Raising A Flag

Contemporary artist Jenny Hawkinson stitches together mixed media and social commentary to make meaningful art
Story William Davies

Vancouver-based visual artist Jenny Hawkinson never saw herself becoming a filmmaker. However, her recent visual art piece, Waver, uses film to explore themes of home in spaces of conflict. In the piece, she gave participants a white flag with the words “Homeland,” “Homesick,” and “Homeless” on it. Participants used the flag in various ways: they raised it over a makeshift shelter as a statement of belonging, they marched it through Stanley Park, and they hung it from places as disparate as streetlamps and boat masts. Hawkinson filmed it all. “The artwork is the flag,” she says, but for her, the work “needs to be engaged.”

Hawkinson’s most recent show, I Am Here Too, ran from October 1 to December 19, 2018, in the Vancouver Civic Theatres Annex. The show explored street communication and the messages that people leave behind. “People don’t really notice the graffiti or see what it says,” Hawkinson explains. She wanted to draw attention to the street-art messages that get ignored, so she embroidered some of these messages on white doilies with red thread using Old English lettering. The doilies were hung in frames with slogans like “I am validating my own existence” embroidered in the Blackletter forms. They were hung alongside a series of plein air drawings, or “field notes” as Jenny calls them, of tents set up in Oppenheimer Park and throughout the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.

Jenny Hawkinson.
Artist Jenny Hawkinson uses mixed media and participant engagement in her work.

The plein air drawings gave Hawkinson an opportunity to engage with the community in a direct way, but this came with its challenges. “I’m basically a captive audience,” she says; Hawkinson describes trying to draw a tent while someone engaged her in conversation. Eventually, she took a short break from the drawing to talk with them. When she came back to her work, the tent was gone.

Still, the struggle for community is why she makes art; even when Hawkinson travels abroad, she is drawn to places in conflict. Most recently she has made a number of trips to Belfast, where she has been doubling down on her filmmaking. “Everywhere I’ve been,” she says, “I feel like, who am I to talk about this?” However, she often finds that being an outsider gives her a way in. She talks about meeting Irish Catholics and Protestants who still carry The Troubles with them 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement. Her orange hair notwithstanding, they hear her Northwestern accent and know she is safe to talk to. “I used to think I wanted to make art about peacekeeping,” Jenny says, reflecting on her desire to solve conflicts. Now she says she finds it “more important to ask questions than offer solutions.”

Hawkinson uses her trips to Belfast to gather materials to make art at home. On her most recent trip, she collected sketches of fences and rubbings of plaques, manholes, gravestones, and various bits of text carved in stone and cement. The process was deeply rooted in the history of the region. In the nineteenth century, Belfast became an important manufacturer of linen, earning the name “Linenopolis.” As a textile artist, Jenny saw the connection to her work immediately and made her graphite rubbings on white linen.

Back in her studio in Vancouver, that wealth of material has been a challenge. “I couldn’t figure out how it was going to work,” she says. “I just need to do the work.” That meant taking those raw materials and, as she puts it, “tearing the fabric up and sewing them back together.” The way she describes it sounds like the proliferation of cell-division, but what she will distill from that, be it textiles, films, paintings, or something else entirely, is a closely guarded secret.

Every time she returns to Belfast, Jenny continues her collaboration with the artistic community there. And it seems she cannot get enough of that collaboration; when asked if she will return, Jenny responds, “I’m going back in October.”