“I really must have done something important.” – Gwen Paget
Who will you be in 50 years? Can you have any influence on that?
Two current exhibitions at the Canadian War Museum inspire dealing with what lies ahead in life, and, for those of a certain age, perspective on defining your life. Homage: The art of Elaine Goble is a collection of contemporary portraits featuring people who lived and served in the Second World War. Forever Changed – Stories From The Second World War takes us deeper into the experiences of those transformative years.
Homage: The art of Elaine Goble
In Homage, portraitist Elaine Goble uses a paradoxical method to uncover the true person sitting before her. Her secret starts with a conversation, then applying millions of tiny pencil and brush strokes to build and reveal the person within. Her method mimics life. Time and circumstance do not erode. They build and refine the essential core. The key to a satisfying life seems to be identifying and being satisfied with that core.
Gwen Paget, whose quote begins this article, is depicted with an expression of determination and pride. She uttered the line while viewing her portrait for the first time. Looking at her portrait, it is no surprise that she did indeed do something important. You can read her story alongside her picture with the 14 others who allowed artist Elaine Goble to enter their memories and share their lives.
The Homage collection is displayed along a quiet corridor, where you can spend time looking closely at each portrait. Elaine’s art rewards time, as the layering of details lets a personality emerge. A good example is this vignette of her distracted daughter which is embedded in a larger piece. It shows how quickly interest in the past can fade. After doing this sketch, Elaine set on a path to immortalize the wartime generation’s hard-learned wisdom through portraits of those who had earned it.
For some, it was the first time they had told their story publicly. For others, it was a chance to make the last statement. And of course, it was a chance to have a fun time with a good listener and artist.
Philip Favel never stopped fighting. After fighting injustice in Europe, and gaining a chest full of medals, he used those medals to continue fighting for Justice in Canada. Justice for equal compensation for Indigenous veterans. Elaine calls his portrait “Normandy Warrior.”
His was the last portrait painted for this exhibition. He passed away a few months after the exhibit was mounted. One look and you can tell he was a warrior to the end.
Speaking of warriors, one person in the Forever Changed exhibit used her wartime experience to influence Canada’s post war aviation industry. Move over, Marvel! Canada had a comic book superhero of its own. Queen of the Hurricanes, Elsie MacGill.
Forever Changed – Stories From The Second World War
Her contributions to the war production effort as an aeronautical engineer and Canada’s transition to civil aviation are impressive. It’s also interesting that her post-polio disability is illustrated, but not commented on. It’s just part of her spunky nature. This could be understood as encouragement for those who have disabilities, and desire to be recognized for their contributions.
The comic book was not the only interesting thing to find in the Forever Changed exhibit. There are a series of interactive and immersive displays which aim to break through the detachment from the past that Elaine Goble noticed in her daughter.
You can design a dress using wartime restrictions.
You can learn the steps of how to build a bomb, as workers did in production camps across Canada. You can also relive a foxhole experience through a close experience video.
Attendees of the exhibit can also listen to the pre-battle prayer, written by Farley Mowat’s commanding officer Major Alexander “Alex” Railton Campbell, who inspired the book, And No Birds Sang.
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We can also find inspiration in the resiliency of those Canadians who succeeded in life, even after a betrayal by their own country. Check out the scrapbook in the last display. Michiko (Ishii) Ayukawa shares pictures from her life in the Canadian Internment camps during the war.
That’s the beauty of a museum. It is there to constantly remind us, share wisdom, and expose folly.
So, who will you be in fifty years? There’s no doubt that life is going to challenge you. The people in these exhibits offer examples and solutions; we do have some control over the outcome. Understanding your core seems to be a common thread among the great variety of personalities in these two exhibitions.
Perhaps it’s time to commission a portrait.
Homage – The Art of Elaine Goble, created by the Canadian War Museum in collaboration with the artist, is presented from Sept. 24 to Dec. 12, 2021, in the North Corridor.
Forever Changed will be on display to Sept. 5, 2022, in the Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae Gallery.
Visitors are strongly encouraged to book their tickets to visit. Admission on-site without a pre-booked ticket is available only on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information about safety measures at the Museum and to book tickets, please visit warmuseum.ca.