Quickening (detail) artwork by Corinne Cowell. (Photo submitted)

Central Alberta homesteads have dramatic presence in Prairie Narratives

Mixed-media artist Corinne Cowell explores identity and history through exhibit

Ever since stumbling upon an abandoned homestead as a teenager, Corinne Cowell has been fascinated by old buildings that are left to weather and decay.

“There are stories associated with these homesteads — memories that have passed with time, of people’s daily lives, of their experiences of hardship and joy,” said Cowell.

The Calgary artist explores these themes in her mixed-media show Prairie Narratives, at the Harris-Warke Gallery upstairs in Red Deer’s Sunworks store.

Cowell’s richly textured artworks often combine felted wool skies and rolling prairie, with ghostly back-and-white photographs of old, abandoned homes or cars. Sometimes ripply northern lights are created with acrylic paint or embroidery, giving these images a dramatic, layered effect.

Cowell admitted she’s been searching for homesteads since the summer when she and her siblings explored the old Geary house — a turn-of-the-last-century clapboard bungalow found on the property next-door to her family cabin near Fairmont, B.C.

“I purposely drive around looking for old buildings, said the 46-year-old, who’s also trained her husband, kids and friends to watch for ‘Prairie ghosts.’ “I get these calls now, saying, ‘Corinne, I saw a ghost!’”

Several abandoned homes from Alberta appear in Cowell’s artworks, including ones from Donalda in a work called 3 a.m., and Carstairs in 11:30 p.m.

Disintegrating farm sheds are sinking into the soil in 7 p.m., while Quickening shows an eerie view of her early object of fascination: The Geary house looks about to be swallowed by a dark, cavernous sky.

Cowell hopes to engage viewers by giving these old buildings a sense of “presence” in their expansive Prairie environments.

The artist who trained in fibre arts, photography and painting at the Alberta College of Art and Design, is currently working towards getting her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. The Toronto native moved to Alberta at the age of 12 when her physician father got a job working in Occupational Health and Safety in the oil industry.

Cowell, who was elated by her first impressions of the open spaces in this province, has lately been talking to her grandmother in Ottawa to piece together her own family history.

Strangely enough, she isn’t interested in finding out facts about the people who lived in the Geary house, or any other homestead she has photographed. She suggested the imagination is always freer to roam in the absence of specifics.

“I’m hoping people will look (at my work) and think about their own history and ancestry… and that it makes them ponder…”

The exhibit continues to May 13.


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