveal layers of identity. This exhibition marks an embodiment of her commitment to dismantling the binary perception of cultural identity and showcasing that coexistence is possible.

As an avid swimmer and founder of the Tickle Swim for Mental Health, an open water 5 km swim from Portugal Cove to Bell Island (which is a fundraiser/ awareness campaign for The Canadian Mental Health Association NL), O’Leary believes in the healing power and sacredness of water. Water is central to A Sea Change.

“The depth of the water. The vulnerability of being in the water. Close to the water. Our whole identity living in Newfoundland and Labrador is centred around water. I was a competitive swimmer from the age of 9,” says O’Leary. “When we talk about the matrilineal – three generations of women – it’s all about water, fluidity, and identity – the depths of it.

“We don’t really know what’s going on in the depths of the ocean. It draws me in. It excites me. I feel at one with the universe in the water and it is deeply spiritual. I have always been fascinated with the human form and our connection to water and rock. This research and exhibition are a manifestation of this powerful connection while exploring personal identity”.

A Sea Change features three circular photographic portraits printed on cyanotype. The first is a striking image of her mother, the second of her daughter, and finally, an image of the artist herself. Each of the three mandala portraits have a lion’s mane of individual small photographs of sea creatures – seaweed splayed around the cyanotype of her daughter, beach rocks strewn around her self-portrait and a halo of sea urchins honouring her mother. Through land and oceanic materials, the artist laid her own nude body down on mother earth to create underwater-like impressions on large cyanotype fabric sheets.

Invented in 1841 by Sir John Herschel, cyanotypes use a mixture of iron compounds and when they are exposed to UV light and oxidized in water to create Prussian blue. Working with the sun using a photo negative, or placing an object directly on cyanotype, whatever blocks out the light on paper will remain white, and whatever the light hits will change into a deep-sea blue. This technique was popularized by photographer and botanist Anna Atkins in her book Photographs of the British Algae: Cyanotype Impression (published in 1843), which is noted as the first photographic illustrated book.

“I used my own nude form right on the beach and processed the cyanotypes in the river that flows to the ocean, then hung them to dry outside our cabin,” says O’Leary. “The whole process was deeply engaged in nature – I was in the ocean, and with the water every step of the way. This process of working with cyanotypes and my own body helped me connect all the dots to this concept of our matrilineal Indigeneity.”

O’Leary’s exhibition A Sea Change is on display at the Rotary Arts Centre in Corner Brook between November 15 to December 5, 2023, and will open at The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery in St. John’s in early 2024.

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About The Author

Shannon Webb-Campbell

Shannon Webb-Campbell is of Mi’kmaq and settler heritage. She is a member of Flat Bay First Nation. Her books include: the forthcoming Re: Wild Her (Book*hug 2025), Lunar Tides (2022), I Am a Body of Land (2019), and Still No Word (2015), which was the recipient of Egale Canada’s Out in Print Award. Shannon is a PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick, and the editor of Muskrat Magazine and Visual Arts News.

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