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Joyce Wieland

Photograph of Joyce Wieland at work on a painting

Filmmaker, Mixed Media Artist

Joyce Wieland, 1987

Mixed media, THE MAPLE LEAF FOREVER, by Joyce Wieland

The Maple Leaf Forever
Mixed media

The Maple Leaf Forever, by Joyce Wieland, 1972

Inspired by a speech given by former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Reason over Passion / La raison avant la passion (1967-69) is a cross-country travelogue, political satire, modernist experiment and one of Joyce Wieland's most renowned experimental films. It also embodies many of the themes recurrent in her rich, diverse and extensive portfolio, which uses various media. It is difficult to compartmentalize Wieland's oeuvre because she explored and pushed the limits of many artistic concepts throughout her career.

Born in Toronto in 1931, Joyce Wieland studied commercial art at the city's Central Technical School. Returning to Canada from a trip to Europe, where her exposure to art would serve as inspiration, Wieland landed a job as a film animator for a small private firm. There she met her husband, Michael Snow, an internationally recognized avant-garde filmmaker.

Wieland participated in many unsuccessful shows in Hamilton and Toronto, before landing her first solo exhibition, in 1960, at the Isaacs Gallery, Toronto. This unique opportunity, to be the only female artist represented by one of the country's most important contemporary art galleries of the day, provided her with instant recognition. Criticism and skepticism from her male contemporaries accompanied this recognition however, and Wieland had a hard time gaining respect amongst her peers.

Wieland's early work reflects the influence of an abstract expressionist genre. This style was commonly associated with post-World War II American art and referred to all types of non-geometric abstraction from artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, the latter being one of Wieland's acknowledged models. Her early paintings, such as Redgasm (1960) and Balling (1961), represented female and male sexual imagery typical of pop art at the time.

In 1963, Michael decided that a move to New York would benefit the couple artistically and increase their visibility on the international scene. Wieland, who originally resisted the move, later looked upon it as a pivotal event in her life. Although she had a hard time disassociating herself from Snow, Wieland quickly attained widespread popularity in New York. The move also raised awareness for her home country and had a profound effect on the work she would produce.

As the 1960s progressed, Wieland began exploring different themes and various media as means of expression. Lithography, quilts, constructions, assemblages, embroidery, knitting, cartoons and collages became her canvas. The use of traditional female handicraft was significant during this period of her career.

Wieland was also preoccupied with disasters, death and loss. These themes would recur in her work for some time. At first, she commented that her fascination stemmed from personal paranoia, but these themes were also the result of a growing social and political consciousness. Sailboat Sinking (1965), Tragedy in the Air or Plane Crash (1963), Sinking Liner (1963) and The Ill-fated Crew of July 6, 1937 (1963) are all works depicting her concerns and fears. Most of these are illustrated in a series of sequential images foreshadowing Wieland's later interest in film.

Social and political activism in art was a concept that would interest Wieland and fascinate those that admired her work. Especially noteworthy was Wieland's combination of patriotism as a theme and quilting as a medium. This unique melding of ideas and technique led to the creation of many innovative pieces such as Confedspread (1967), Reason over Passion (quilt, 1968), O Canada (1970) and The Maple Leaf Forever (1972).

In the late 1960s, Wieland became an important figure in the avant-garde and experimental film scene in New York. By 1967, she had stopped painting and devoted herself entirely to exploring new ways of expressing herself. Her experimental film repertoire, which includes Rat Life and Diet in North America (1968), Dripping Water (1969) and Solidarity (1973), evokes symbolic content and meaning that embody her passion for Canada, her ecological concerns and her interest in defining sexuality through visual representations. Wieland's filmography also includes The Far Shore (1976), her best known and only feature-length film which, unfortunately, was a commercial and critical failure at the time of its release.

Aptly titled "True Patriot Love," the National Gallery of Canada's first major exhibition devoted to the work of a living Canadian female artist opened on Canada Day in 1971. A collection of Wieland's numerous quilts and wall hangings was featured, some of which had been prepared solely for the exhibition. The recognition Wieland received led to many public commissions, including a Canadian stamp on world health and various murals and quilts.

Wieland stayed out of the limelight for several years. Throughout the 1980s, she continued to delve into themes that were dear to her. Visionary landscapes and figurative imagery were expressed in such works as Conversation in the Gaspé (1980), Artist on Fire (1983), Crepuscule for Two (1985) and Early One Morning (1986). The paintings she produced during this period contrast sharply with the experimental and abstract explorations that were previously her staple.

In 1987, the Art Gallery of Ontario mounted a major travelling retrospective exhibition of Wieland's works, its first of a living Canadian female artist. In addition to this event, Wieland was awarded the Toronto Arts Foundation's Visual Arts Award for 1987.

Joyce Wieland died in 1998. Her career extended over many decades and influenced many that followed in her path. During a rare interview, Wieland remarked that all of her art is autobiographical and that it emphasizes the importance of human interaction for society's well being. Considered one of Canada's foremost artists of the second half of the 20th century, Joyce Wieland is remembered for her unique and impressive body of work, that inspires, involves and challenges the viewer.


Artist on fire : Joyce Wieland [motion picture]. — Directed by Kay Armatage. — New York : Women Make Movies, 1987. — 54 min. : sd., col.

Concordia Art Gallery. — Joyce Wieland : a decade of painting = Joyce Wieland : dix ans de peinture. — Montreal : Concordia Art Gallery, 1985. — 46 p.

The films of Joyce Wieland. — Edited by Kathryn Elder. — Toronto : Toronto International Film Festival Group, 1999. — 269 p.

Lind, Jane. — Joyce Wieland : artist on fire. — Toronto : J. Lorimer, 2001. — 400 p.

Lippard, Lucy R. ; Fleming, Marie ; Rabinovitz, Lauren. — Joyce Wieland. — Toronto : Art Gallery of Ontario, 1987. — 214 p.

National Gallery of Canada. — True patriot love = Véritable amour patriotique. — Ottawa : National Gallery of Canada, 1971. — 218 p.

Nowell, Iris. — Joyce Wieland : a life in art. — Toronto : ECW Press, 2001. — 519 p.

O'Brian, John. — "Anthem lip-sync (Joyce Wieland's signature is inseparable from her art)". — Journal of Canadian art history. — Vol. 21, no. 1-2 (2000).-- P. 140-51