Nanaimo artist Yvonne Vander Kooi presents her latest exhibition, Passage, at the Ou Gallery in Duncan. (Josef Jacobson/The News Bulletin)

Artist draws from old family photos in large painting exhibition in Duncan

Yvonne Vander Kooi presents ‘Passage’ at Duncan’s Ou Gallery

Nanaimo artist Yvonne Vander Kooi said there are times in one’s life when one may want to reflect upon the people and places who contributed to who they are.

That’s what Vander Kooi has been going through over the past two years as she’s been poring over family photos dating from the ’30s to the ’70s, covering her parents’ youths, the Second World War, their immigration to Canada and Vander Kooi’s own childhood.

Vander Kooi said the practice is about determining identity, but as an artist she looks at those photographs and sees possibilities.

“I think about who’s in the photos, who’s not, why? What are they doing? What are they thinking?” she said. “It’s just this contemplative look at the people who are mine, right? My clan, I guess, and what did they do and how does that impact me today and this idea of multigenerational transfers that occur that are sort of subtle or not very obvious necessarily, but they’re there and how do these things play out?”

Vander Kooi has taken some of the photographs she’s found particularly compelling and extrapolated from them to create a series of large paintings. She calls the exhibition, which opened at the Ou Gallery in Duncan on Oct. 26, Passage.

The exhibition also examines ideas around the reliability of photographs as ironclad historical documents, as well as the malleability of memory. In some cases Vander Kooi did additional research to better understand the photographs’ context.

“I’ve heard terms like ‘memory is imagination,’ which I really like because I feel like that’s what I’ve done here is I’ve imagined,” she said. “There’s been a lot of imagining so these aren’t necessarily accurate records, they’re just more imaginings around the idea of memory and the past.”

At the exhibition opening Vander Kooi’s sisters flew in from Toronto and Edmonton and her brother came from Port Alberni. She said they’re supportive of the work, with one sister telling her she can’t sell the pieces because “these paintings really belong to us.”

“That was a kind of beautiful compliment because I guess that is what I’m doing is exploring who we are as a family and it’s important to me,” Vander Kooi said. “And so the fact that her response was like, ‘This is important, I want to stay connected to this work in some way,’ was really great.”

Vander Kooi hoped to have her mother, who lives in Ontario, present at the opening via video call. She also said she’d like to exhibit the show in her home province because of its connection to place. But while it is a personal exhibit, Vander Kooi said it touches on relatable concepts.

“I think it’s bigger than just my family,” she said. “I think there are opportunities for people to connect with this work around their own stories and their own family histories.”

Vander Kooi will be at the gallery during the Cowichan Artisans Studio Tour on Nov. 2 and 3 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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