John Armstrong

Seeing Jeannie Thib
Oakville Galleies

Seeing Jeannie Thib’s Model/Mimic (1995) brings to mind my Aunt Florence’s white gloves— the gloves she wore in 1930, when she first moved to Toronto at the age of twenty. That such an image would present itself to me was a bit odd as I have never seen my aunt’s (by now) antique gloves.

Although I’ve very recently viewed Model/Mimic in “Preserve,” a selected, five-year survey of Thib’s work at the Art Gallery of Peterborough, my first encounter with this piece was in 1997 in the very particular setting of the Oakville Galleries in Gairloch Gardens. The Gairloch gallery is housed in a converted private residence built in the 1920s, and located in what is now a public garden and park on Lake Ontario. Built in a gabled, neo-Tudor style, the former residence embodies old-world, country-estate charm: the building is faced with split sandstone, the windows are leaded and the interior is panelled in bleached oak with carved foliate trim. This markedly domestic setting is — given our predilection for white cube galleries — an unconventional if not awkward contemporary exhibition space.

Since the arrival of Oakville Galleries curator Marnie Fleming in 1991, a number of artists have been invited to create artworks that specifically address Gairloch’s architecture and setting. Appropriately, Oakville Galleries has acquired many of these works for their permanent collection. Fleming’s curatorial initiatives in the Gairloch venue include a heterogeneous range of Canadian and international artists. In 1994, Vancouver artist Anne Ramsden created Curtain (Investor Confidence), a seemingly limitless chintz curtain that originated in the sitting room’s valance and cascaded out onto the floor. Ramsden’s use of this perennially popular floral fabric gave Gairloch a post-World War II makeover, metaphorically filling the gallery with that period’s dedication to overstuffed comfort. In a 1996 exhibition at Gairloch, Tokyo artist Tatsuo Miyajima created installations of furniture borrowed from the Oakville Museums in combination with his signature LED displays. (Miyajima’s LED displays characteristically twinkle ever-changing numbers.) In one piece, Time Fire, Miyajima piled the LED gadgets up in a living room fireplace. Here a traditional icon of domestic bliss is lent the frenetic pace of a stock-market exchange.

A 1998 exhibition by Toronto artist Paul Kipps used the Gairloch estate’s stone-and-iron gate as a point of departure for the creation of monumental, propped-up and framed photographs of several of the imposing masonry gates that that bar access to neighbouring estate homes. Kipps’s Cathexis #1 and #2 (1996-98), framed in maple and birch, exemplify the fine joinery found in the frames of family portraits one might have encountered some decades hence perched atop the family piano (or in some other place of prominence). Jeannie Thib’s Model/Mimic was one of her several responses to an invitation to exhibit at Gairloch, and like the artworks I have just described, Thib’s work also invites viewers to draw upon their own knowledge of past domestic lives. For her Gairloch exhibition (also titled “Model/Mimic”), Thib created a number of artworks that evoke the presence of a fictive woman who might once have lived in the house.

In 1930, my Aunt Florence moved into an appropriately chaperoned room in a family’s home in Toronto on High Park Boulevard. By the 1920s, High Park Boulevard was a private road lined with manorial houses contemporary to the Gairloch gallery building; the Toronto homes comprised a similar patchwork of eclectic European references such as sandstone construction, ceramic tile roofing and adjoining steel-and-glass greenhouses. High Park Boulevard runs between Roncesvalles Avenue (a commercial and residential “Main Street”) and Toronto’s lakeside High Park; in the 1920s and ‘30s, access to High Park Boulevard was restricted by a supervised gate at Roncesvalles Avenue. In my aunt’s telling, women were not permitted to pass through the gate unless they were properly attired: gloves were mandatory — dark-coloured gloves in the winter and light-coloured gloves in the summer. Although Aunt Florence appreciated the rituals of her new, up-scale address, she felt ambivalent about the necessity of always having to carry gloves to meet with social opprobrium.

Aunt Florence moved to Toronto from the family dairy farm in Markdale, Ontario, via Orangeville, where she had completed secretarial training in a one-year program at a business college. Of her seven brothers, only one went on to remain fully employed in farming. My relatives, like many Canadians, were part of a trend of youth rural-out migration that begun as early as Confederation and continued unabated through to the 1970s.[i] In 1871, the Census of Canada recorded that only 20.6 percent of Ontarians lived in and about urban centres; by 1931, 63.1 percent of Ontarians were urban dwellers.

The neo-Tudor style of Gairloch and High Park Boulevard was popular in the up-scale neighbourhoods of Toronto and environs: one Toronto architect created over 2,500 homes for the burgeoning city from 1890 through to 1940, the period when this style flourished.[ii] The style updated and extended the 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement’s interest in recuperating a medieval rural idyll of fine workmanship; particularly crass examples of the style in Toronto (and elsewhere in North America) were identifiable by their over-reaching dedication to medievalizing, half-timbered facades, and were popularly referred to as “Stockbroker Tudor.” In more sophisticated designs (such as Gairloch), neo-Tudor homes evoked an idealized English country estate. This was a romanticized notion of rural living that had very little to do with the experiences of many recently urbanized Canadians; and the style itself was an intentioned mélange of a number of “picturesque” European precedents.

Thib created Model/Mimic as a response to the ornately carved oak interior of the Gairloch Gallery. The work is composed of two waist-high, glass-topped wooden vitrines that are mounted horizontally on the gallery’s walls: one easily imagines looking into them to choose accessories in a ready-to-wear boutique. Each vitrine contains three pairs of women’s kid gloves: in one vitrine, the gloves are white or light beige and are displayed on white linen; in the other vitrine, the gloves are beige or gray and lie on cream linen. The gloves and their linen supports have an 18th-century textile design screenprinted on them. In the vitrine with the white linen, the design is printed in vermilion and in the vitrine with the cream linen, the design is printed in violet black. The motif of the pattern continues uninterrupted from the background over onto the gloves, creating an effect of camouflage or mimicry.

The textile design Thib reproduces in Model/Mimic depicts a number of wild or semi-domesticated game birds — pheasant, duck, grouse — loosely framed by flourishes that include roses and rosehips, grapes and tendrils, as well as other types flowers and leaves. Interestingly, motifs that suggest the cultivation of a “picturesque” or “natural” garden or the raising of game may be seen as being connected to rituals associated with the the country home in the early 18th-century England.[iii] As well, the sort of textile Thib cites was specifically a product of the convergence of early industrial textile production techniques in Europe: the design was plate printed onto fustian, a new, more versatile cloth woven from the traditionally European linen fibre and cotton newly imported from the Middle East.

Printed cloths of this nature were produced in Lancashire, England, and in Jouy-en-Josas, France. (In France, such designs were called toiles de Jouy. In 1759, the noted industrialist Christophe Oberkampf started to produce the plate-printed cottons and fustians in Jouy-en-Josas. In the same period, Oberkampf opened the first French cotton mill at Essonnes.) Industrialization of textile manufacture in the early 18th century allowed production to exceed demand, contributing to the creation of what was to become the consumer society. Fashionable and luxury items were available to a consuming public that included urban, provincial and rural consumers as well as a broader range of class divisions. That Thib has chosen a fabric that emerged from a period in which the distinction between urban and rural was in a process of fundamental change is, given her creation of a fictional female inhabitant of the Gairloch Gardens “country estate” home, most suggestive.

In Model/Mimic — a manually executed screenprint of a historical motif on vintage gloves — Thib cleverly connects 18th-century romanticism to the various leftovers of 20th-century production. The gloves also playfully suggest the decidedly limited role craft and hand-manufacture now have in encapsulating a romantic view of nature. Of course, neither my Aunt Florence nor Thib’s fictional inhabitant would have worn such fancifully ornamented gloves. But just as Gairloch itself incorporates diverse periods of architectural tradition into picturesque facades, Thib’s gloves present us with a purposeful composite.

It is unlikely that Aunt Florence would have boarded at Gairloch; she worked as a secretary for a downtown insurance company during her years in Toronto in the 1930s. However, the professional photographic portrait [iv] of my aunt taken in 1933, which accompanies this article, could very easily be an image of the woman Thib has posited in her artwork. Any reproduced image, whether it be printed views of the game birds in repeat, architectural conventions or photographic portraits, offers a number of adamantly discreet layers — or fictions. The gloves in Model/Mimic are fairly buried beneath a chameleon layer of arabesques and pattern. From the contradictory evidence Thib presents, we are able to form a picture of any number of begloved matrons, depending on the retrospective thread we follow.

Aunt Florence met Christian Hansen, a Danish émigré, shortly after she moved to Toronto. They dated for seven years, and in 1937, married. Uncle Chris owned a restaurant on Yonge Street, the Dairy Inn, and lived in a boat house on the lake, south and a bit to the east of Roncesvalles Avenue. The years of their courtship coincided with Prohibition; they were, to some extent, able to get around this by virtue of their friendship with a pharmacist on Roncesvalles who, on occasion, provided them with a bottle of medicinal wine. They would, as they later told me, sit out on the deck of the boathouse and partake of the wine together. Since hearing that story, I have had an image of Aunt Florence, quite primly dressed (in a flapper-girl sort of way), sitting on a chair enjoying the questionable merits of pharmaceutical spirits while looking out over the water. I’ve thought that for this she might have taken off her gloves and set them on a crate beside her.

[i] “Population Info,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., 4 vols. (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1989), 4: 2235.

2 Patricia McHugh, Toronto Architecture: A City Guide, 2nd ed., (Toronto: McClelland, 1989), 20.

[iii] Christopher Breward, The Culture of Fashion (Manchester and New York, Manchester University Press, 1995), 126.

[iv] The photographer Charles G. Milne immigrated to Canada from Scotland, first establishing a business in Medicine Hat and then opening a photographic studio in Toronto in 1920. In 1932, Milne moved his Yonge Street studio to a new location several doors south. Milne trained his son, Gilbert Milne, who began his own successful commercial photographic practice in 1938. Over 600,000 of Gilbert Milne’s negatives are in the City of Toronto Archives.

“Thoughts Arising from an Exhibition.” C International Contemporary Art 67/68, Winter 2000-2001