Photos by Kyle West

A pomegranate, some books, plants and a kiln. On their own, these images may not speak to the inspiring legacy of women’s stories. However, in the hands of the youth leaders from the YWCA Hamilton and Workers’ Arts and Heritage Centre Youth Councils, items such as these have been transformed into powerful symbols within beautiful collages.

This artwork currently hangs at WAHC’s community gallery in an exhibition entitled Portraits of Gratitude: Women+’s History; Women+’s Future. All the pieces came out of a two-hour collage workshop led by Hamilton artist Stylo Starr for the youth council members, all of whom are between 16 and 29 years old.

[spacer height="20px"]The individuals behind these pieces are not necessarily artists by trade, but were passionate about telling stories of woman-identified individuals’ power and leadership. The idea came out of a conversation held during the YWCA Youth Council’s summer book club wherein they were reading Elizabeth Renzetti’s Shrewed.

“[T]here's a chapter in the book that discusses the relationship between Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft and we were remarking on how interesting it was that both of these women eventually got such recognition for their work and about how women's stories and history are often absorbed by their husbands,” explained Daniela Giulietti, the coordinator for the YWCA Youth Advisory Council.

Giulietti approached WAHC with the idea of creating an exhibition to combat this erasure and bring women’s stories to the forefront. This brought the WAHC Youth Council on board and the group decided to hold the exhibit at the WAHC, a massive two storey historic house on 51 Stuart Street.

October is Women’s History Month in Canada and this year’s theme has been designated with the #MakeAnImpact hashtag. The government has set up Women of Impact in Canada, an online gallery celebrating the achievements of remarkable women.

In the same vein, the collage workshop that produced the exhibition’s pieces began with the participants reflecting on women who inspire them. Some of these women were activists, authors and pop culture figures. Notable figures such as Toni Morrison and Beyoncé were highlighted in the pieces.

[spacer height="20px"]However, many were women that would not be found in national collections: mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts and friends. Hitoko Okada, a textile artist and Interim Programs Coordinator for the WAHC Youth Council, shared how her grandmother inspires her at this time in her life.

“[W]hen I'm weaving and sewing, I really feel like she is coming through and…even teaching my small movements of the hand…I just feel like that she's really with me and guiding me and encouraging me to connect to my ancestry through craft,” explained Okada.

“I feel like that's a knowledge that was transmitted to me through this…indirect way but it's a hand movement and a practice that…most of the women in our family have shared.”

The influence of family comes through in many of the collages. Several invoke domestic imagery and contain allusions to women relatives. One piece has clippings of a farm that reminded the artist of her grandmother’s farm where she grew up. Another seems to spell out Mom.

It is special that this exhibition provides a place for the stories of women that figure most prominently in our personal histories. In this time where the experiences of women are continuously being cast aside, it is empowering to have a space wherein the narratives of women are valued.

“[T]he timing ended up being really important because this was…when a lot of anti-survivor narratives were present in the media around the Brent Kavanaugh confirmation…[I]t felt for me like the space created was almost a really nice relief. You can see that in some of the pieces where there's survivors and I believe survivors, we believe survivors,” said Jordyn Perreault-Laird, a member of the YWCA Youth Council and Outreach and Partnerships Coordinator at WAHC.

The exhibition will culminate with a closing reception on Oct. 26, during which there will be a screening of the film, Bread and Roses. The film is inspired by the Justice for Janitors movement and tells the story of the janitorial strike in Los Angeles by undocumented immigrants and led by women.

The film sheds light on history that is often obscured by louder male narratives. It also demonstrates the power of young women and marginalized people to change their world. Creating space for the lesser known stories of women was one of the main goals of the exhibition as a whole. Reflecting on the success of the exhibit, Okada summed up the gravity of this impact.

It really makes me think about the power of an image and the image of a woman in leadership. It speaks volumes. It's really so powerful…[it] gives me chills.”

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