Sheila Butler

Sheila Butler’s “Other Circumstances” at SATELLiTE Project Space—a collaborative gallery run by Fanshawe College, Museum London and Western University—resonates with timeliness. This focused retrospective of Butler’s 40-year career is co-curated by Pamela Edmonds and Patrick Mahon with Assistant Curator Sarah Charette. Featuring 20 paintings and works on paper, it complements “On a Continuous Roll,” a 2014 exhibition of Butler’s prints organized by Larry Glawson for Winnipeg’s Martha Street Studio. The delay between exhibitions does not undermine its arrival in London. “Other Circumstances” is a welcomed return, as Butler taught at Western University’s Visual Arts Department for 15 years, and at the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg for nearly two decades prior. Her contributions as an artist, educator and mentor are indispensable models for the present, with the social and economic impacts of the COVID pandemic threatening to undo decades of hard-won gains for women and people of colour. Edmonds, Mahon and Charette highlight Butler’s lifelong activism towards expanding opportunities for underrepresented artists.

Sheila Butler grew up in a steel mill town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where weekend art classes at the Carnegie Museum established her interest in figural drawing. Before emigrating to Canada, she worked with Associated Artists of Pittsburgh to ensure that exhibitions at the Carnegie included stronger representation for artists of colour. In the 1970s, Butler and her former husband, artist Jack Butler, moved to Baker Lake and worked with artists in Nunavut to establish the Sanavik Arctic Co-operative. The co-op supported the local arts industry by encouraging Inuit artists to produce and sell works through its printmaking program. Butler also encouraged the production of the stunning embroidered wall hangings for which that community is also noted. Baker Lake prints and wall hangings now count substantially among notable public and private collections worldwide. Following a move to Winnipeg, Butler’s intersectional feminism and investment in social equity culminated, in 1984, in the formation of Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA), cofounded with Winnipeg artist and fellow professor at the University of Manitoba School of Fine Arts Diane Whitehouse. This vital organization continues to address gender inequality and discrimination by offering professional development and mentorship opportunities.

Sheila Butler, Bearing in Mind You Could Die Today, 1999, oil on canvas, 68 x 116 inches (diptych). Courtesy SATELLiTE Project Space. Photo: Dickson Bou.

Fittingly, “Other Circumstances” is a project of pedagogical partnerships organized between Museum London and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Western. Butler’s large canvases occupy significant wall space at SATELLiTE, but close proximity serves the works well. Their thoughtful arrangement into three loose groupings and the syncopation of canvases with smaller works on paper ensure nothing feels overcrowded. Butler’s long-standing interests in psychoanalysis, agency and the human form hum throughout. Edmonds contextualizes the earliest works on view, Black Walker and White Walker, 1978, within the contemporaneous civil rights movement. Mid-career works like Poolside (In Back of the Real), 1986, and At this altitude lunar influence causes tides in the human body, 1999, are haunting in their cacophonous overlay of figures, spaces, time and realities.

Butler’s works don’t admit a straightforward order of signification, and are amplified by our disorienting present. These visions are also hyper sensory: familiar yet surreal imagery tugs at visual and interpretive reasoning, continuously confronting us in medias res. Repeating characters and fraught or emancipatory circumstances resurface across decades with: swimmers, bodies mid-step-fallascent, conflict, elation, buoyancy and pressure. Butler’s strength is in teasing familiar and archetypal moments with restraint. Numerous and diverging logics abound but never settle, accounting for works that feel primeval and prescient all at once.

Left: Sheila Butler, Ophelia, 1996, oil on canvas, 72 x 68 inches. Right: Sheila Butler, Female Icarus, 1996, oil on canvas, 72 x 68 inches. Courtesy SATELLiTE Project Space. Photo: Dickson Bou. Right: Mahlet Cuff, At home, 2020, Main Street at Broadway. School of Art, University of Manitoba. Courtesy the School of Art Gallery.

In At this altitude … a bedroom view is just minutely “off”; Poolside is more obvious in depicting the oncoming chaos of a shooting in a tangle of animated stills; the inexplicable actions and characters within the diptych Bearing in Mind You Could Die Today, 1999, orbit a centralized light source that glows like a television underwater, caught between channels. Many of Butler’s picture planes are activities in scrying—never explicitly built or freely given. Figures and grounds hover enigmatically, mining collective and personal associations. Impressions must be arrived at provisionally and confidentially. A darkened glass is the focus of the aptly named Apprehension, 2010. The lines in this work on paper demonstrate a cartoonish aspect, a man and woman each gazing outward through one eye—the man’s menacingly enlarged through a looking glass, the woman’s from between splayed fingers.

Butler’s most recent works display her psychological explorations in striking form (Butler swapped her preferred oil medium for acrylic when she was unable to find a suitably ventilated studio in Toronto, where she currently resides). Cipher-like lists, plastic bag tags, drink tickets, matches, dice—pocket detritus and drawer ephemera feature prominently in Strike and Blown Away, both 2009. Liminal materials are revealed as embedded artifacts that reverberate through the unconscious, invoked and repurposed in dreams. Collaged and bricolaged within her canvases, these objects are echoed by Butler in acrylic. The tiny cover of a picture book in Blown Away hovers beside its painted adjunct: winds streaming through hair and leaves simultaneously blow the image right out of its object. Its glowing red outline is engraved onto our eyes and in our mind’s eye. This visual play is bolstered by heavy reliance on red and blue—not quite opposites but obtusely angled deviations from one another.

“Other Circumstances” was forced to close due to Ontario’s spring lockdown, but a virtual event and print catalogue safeguard the exhibition’s reach. Catalogue contributor David Liss considers Butler’s work within legacies of neo-expressionism, which often saw mythological figures and stories reconfigured for the present. Her Female Icarus and Ophelia, both 1996, revise their titular characters. A burnished and disembodied hand hovers above the head of Ophelia’s floating woman as if to gently stop her progress downstream. Female Icarus reimagines the famous myth with a more capable lead. Refracted through various perspectives, a parachuted woman not only survives her descent but emerges from the waves to float in foreshortened view, transmogrified.

Butler is keenly aware of how marginalization operates, and how to confront it. “Activism and drawing were two mainstays for my practice,” she explained in an interview with Charette. She can be counted among significant matrilineal legacies of arts activism in Canada, which include Jamelie Hassan and Kim Ondaatje (recently profiled for Border Crossings by Renée van der Avoird). The potential that “Other Circumstances” might introduce Butler to new generations of artistactivists at this integral moment is a welcomed prospect. ❚

“Other Circumstances” was exhibited at SATELLiTE Project Space, London, ON, from April 1 to May 15, 2021.

Ruth Skinner is an arts educator, administrator and publisher in London, Ontario.