The word “HELP” stretches across one wall of an installation space in the University of Victoria Visual Arts building. It’s the same colour as the wall, but with a semi-gloss finish that only catches light at certain times of the day.
Master of fine arts candidate Hilary Knutson, who suffers chronic hip and back pain, painted the word for the first time nearly two years ago.
“It was so huge, but it was so quiet and so subtle and you couldn’t even see it at certain times of the day,” she said.
The piece became a jumping-off point for the installation of the same name — Au Secours — that Knutson presents as part of the graduate exhibition opening tonight. Knutson is one of four master’s students represented in the show. She’s joined by Yang Liu, whose photo exhibition explores themes of identity and memory through found treasures; former microbiologist Chris Lindsay, who explores perception through space, sight and sound; and Paola Savasta, whose work blurs the line separating painting, sculpture and installation.
For her project, Knutson chose to explore the way we communicate about things like chronic pain — or more accurately, the way we don’t.
“I think pain is incredibly hard to talk about; it’s something as a society that we tend to sweep under the rug,” Knutson said. “I think it’s important to bring it to the table for people to talk about and kind of address it in this new way that’s maybe not as threatening.”
There are other signs of pain in Knutson’s installation, but they’re also playful. A felt Band-Aid the size of a blanket is draped on a chair, as if an entire person could be fixed with the wrapping. The wallpaper is decorated with patterns of Knutson stretching. And she has laboriously cross-stitched the words, “pain,” “despair” and “exhaustion” on one-metre-by-one-metre surfaces.
And there are also signs of comfort — like the familiar space of a living-room couch, coffee table and fireplace. Viewers can sit on the couch, look at a TV and watch a quasi-performance of Knutson’s own artistic practice. It shows her on a couch and alternating between cross-stitching, reading, icing her hip and heating her back.
For Knutson, it’s about more than easing physical pain with comfort — she is creating a comfortable space for her audience to explore art.
“The pain has driven the exploration, but there’s something bigger at play, which is the viewer’s relationship with art,” she said.
“Going into an art gallery is really intimidating for some people. I feel like people still think they need to get something, like there’s an answer to the question and they feel stupid if they don’t get it. I don’t think that’s good.”
Knutson grew up in Lloydminster, Sask., in a family of non-artists who have been supportive of her art career but uncomfortable in the art world. Between that and working as a curatorial assistant at Regina’s MacKenzie Art Gallery, Knutson said making the art world accessible is one of her goals.
“I want to pull people into a space where they can slow down and think about art differently. I want it to be like when you go to someone’s house and you feel comfortable and you can start to snoop a little.”
UVic Masters of Fine Art Graduate Exhibition
When: Opening tonight, 7 to 10. Continues through May 11
Where: Visual Arts Building