Growing up with a mentally disabled older brother gave Deirdre Ashenhurst a rare window on human nature.
And what she saw wasn’t always pretty.
Having walked behind Joshua “my whole life,” Ashenhurst said she was able to watch people’s reactions to him. She noticed “the curious glances that last too long, the physical avoidance that extends too far, the fear, the frustration, the disgust …”
Sadly, she saw that Joshua also notices other people’s negative perceptions.
In reaction, the Red Deer-based ceramicist has created an art exhibit that attempts to turn the table on people with preconceived notions about what is normal.
Ashenhurst’s Joshua Birds display is showing at the Harris-Warke Gallery, upstairs at Sunworks — along with a complementary exhibit of abstract paintings titles Singularity, by former Red Deer artist Chuck Gasper.
Her fantastical aviary has 125 imagined birds of all shapes and sizes: Small-headed birds with giant bronze feet, birds with improbably curved beaks, twisted legs, or awkward, balloon-like bodies that could never become airborne.
Viewers may consider this diverse flock as imaginative or whimsical. The ceramic and bronze creations “appeal to our curiosity,” said Ashenhurst, and draw people in with their interesting textures, rich colours and unusual forms.
But beneath their shiny surfaces, created through raku, wood, electric and gas firings, “these birds are not quite right,” she said. “They wouldn’t survive, they couldn’t walk, they couldn’t eat…”
Ashenhurst’s contorted birds represents Joshua, “a magnificent soul with gnarly edges.” They also represent the square-peg aspect of every individual that does not conform to society’s rounded expectations, said Ashenhurst.
If imperfect birds can fascinate, “why is it easier to see birds that way than people, who have feelings?” she questioned. “The beauty of all species is we are not the same. We should cherish that aspect.”
Ashenhurst studied visual arts at Red Deer College. She previously completed a history and museum sciences degree that eventually landed her a job as art programmer at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery.
Former Red Deer resident Gasper, who now lives in Stony Plain, is the other artist in the joint-exhibit.
Gasper’s richly coloured abstract paintings glow like stained-glass windows. The Moose Jaw, Sask.-native was inspired by a photo he once saw of rice patty fields in the sunset. He became intrigued by the way the constantly changing sky was reflected on water and how these reflections were shaped into patterns by the divisions between each terraced rice field.
Gasper makes organic meandering lines on canvas with an acrylic medium. He layers over these raised lines with various coloured washes and is enthralled by the unpredictability of the process. By “relinquishing control and leaning in to trust” he feels his abstract art takes him on journeys of discovery.
Gasper, who works as an architectural draftsman, said his paintings have come to symbolize for him the need to roll with life — celebrating successes and learning from failures and frustrations. “Singularity… is the place where I embraced surrender and launched myself into the deep,” he writes in his artist statement.
The exhibit continues to Oct. 22. An opening reception will be held from 6-8 p.m. on Friday Oct. 7.