She Speaks: When sad, art



If you noticed a distinct lack of, well, me, during the federal elections, I promise it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to avoid voicing an opinion during a very opinionated time. Those are, indeed, my favourite times in which to opine. Unfortunately, my absence was due to a very unwanted diagnosis of ovarian cancer—and, yes, I’ve tried coconut oil.

A few days after the first of possibly many surgeries, I went to the Algonquin Theatre to view Kate Brown’s collection, Table of Contents. My diagnosis, among other life and world changes, has shifted my perspective and there is nothing more grounding, more universal, and more diverting than art. One of my favourite sayings comes from Cesar A. Cruz, a Mexican poet and human rights activist: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” As someone who has been labelled disturbed and is often just simply uncomfortable, I seek spaces where I can step outside the confines of my own psychological preconceptions and make space for new ideas.

I deeply, urgently recommend this. I was moved by Brown’s show and I offer the following reflection, from the child of an artist and one who, when offered a ruler with which to draw something, scribbled poetry on it instead.

One could be forgiven for presuming that Table of Contents is an attempt to depict femaleness through the symbolism of the vessel, the empty chalice, the hollow.

Well, one hopes to be forgiven—as this was my interpretation initially upon taking in Brown’s rich, varied, and deeply evocative collection. Maybe it’s the feminist in me, or the lesbian—but I do tend to instinctually interpret such art as inherently female-centred. Brown’s explanation is that this body of work is ‘gender-neutral’, with the bowls representing perhaps the stomach, or indeed the breast: elements of sustenance, of offering.

Brown’s first solo show opened in 1984, with dark, challenging pieces. When discussing her process, Brown calls herself a visualizer, and laughs when she says she’s “mostly, always surprised by the completed pieces.” She says, almost to herself: “We know things we don’t know we know.” And inspiration? There was a time when if you’d checked beneath Brown’s pillow, you’d find a copy of Emily Carr’s biography, “for strength.” Couldn’t we each use such a talisman?

The signature piece of Table of Contents is entitled “Evolution of a Painting”—the ‘finished’ painting takes pride of place beside a placard of the process it took to get there. Of the journey, Brown says, “I just kept going because I knew I needed to.” She could have chosen to complete this work at several different stages, yet the end result feels ideal, like the flourish of a quill pen inscribing The End. The collection shares the rich navy blues, creams, and oranges of “Evolution of a Painting”, with unexpected sweeps of pink, purple, or red throughout. Though cohesively curated, each canvas tells its own story.

As Brown escorts me from piece to piece, I begin to see the telltale signs of the eyedrop layering process throughout many finished products, inspired by a tear-catcher that she created herself. There’s a grid, half painstaking and half haphazard, below the surface images, sometimes existing only as texture and sometimes exposed to complement the imagery itself. When she speaks to why she chose to showcase bowls in this body of work, it’s simple: “I knew I needed an object in my abstracts.” Yet upon viewing, the observer is invited into a much more complicated internal process.

When viewing “The Apple Bowl”, Brown describes her manipulation of gravity, working in 360 degrees to achieve the desired effect. Despite the descriptive title of the painting and the fact we can observe it as a bowl, there’s still a rejection of space itself—”no up or down, no north, east, south, or west.” Brown circles back to her ethos: dispelling the notion of negative space in art. What if, she muses, we treated the environment as she treats her artwork—would we have polluted the very air we breathe if we’d truly understood that it is not empty, not nothing? Could we have dismissed it, destroyed it, knowing that air, oxygen, is tangible, like every corner of a canvas?

Then it strikes me—no bowl is ever empty. The realization changes the way I see the other pieces. Brown isn’t portraying hollow objects; they exist entirely on their own terms. Further, some only “seem like a bowl”, with Brown walking the viewer through an optical illusion where the inside of the bowl appears to transform to the outside, inviting the question, can a container refuse to contain? Be incapable of containing?

Kate Brown allows private viewings of her artwork at her home, which she considers her sacred space. After getting so much of Brown’s attention and insight during my viewing of Table of Contents, I would recommend this option to anyone who is drawn to or curious about her work. Her willingness to explore her own work through the eyes of the audience, combined with the playful reflection of her spirit in her collection, makes that sharing a rare gift.

While this show has ended, there are so many more upcoming. A particular series that is close to my heart because it uniquely combines nature and poetry is by Paula Boon, now showing at the Huntsville Public Library for the next two months. As I attempt to return to comfort, both in my own body and in the spaces I occupy, I find myself seeking art, for its simplicity, its complexity, and the innate way that, when I connect with it or the artist, I feel understood. Even when I don’t understand.

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Kathleen May (Photo: Kai Rannik)

Kathleen May (Photo: Kai Rannik)

Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, being a Survivor Mentor in the pilot survivor-to-survivor program through MPSSAS, co-facilitating instinct-unlocking workshops for women through I Got This, working as a host and community producer of Herstories on YourTV, volunteering with Women’s March Muskoka, and her role as a front-line counsellor at a women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development and also received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. Her dream is a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.


  1. Kathleen, I’m so sorry to hear about your diagnosis; although your frankness in a previous piece had cushioned the shock. As with everything in your life, I know that you will meet it head on: All my prayers are with you.

    As an afterthought, congratulations on an absolutely brilliant review of Kate Brown’s exhibit. You have shown us another side of your multi-talented, and extremely generous self.

  2. Beautifully put. I felt like I was walking through the show with you. Your interpretations are insightful and helpful.

  3. Suzanne Holmes Rutherford on

    Kathleen, I am as shocked and saddened by your diagnosis as I am heartened by all your wonderful achievements and contributions to our community and world.
    I am also an ovarian cancer warrior, fighting back from my initial stage 4 diagnosis in July 2015.

    I would be glad if we could talk further via email
    [email protected]

    Cheering for you!

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