Tête à tête with Irene F. Whittome

Anne-Marie St-Jean Aubre

Photos: Alain Beauchesne
I first met with Irene F. Whittome on June 5, 2021, at her home in the Eastern Townships. I found myself in the company of a plain-spoken artist with both feet on the ground, calm and confident, in full control of her faculties. As I naturally associated the materials in her works with her approach, I was inspired to read The Care Manifesto, written by The Care Collective and published during the COVID-19 pandemic. The worldview propounded in the book is based on an ethics of care that, in the authors’ view, should orient major political and personal decisions instead of a search for profit, competition, and individual advancement.1 1  -  Care Collective, The Care Manifesto: the Politics of Interdependence (Verso: New York, 2020). I discovered a broader definition of care, encompassing not only medicine, support activities, and education, but all the actions and decisions that foster and enhance life—including, ultimately, protection of the environment. With all of these ideas and my conversation with Whittome in mind, I assessed an art career that has explored, sequentially and simultaneously, the museum as an institution and the issues related to collection and conservation, the subject of fertility in relation to creativity, and the theme of spirituality. Over the last ten years, it seems, Whittome has turned toward nature to honour the transformative force of life.

The piece that piqued my curiosity and made me want to find out more about this aspect of Whittome’s work was shown to me in 2019 by François Babineau during a visit to Galerie Simon Blais. It consists of a series of photographs, laid out in grids, documenting an action organized on Whittome’s land on May 30, 2009. As her production was divided between a barn in Stanstead and her loft studio in Montréal, Whittome decided to burn the matrices and remaining components of many of the works she had produced in the 1970s and 1980s, including elements made of wood and cardboard covered with encaustic assembled for Vancouver (1975–80), an installation reconfigured many times depending on the venues where the exhibition Irene Whittome 1975–1980 was shown—whence the presence in the flames of shipping crates that still protected different pieces. Stimulated by this visual narrative and having in mind the site of the studio and the visual signs of the world of care that I detected everywhere in the works that I already knew, I traced back the thread of her artistic trajectory in light of this key performance.

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