Aganetha Dyck: Collaboration, Commitment, & Context
May 7, 2018
“… I became quieter, calmer, slower to react, and I became someone who paid attention to what was important. To pay attention is a trust within myself that I did not know was there.”
Aganetha Dyck’s illustrious career spans four decades and is brimming with passion, commitment, and humour. Weaving her manifold life experiences into her artistic practice, Dyck transforms domestic and everyday objects through a variety of processes: canning, altering, shrinking, and over the last two decades, collaborating with honeybees.
A diverse selection of Dyck’s work was curated in collaboration with Lisa Kehler Art + Projects (Winnipeg), and exhibited at dc3 Art Projects from March 15 – April 28, 2018. For the duration of this exhibition, Jessa Gillespie from dc3 Art Projects corresponded over email with Dyck, discussing her history and tracing the contexts that so potently inspire her practice.
< jessa gillespie > Why don’t we begin by speaking a bit about your history. As your art career began later in your life, I’m interested in what prompted your decision to start pursuing an art education and practice?
< aganetha dyck > A bit of my beginning as an artist in 1974-76 (we lived in Prince Albert from 1972 – 1976 then back to Winnipeg). The Prince Albert (PA), Saskatchewan Art Centre was offering classes led by local and provincial artists and I partook in them all. Batik, weaving, drawing, pottery, visiting artist lectures.
Next: The Saskatchewan Arts Council hired George Glen (MFA) as a professor for the PA College. I became a regular student in his classes of drawing, life drawing, art history, etc. After some time, George opened a huge studio (basement of the Herald Press building), and invited several students to share the space. I was one of those students. Being in George’s studio meant that coffee breaks and lunches became dialogues re. art, international artists, etc.. George also allowed us to borrow books from his vast library – which was situated within the ‘coffee’ room. I read and read. Not knowing what to do in the studio since I was only a student, George asked me: “what do you like doing best at home?”. My reply was “laundry”. George said: “then do laundry in the studio”. It was a great conversation!
As luck would have it, I purchased a second-hand wringer washing machine (circa 1959), found a stash of discarded woolen clothing, and began washing them. It was amazing to read some of George’s books while the washing machine chugged its mantra all day long. When the now shrunken clothing emerged from the washer, I placed them on the studio floor or hung them up to drip-dry. I had no idea what was occurring, but I found it exciting. All of this shrunken clothing twisted and stood without any support.
At the time I was a mentee to Master Weaver, Margaret Van Walsem, who was also in the studio. Margaret and George, observing my felting works, suggested that I could leave the slow process of weaving and continue my clothing series/huge felted works. This resulted in over 1000 shrunken clothing items, plus a very large installation of a felted ‘forest’, for lack of better words. By that time, I was also felting raw sheep’s fleece/carded wool into a forest – a single 20 x 30 sculpture. These were ceiling to floor objects you could walk within.
Curators visited our studio mainly to see George and Margaret’s work. Carol Phillips (now the head of Winnipeg’s Arts Council, then, the head curator of the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina) saw my work and asked a very important question: “if you are doing this strong work now, what will you be doing in 10 years?”. That question became part of my daily thinking as well as the slogan “Why Not?” by the then women’s movement.
Carol gave me a solo in Norman Mackenzie’s small downstairs gallery for emerging artists. She also asked me to become an artist in the The Saskatchewan Artists in the School program, which allowed me to travel to many communities in Saskatchewan with my felted forest. By that time, I was also a PA rep on the the Saskatchewan Arts Board. I learned so much in a few years.
My family always came first. Peter was manager of the PA Eaton’s store, and we had three lovely, growing children. It was a full life of adventures and learning. I only went to the studio when the children were in school. We moved back to Winnipeg in the fall of 1976, where I opened a studio prior to unpacking most of our family’s moving boxes.
I became an Artist in the Schools program participant with the Manitoba Arts Council a few years later and received my first Canada Council Explorations grant, which was to shrink/use carded wool in a sculpting process. I purchased another old washing machine from Goodwill for the studio. I then successfully entered my first juried exhibition and was fortunate to have the work exhibited.
Install shot from Aganetha Dyck’s exhibition at dc3 Art Projects.
< jessa > Amazing. So following this first exhibition, you continued working with textiles, but I understand you began working with other domestic/household objects as well. Did the women’s movement at the time influence how you navigated this work and your practice?
< aganetha > I began working with a stash of buttons, canning/preserving them in jars, on flats, in bowls, sometimes barbecuing them. I was thinking of the pioneers with their ingenuity of preserving, drying, and canning food.
I was influenced by both my Mother and Grandmother’s cellars full of colour and texture-filled jars of delicious pickles, fish, tomatoes, soups, veggies, fruit, jams etc.. Long shelves of sustenance. Beautiful to behold. — I was not and am not a canner.
The women’s movement was just beginning anew. I found the idea strong and was motivated by the movement’s seriousness. What also influenced me, was that several times early on in my practice, I was told “why do you bother with trying to make art – you are starting late in life and you are a woman” (I am paraphrasing). Then I thought of Grandma Moses, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Eva Hesse, and many others. I felt that it was important for me to continue because although I was not a verbal person most of the time, my art was speaking for me. Peers were interested, and curators were coming to the studio (frightening that!). Although, I did not have the academic language. This made me attend all lectures offered at the University of Manitoba and other venues, read more art history, and to work steadily in the studio.
The shrinking of garments continued and were beginning to be exhibited. My work was beginning to get the attention of writers. What amazed me was that my family, my husband and our three growing children, took me seriously and my husband supported me 100%. My parents came to my exhibitions. My Mother, who was not sure of what I was doing, was a great supporter and one day she said, “I am not a feminist dear, but I saw an invitation on your desk that there is going to be a conference in Ottawa regarding women artists – here is a cheque for $1000. You have to go see what it is about”. I could not believe it. Today I cannot remember the conference’s title – but I went. I will never forget her trust in my way of being, or her generosity. She must have had some weird moments when the other church ladies indicated that they also had shrunk clothing and wondered, what made my shrinking art?
And much much later when she was nearing 90 and in a nursing home, she would ask about my work. One day after working with the honeybees we visited and I asked her what she thought about my placing her Mother’s crocheted tablecloth within a hive, on a round Plexiglas table top. She loved the idea and this act resulted in the honeybees crocheting along with grandmother’s hooked stitches. Amazing to have a Mother with this type of thinking.
I want you to know that I was very determined with much support. Even from my Father, who carved several large crochet hooks for my work and was most supportive. He came to the studio a few times and just beamed. To this day I am certain he did not understand but that he was most pleased and proud of me. How fortunate is that?!
< jessa > That’s so wonderful that you received so much support. It makes a big difference.
This idea of the honeybees crocheting along with your grandmother’s stitches is very poetic. How did you decide to begin collaborating with honeybees in your practice?
< aganetha > I began working with honeybees after running out of paraffin wax – someone suggested that Bee Maid Honey Co-op in Winnipeg would have beeswax. I knew absolutely nothing re. bees or beeswax but was intrigued. Upon entering the Co-op, I saw a honeycombed sign that a beekeeper had his bees construct. It was a long strip of wood with text on it created by the honeybees. It read BEE MAID HONEY. The salesman at Bee Maid informed me that beekeeper Gary Hooper from St. Rose Du Lac, Manitoba has his honeybees create text in honeycomb. I knew immediately that my life would change and I would visit Gary for a demonstration. As luck would have it, Gary was delighted and we spent half a day at his home discussing how to work with honeybees to create text.
The next day I was at the library researching honeybees, honeycomb, everything related to apiaries. Choosing books and heading for the take out line, an acquaintance Louis Loewen from St. Norbert Arts and Cultural Centre asked what I was doing with honeybee related books. My reply was that I wanted to create art with them and needed a beekeeper.
Again, luck jumped in and Louise informed me that a young beekeeper by the name of Phil Veldhuis was installing his apiary at the St. Norbert Arts and Cultural Centre – did I want to meet with him? Yes. That afternoon I met Phil and we chatted re. art in the beehive. Phil is a philosopher and he listened – almost immediately he offered to work with me. We hit it off, and for the next 22 years Phil and I, plus Dr. Mark Winston (international bee scientist at SFU) and other beekeepers/scientists internationally helped me establish a new way of seeing and being.
I never looked back and cleaned out my downtown studio to create space for a new body of work. I had no idea what lay ahead, but passion set in and I trusted that everything would be just fine working with Phil and the honeybees. Phil set up a studio of hives on one of his many bee-yards, and the resulting bee-work was stunning. To work with honeybees is also stunning.
I spent a week in Dr. Mark Winston’s bee lab at SFU and was blown away, still am. Next I travelled to Avignon, France to see the bee walls of France and visit Mark’s friend, Dr. Yves LeConte – another international bee scientist. Canada Council gave me a Senior Arts Grant to visit the bees and flowers of France – which I did. That is the whole story.
Install shot from Aganetha Dyck’s exhibition at dc3 Art Projects.
< jessa > You said that they (Phil & Mark) helped you establish a ‘new way of seeing and being’, could you expand on that, and the experience of working so closely with another species?
< aganetha > Because Phil and Mark both allowed me to observe, listen and work with their honeybees, I became quieter, calmer, and slower to react, and I became someone who paid attention to what was important.
To pay attention is a trust within myself that I did not know was there. Having said that, I became very passionate re. honeybees.
Phil is a sessional professor in Philosophy at the University of Manitoba, but he is a beekeeper by trade. His quiet, knowing methods of teaching me about honeybees and how to work within the apiary were thoughtful, gentle, and thorough. He allowed me to ask questions, and he listened to every possible project. He and I, plus my husband Peter, discussed and planned the construction of specific hives. Phil considered every project with his honeybees in mind.
He also taught me to be considerate around honeybees. To approach a hive from the rear so as not disturb the guards at the hive entry; so as not to disturb the coming and going of the thousands of honeybees as they come and go in search of nectar and pollen. My first hive visit – opening a hive – was similar to visiting a foreign country with respect to that country’s culture and way of being.
I would like to add that the few people I allowed to visit me during apiary studio hours, would quietly exclaim – “this is from another time or this is somewhere in outer space, or this is a foreign place” – continuing in awe with what they observed re. the colours, movements, scent, and warmth emitting from the colony of wonder.
Don Dixon, the head apiarist of the University of Manitoba’s bee-lab called one day to request a studio visit with Dr. Mark Winston, head of Simon Fraser University bee-lab. Mark came to see what was happening in my studio – he looked around, we sat down, and we discussed honeybees and the work they and I accomplished. I had never met Mark prior, and was in awe of this world-renowned scientist and could not believe he was in my studio. He had written books and I wrote down all the titles of his books. After our meeting I exclaimed to a colleague, “you would never believe who was in my studio today!”. And the same day I was told that Mark had said, “Aganetha blew my bee veil off!”.
In Dr. Mark Winston’s bee-lab, along with his assistant Heather Higo and their students, I was given free reign to use powerful microscopes to look at honeybees and their many parts. I was taught how to melt beeswax safely and was invited to follow students around their world of honeybees. Weighing honeybees after pesticide interventions, measuring the honeybees, dissecting honeybees, naming all the body parts – an awesome and unbelievably knowledge-filled time.
I spent 5 days within the bee-lab where Mark introduced me to a chemist at the university who worked with the honeybees and the world’s magnetic field. We had a great discussion on how the magnetic field might assist with my work. This meeting made my head buzz, as did all that was taught to me in Mark’s lab. I heard, thought, felt, sensed, listened with more intensity that I knew was possible.
Most important was the fact that I was having the privilege and honour of working with the world’s most important pollinators (and scientists who were basically feeding humanity). And my work was within their world! To say that I became passionate re. the honeybees, is an understatement. I trusted myself and knew my life’s work would end with the honeybees.
Having been stung a few times by the honeybees, it was not until 2010 that I became allergic to their stings. It was a sad time of thinking through how to continue working with the honeybees from a distance.
< jessa > Wow, what a journey. You say that you knew your life’s work would end with the honeybees. To continue to do this work means that you’re putting yourself at physical risk; have you found different ways of collaborating with the bees despite your inability to physically interact with them in the same way you once did?
< aganetha > For years I collected and selected apiary Feeder Boards that grew to a total of 120. I have a large selection on my studio wall and will continue working on them until they have been completed. It might take a year or two or more.
Also, beekeepers are able to place my work into their hives according to my instructions – several years ago I was offered a commission from Temple University in Pittsburgh. It took several years and finally there was some success. The problem, was that the beekeeper named Jim Bobb went camping the first year so there was some stalling… Jim Bobb was uncommunicative or I was not clear in my instructions, but it was a success and I learned an awful lot. The project ended with honeybee-completed figurines being installed within a china cabinet in the gallery, with the honeybees coming and going trying to complete their collaboration.
I am thinking through what to do other than the feeder boards – having said that I am pleased with the project so far. The images on my website do not have drawings in the sipping holes of the boards but now they do. I draw a lot and am pleased to do so. How fortunate to be able to continue working with the bees from a distance, and from their own markings on the Feeder Boards.
< jessa > I have one final question for you! Has your deep devotion to learning from and collaborating with honeybees, solidified for you the importance of a dedication to interspecies communication?
This is something I think about a lot, the idea of having it be on us to dedicate our time and energy to learning from and understanding our intrinsic relations to other species. After all, our current climate/ecological crises are the result of toxic relations initiated on our end.
< aganetha > My devotion to learning from and collaborating with honeybees, has indeed solidified the importance of a dedication to interspecies communication and relation. Interspecies communication is the transfer of information from one or a group of animals to one or more animals. Honeybee’s transfer their scent to each other via pheromones (as I have read and believe). Honeybees use auditory, visual, touch, colour – including ultraviolet messages, to communicate. They use these to understand messages re. food sources, needs of the hive, dangers and good tidings – such as when a new Queen Bee is about to emerge to strengthen the bee colony.
Honeybees send their guards to chase an apiary invader far from the apiary. They chase humans and animals, including wasps for long distances. The guards have followed me for over half a mile buzzing and batting my veil even though I walked slowly, quietly or stood still for a time, they persisted in chasing me far from their hives. It was because I bumped their hive by accident. Very scary situation.
And tomato plants evidently shiver when a certain bug is about to harm it – the shiver is recognized by a bird that enjoys eating said bug – it dives down to the tomato plant and devours the harmful bug. Rhizomes within the earth’s soil will alter their path if a dangerous predator is heading their way. What language do they use? Does the soil move, is there a scent or sound?
And we are responsible for most of the damage by thinking that we are in control of the earth, doing whatever we want to make it work for us.
In 1995, David Attenborough wrote: “Ever since we arrived on this planet as a species, we’ve cut them down, dug them up, burnt them and poisoned them. Today we’re doing so on a greater scale than ever (..) We destroy plants at our peril. Neither we nor any other animal can survive without them. The time has come for us to cherish our green inheritance not to pillage it — for without it we will surely perish”.
If the honeybees disappear from the earth all living beings will perish within 5 years.
So what language do we use, what action do we take now? Can we learn to see beyond our own greedy, controlling selves? I do not have the answers, as you know.