Arts

Medicine Hat is hell ... so of course this artist loved it

Abandon all hope, ye who click here. Explore Lindsay Montgomery's "Hycroft Hellware."

Explore Lindsay Montgomery's 'Hycroft Hellware.' Abandon all hope, ye who click here

Lindsay Montgomery. Detail of Becky's, 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)

Somewhere between the realms of the living and the damned — roughly 300 km southeast of Calgary — fate came calling for Lindsay Montgomery.  

Montgomery's a Toronto-based ceramicist, and for two months this summer, she was an artist in residence at Medalta, the historic clay district in southern Alberta. It was there, while teaching, that things took a wicked turn.

"One of the participants came up to me after a workshop," Montgomery recalls. "And they said, 'You know, your work really fits in with the history of Medicine Hat."

It was a nice comment, but strange. Because Montgomery doesn't make art about oil fields or Canadian Idol winners. She paints hell-scapes. Literal hell-scapes. And she was in Medicine Hat to paint more — never knowing the place is on Satan's doorstep.

That's not a dig against the city, and save your prayers and holy water, I'm not being serious either. But the Hat has a certain storied connection to the netherworld, and the most famous example comes via Rudyard Kipling, of all people.

Always in my process I'm looking to make this connection of the clashing of the past and the present- Lindsay Montgomery

In 1907, the British author was steaming across Canada on the new railway, as the voice of an Imperialist generation is wont to do. And before leaving town, he wrote this hot take: "This part of the country seems to have all hell for a basement, and the only trap door appears to be in Medicine Hat."

That quip had more to do with the city's newly discovered gas fields than demonic activity, but it became a sort of local legend, inspiring Can-rock songsand a mural on the side of a liquor store

But before that workshop, Montgomery had never heard of it.

"It was so perfect," she says. "I mean, it was amazing. I couldn't believe there was that kind of connection."

For the rest of her stay, she says she followed up on regional lore, investigating Indigenous histories of the area. Between Google and conversations with locals, she learned that Medalta itself was on curious ground. "There was this legend that this was a breathing hole to the spirit world," she says. "I came to understand that this was an idea that was really similar to the notion of the medieval hellmouth, which is something that has reoccurred in my work for many, many years."

Lindsay Montgomery. Lake of Faces charger, 2015. (Courtesy of the artist)

To put a date on it, Montgomery's been painting hell-scapes since 2015, when she began putting her spin on Istoriato ceramics. The word essentially means "story painting," and it's a decorative style that took off during the Italian Renaissance. Like the originals, her "Neo-Istoriato" are morality tales reflecting the culture of their times, but with characters lifted from the more flesh-crawling examples of Medieval art: demons, serpents, assorted skewered and/or charbroiled wretches.

When she began, Montgomery says she was feeling frustrated, trapped even, by the state of the country. "I was really trying to talk about this idea of environmental activism as well as things that are going on with women's rights within Canada. I was thinking a lot about missing and murdered Indigenous women. I wanted to create this image that, in my mind, summed up where we were at."

Basically, it felt like hell — so that's what she paints. "It seemed to hit a note, for me, of the moment or the mood of this point in history."

"Always in my process I'm looking to make this connection of the clashing of the past and the present," she says.

Look closely, and you'll usually find a clue that you're looking at something from the 21st century, not the 11th. In one scene, gluttonous sinners eat cheeseburgers. In her first Neo-Istoriato plate, "Lake of Faces," skyscrapers rise over a distant horizon. Or just pay attention to the titles. In 2017, she created this charger plate: a ladies-only lake of fire. It's called "White Women Elected Trump."

Lindsay Montgomery. Lake of Fire (White Women Elected Trump), 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)

"I see medieval symbols as powerful images and symbols that we can use to talk about environmental activism today, women's rights today, just all kinds of political ideas about speaking truth to power," she says.

"[It's] a way of drawing people in — maybe asking them to consider how little things have changed."

Her latest series is called Hycroft Hellware after Hycroft China Ltd., one of the now-shuttered pottery factories of Medicine Hat's history.

Here's a selection.

Lindsay Montgomery. The She-Wolf, 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)
Lindsay Montgomery. The All-Devouring, 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)
Lindsay Montgomery. The Harpy, 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)
Lindsay Montgomery. Detail of The Harpy, 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)
Lindsay Montgomery. 7 Circles, 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)
Lindsay Montgomery. Detail of 7 Circles, 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)
Lindsay Montgomery. Detail of 7 Circles, 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)
Lindsay Montgomery. Becky's, 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)
Lindsay Montgomery. Inferno Charger, 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)
Lindsay Montgomery. Detail of Inferno Charger, 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)

For more from Lindsay Montgomery, visit www.lindsaymontgomery.ca.

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.