When local-born artist Monica Pitre started out creating her latest body of work it was pretty dark.
However, after a change in direction, the work took on an optimistic tone and a way for her to examine the past, but also move forward.
The Sault Ste. Marie raised and now Edmonton-based artist currently has her Cloud Walking exhibition running at 180 Projects, located at 180 Gore Street, until September 12.
“This particular body of work is really personal, it’s about dealing with time and relationships,” said Pitre in a phone interview from the St. Joseph Island home of her 70-year-old aunt whose home she stayed at while in town.
Pitre has a really big and close extended family in the area.
After her mom passed away from a motorcycle accident when she was only three years old, Pitre’s father couldn’t raise her.
She began to live with her paternal grandmother however she said she was also more or less raised by her other grandparents and about a dozen uncles, aunts and other family members.
Her dad was still around and looking after her at time but he lived more of “biker lifestyle”.
One of the works in Cloud Walking is called ‘Island Ride’, an image of her father on a motorcycle, riding through clouds and framed by a print of an old-fashioned carved wooden archway.
“My dad was a really iconographic person in my life, that’s a sort of homage to him. We used to spend a lot of time on his motorcycle riding around St. Joseph Island, Blind River, Wawa, and all around Algoma. Freedom and fun were a lot of who he was.”
A lot of the images in Cloud Walking have a ghost like, foggy-memory feeling to them, though some have a subtle fun or humorous aspect.
Pitre went to three different high school’s in Sault Ste. Marie – Mount St. Joseph, Sir James Dunn, and White Pines – and by school hopping she was able to finagle her way into taking Grade 13 Art twice.
She went on to go to Queens University for an Undergrad in Fine Arts and then in the years following, she spent three years as a teacher in the Northwest Territories, in the community now called Behchoko.
“The people there inspired me. Even though they had a lot of adversity ahead of them I found them to be real troopers; the kids laughed a lot. They were so uplifting to be around. I also felt really connected to the landscape. Just after I got there I went on a canoe trip with 47 portages.”
She said that nature and environments all across Canada have inspired her.
“The North has been an inspiration for a lot of my work, the Algoma region as well. When it gets down to it, all the land is an inspiration for me. Each place I ‘ve lived in has its own unique landscape and people. It’s the relationships not only with people but between people and the land that I connect with.”
One of the artworks in her show, ‘True Form’, is a face silhouette blurred into the clouds behind what looks like vintage curtain tassels and ropes.
“This image speaks to the fact that for me a true portrait of me is not an actually a portrait of me - my true form would be at one with the environment.”
After travelling Pitre did her masters in printmaking and she now works as an art educator in Edmonton.
She has produced perhaps 10 or 15 bodies of art work, sets of images linked together in theme and technique, each one telling a different non-linear story.
She first started working on Cloud Walking around 2012 at a time when her father was diagnosed with cancer and had moved out to Alberta to live with her.
It was an emotional period; he succumbed to his illness much earlier than expected and he passed away within a year of moving in with her.
She also suffered other family losses during that time.
She doesn’t wish to bring those out to the public, which after speaking to her privately is understandable.
What she spoke of was quite grim.
Resulting from these experiences, the original project was made up of rather bleak black and white photographs.
“One was a window that simply looked out onto a stack of wood, another an image looking out to a winter road in Edmonton. Some were images of holes and tunnels in the snow, it was just lots of ideas I was working through, the feeling was very different,” she said.
Eventually she managed to tell herself that she wasn’t going to be consumed by the sadness and she turned Cloud Walking into a powerful exploration and celebration of her past, in a way to heal and deal with everything.
“At some point I didn’t want to create these dark images that would bury me forever into this sadness. I have lots of great things. I have a wonderful kid and wonderful friends. Right now I teach a lot of refugee kids. There’s people that live with bigger problems and my life is so great in many ways.”
When Pitre had her Cloud Walking opening on August 4 in Sault Ste. Marie it was like a family reunion.
She said roughly half a dozen or more of her closest family attended the event, including her 90-year-old grandma.
The family would have recognized some of the images, like the photograph used in ‘Pillow Landscape’ of Pitre’s great grandmother and her uncle riding a tandem bicycle through the clouds.
All the pictures of clouds in the the work were taken during road trips or airplane trips to and from the Sault.
But although her work is connected intimately to her life and past, she wants it all to stand on it’s own.
“It doesn’t only matter if I know the people in the image, that image of the bike was chosen essentially because I liked it and it reminded me of The Wizard of Oz. It just reminded me of happy times and childhood. And its funny how it looks like they are riding their bikes in heaven. Like a kitsch vision of the after life; it made me laugh. Things were kind of dark for a while and I wanted to lift myself out of that. I think the works feel pretty optimistic it in the end.”