Originally appeared in the July 28th issue of the Klondike Sun.
Currently on display in the upstairs gallery of the Confluence Members Gallery is Jen Laliberte’s found collection of love letters, photographs and ephemera from the early 20th century. –Megan Graham
MG: How did you come across the correspondence of Florence Panting and George McPhee and how did it develop into an exhibition?
JL: I’ve had the collection (obtained from an Estate Sale in Southern Saskatchewan) for a few years, and it’s always been my fondest wish to give them all to a relative so that all these beautiful images and words could be enjoyed by Florence and George’s family, but my internet research wasn’t yielding anything, so on a recent trip to Winnipeg this spring, I spent some time at the Manitoba Archives. It was a pretty magical day when I found the marriage license, as it demonstrated that all their exchanges finally came to fruition. I was also able to locate obituaries for both George and Florence McPhee (who lived until 1977 and 1981 respectively) and through this archival data, I ascertained that George and Florence never had children after their 1915 marriage, and had no surviving relatives. It was sort of bittersweet, because I was so thrilled to finally have conclusive evidence they got married, but it hadn’t resulted in any conclusive destination for the collection. This lack of a familial destination, however, I have developed a strong drive to preserve and protect these photos and letters, as well as share Florence and George’s lovely story, which is why I was inspired to put together the Confluence Show– so others could experience the same wonder I do when I look at them.
JL: I wanted to display the letters, photographs, and other little objects in a way that exhibited the amazing textures, colours, details and imperfections without damaging them in any way or making them vulnerable to disintegration. Some of the paper is so brittle and thin that I can almost see it turning to dust before my eyes. Also most of the objects are very small scale, and I didn’t want them to be swallowed by whiteness on a huge, blank wall. I think of all the letters and photos as something of an archive of Florence and George’s lives, and so I was drawn to the Victorian notion of presenting artifacts or collections on public display in a somewhat stylized and unnatural way. I wanted the objects to be viewed not only for what they communicated in words or images, but what they were as objects, as well. I suppose also reading other people’s mail is something of a voyeuristic pursuit, so looking through glass seemed very apt to me. I was fairly determined to create this aesthetic from the beginning, but since I don’t have any Victorian display cabinets readily available, the biggest challenge was finding a way to evoke that sensibility with limited resources, and then it was a matter obsessively searching for and hoarding glass for the last few months.
MG: For you, what is the value of handwritten correspondence?
JL: For me the value comes in its tactile and actual physicality—the smell and feel of the paper, the different tones and transparencies, the texture of the ink, the little mistakes and disruptions in the script—so much animation beyond what the words actually say. Also the archival potential for physical letters lends itself to a viewable, experienceable collection, such as this one, whereas the digital archive or collection is not palpable; all the humanity is kind of smoothed away with digital correspondence, I feel.
MG: What’s the best letter you’ve ever received?
JL: I feel like I’ve been pretty lucky with great letters– maybe that’s what draws me to Florence and George’s exchange. I have a letter written entirely on paper bar napkins that makes no sense at all that I’m pretty fond of, and I have one that was written on the back of a strip of wallpaper from an abandoned convent that I also really love. Those might be my favourites as objects, but then there’s the ones that are the best because of what they say…so maybe in a hundred years or so those will end up in someone’s art exhibition somewhere.
Jen’s show, ‘had we but world enough, and time,’ is on view at the Confluence Members Gallery (upstairs gallery in SOVA, 3rd and Queen) until August 12.