Claire (Weissman) Wilks
Claire Wilks’ oeuvre lays bare the inner emotional world of the human lived experience, from love and compassion to devastating loneliness, pain and suffering. In her works, the human body, nakedly vulnerable and vulnerably naked, manifests inner strength and the power of self-awareness. Mortality comes to us all. It often comes unfairly, sometimes cruelly and always too soon, but it is our awareness of our own mortality that is at the heart of the human condition. And, it is in Wilks’ exploration of the human condition that we witness her search for understanding of – and meaning in – the unknowable in a way that is ultimately life affirming.Claire Weissman Wilks (1933-2017) was a figurative artist, drawing the naked human body over and over again, from every angle, conveying a multitude of experiences. Wilks once called women’s bodies her ‘chosen landscape,’ but she did not consider this a political statement: “The female form is my line, the form lives in the brain of my finger.” Yet, during the 1970s her erotic images of women were rarely accepted for showing in conservative Toronto galleries – far too startlingly carnal for conventional audiences. Although not Wilks’ intention, they contributed to a new dialogue about sexual desire from a woman’s perspective, which happened to coincide with the first major wave of Feminism. The great Canadian novelist and playwright, Timothy Findley, wrote of Wilks’ work: “Looking at these drawings, women are going to know what it is to be a man; men are going to know what it is to be a woman. Nothing greater can be achieved but that we enter into one another’s flesh through on another’s eyes. This is the ultimate compassion.”Having worked with models for over 20 years, from around 1982, Wilks began to create works based on love letters she had been reading, saying: “I was forced to rely on my – I was drawn into – my imagination. It was my liberation from the model.” From this point forward, feeling and meaning were not only evident in the positioning of the body, but in her subjects’ highly expressive hands and soul-baring eyes. Major series to emerge from this period include The Hillmother Drawings (1983), The Etty Drawings (1983-85), and Medallions (1983-85). The Hillmother drawings explored the power and precariousness of motherhood through dreamy maternal forms with impossibly spread legs, cradling a turbulent mountain of babies – goddess-like forms evoking mountains and cosmos. In The Etty Drawings series, Wilks explored solitude, vulnerability, and the power that exists in the body and consciousness to exemplify the resilience of our humanity and fortitude. She was inspired by reading the Etty Hillesum diaries, an extraordinary young Jewish intellectual who died in Auschwitz, leaving confessional letters and diaries that described both her religious awakening and the Jewish persecutions in Amsterdam during the German occupation. While Wilks’ Lithuanian Jewish heritage was not an emphasis in her upbringing, she felt that the connection to Eastern Europe constantly affected her work, particularly a preoccupation with the Second World War. In this series, there is an underlying empathy with the life of women in concentration camps, and a need to reinvest that life with the sexuality and sensuality that is denied in most Holocaust imagery. The themes contained in these works would be found throughout her oeuvre.
The Medallions series of stone lithographs depicted entangled female forms melding into one another like polymorphic sculptures. In fact, Wilks was also an accomplished sculptor, working in bronze and clay. Totem (1993), one of her most important bronze sculptures, consists of thirteen female figures defiantly spiralling counter-clockwise and seemingly falling upward, as if defying gravity. In another series of unfired clay figures on glass bottles, entitled Timeless Upon Time (2003-11) Wilks seems to portray the very essence of human fragility and vulnerability. Here, the figures are precariously draped over glass bottles, each holding the other up in what seems like a perilous situation. Underscoring the perception of interconnectedness, where arms hold onto other arms and legs and still others reach back tenderly yet uncomfortably to support another. Art mirrors life as the uncertain future of these figures is further highlighted by the fragility of the glass, itself a sort of empty bubble. In the late 1990s, she began the Out of the Cave series of monoprints – arguably her most ‘sculptural’ drawings of figures – primal, yet full of emotion, vulnerable yet full of endurance. Wilks said of these works: “My figures have the same presence as drawings found in actual caves – drawings on ancient walls – the energy of line being the same, creating that ‘primal’ sense of emotion that many find in my work. Also, the effect each monoprint has is often close to fresco, that is, the figure and the light seem to emerge out of the wall, out of the stone – an effect caused by my brushwork that always surprises me... it is emotion embedded in stone.” The actual title Out of the Cave came from the writer and poet Margaret Atwood, who saw the first series of monoprints before they were about to be exhibited in Mexico at the State Museum in Monterrey (2000). Wilks went on to create works for exhibitions at the Museo Del Chopo, Mexico (2001), House of Congress, Mexico (2002), and Querini Stampalia, Venice (2008).The works Wilks created in the last years of her life seem to question, challenge and come to grips with mortality with eerie prescience. Anne Michaels, internationally celebrated novelist (whose works have been translated into 35 languages) and Toronto’s Poet Laureate (2015-18), wrote: “She moved forward into the truth of things. The body is a limit, a threshold. All her life, in her art, Claire explored that threshold we are defined by, the limit that defines us, and the physical place and moment we perceive to the full. Claire acknowledged the place death has in our bodies. Without the body, there is no consciousness, no death. Without a limit, there is no beyond. Limit is the proof of the beyond.”Christian Bernard Singer, Curator
SOLO EXHIBITIONS2015 ‘Women This Way’ GNSTUDIO Contemporary Art, Oakville 2013 WAR: Light Within/After the Darkness' The Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery, Waterloo 2012 From the Beginning' De Luca Fine Art | Gallery, Toronto 2011 Sculpture and Monoprints Galeria Ethra, Mexico City 2008 Monoprints: ‘Out of the Cave III’ Querini Stampalia, Venice 2004 Monoprints: ‘Solitude’ Prince Arthur Fine Arts, Toronto, Ontario2004 Two of Us Together, Each of Us Alone: Retrospective (1982-2004) Hamilton Conservatory of the Arts, Hamilton 2002 Monoprints: ‘Ghosts’ Prince Arthur Fine Arts, Toronto, Ontario 2002 Monoprints: ‘Out of the Cave II’ House of Congress, Mexico City 2001 Monoprints: ‘Out of the Cave II’ and Brush Drawing Museo Universitario del Chopo, Mexico City Monoprints: ‘Out of the Cave I’ Prince Arthur Fine Arts, Toronto, Ontario Monoprints: ‘Out of the Cave I’ and Brush Drawing Museo de Arte Contemporáneo - MARCO, Monterrey, Mexico 1999 Sculpture Gallery Schieder on Yorkville, Toronto, Ontario 1998 Drawings and Sculpture Academy of Spherical Arts, Toronto, Ontario 1997 Sculpture and Drawings Liu Gallery, Toronto, Ontario 1995 Drawings and Sculpture Madison Gallery, Toronto, Ontario 1993 Sculpture and Painting Gallery Schieder and Associates, Toronto, Ontario 1992 Drawings, Paintings and Sculpture Sunnen Gallery, Soho, New York Drawings: In the White Hotel Luba Bystriansky Gallery, Toronto, OntarioDrawings, Paintings and Sculpture Luba Bystriansky Gallery, Toronto, Ontario 1991-89 Quan Schieder Gallery, Toronto, Ontario 1989 Drawings Centro Internationale de Graphica, San Marco, Venice, ItalySculpture and Works on Paper Centro Culturale Canadese, Rome, Italy Lithographs and Sculpture Muzejsko Galeruski Centar, Zagreb, Croatia Sculpture Charles Allis Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin Sculpture and Brush Drawings Quan Schieder Gallery, Toronto, Ontario 1987 Erotic Drawings and Sculpture Galleri Hander, Stockholm, SwedenSculpture and Drawings Debel Gallery, Jerusalem, IsraelDrawings and Lithographs Arts and Letters Club, Toronto, OntarioRetrospective, 1975-1987, Drawings McGibbon Cultural Centre, Toronto, Ontario 1986 Sculpture and Drawings Del Bello Gallery, Toronto, Ontario 1985 Lithographs Papoli, Italy Drawings and Lithographs WR Mitchell Gallery & Associates, Calgary, Alberta The Thinking Heart: Series of Drawings Del Bello Gallery, Toronto, Ontario Medallions, Lithographs Del Bello Gallery, Toronto, Ontario1984 Drawings Hett Gallery Collection Exhibit, Edmonton, Alberta 1983 Hillmother: Series of Drawings WR Mitchell Gallery & Associates, Calgary, Alberta1982 Erotic Drawings IGA Gallery, Toronto, Ontario GROUP EXHIBITIONS 1995 Gallery Artists Exhibition Madison Gallery, Toronto, Ontario 1994 Sculpture John B. Aird Gallery, Toronto, Ontario1993 Sculpture Gallery Schieder & Associates, Toronto, Ontario 1992 Group Show Luba Bystriansky Gallery, Toronto, Ontario 1991 Spirited Gallery 101, Ottawa, Ontario 1987 First International Miniature Show Del Bello Gallery, Toronto, Ontario 1981 The Nude ATC Gallery, Toronto, Ontario1980 Women Artists: A View of Men McGibbon Cultural Centre, Toronto, Ontario 1976 Portraits Jerrold Morris Gallery, Toronto, Ontario 1975 The Nude Gadatsy Gallery, Toronto, Ontario 1968 Works on Paper Pollack Gallery, Toronto, Ontario1967 Society of Graphic Artists National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario Miniatures Pollack Gallery, Toronto, Ontario