British Columbia

Letters from politicians...silkscreened onto blue jeans, a toilet and tin foil

B.C. artist Bill Horne takes letters he's received from politicians and influential people and silkscreens them onto different materials that relate to that letter's subject material.

Decades worth of letters from MPs and cabinet ministers make up B.C. artist Bill Horne's new exhibition

When B.C. artist Bill Horne gets responses to letters he's written to politicians or other public officials, he turns those letters into art — silkscreening the letterhead and words onto materials such as tin foil and jeans.

Horne's pieces make up an exhibition called Behind the Lines, currently on display at the Two Rivers Gallery in Prince George, B.C. until April 17.

"This title is my attempt to show different aspects of reality behind political language," said Horne, who lives in Wells, B.C. and runs an art studio in a former Catholic church. 

"It consists primarily of letters from public figures, mostly MPs, sometimes cabinet ministers, there's a couple of bishops." 

Horne said the material onto which he silkscreens each letter relates to the subject matter of that letter.

For example, a letter he wrote to Elijah Harper during the Meech Lake Accord, a series of proposed amendments to the Constitution of Canada, is printed on moosehide.

Meanwhile, a letter about residential schools — the church-run, compulsory schools where many Aboriginal children endured abuse — is silkscreened on a priest's robes.

A letter regarding Rio Tinto Alcan's Kemano Generating Station and its water tunnel completion project is silkscreened on Alcan tin foil.

Letter from Brian Tobin, former Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, concerning Rio Tinto Alcan's water tunnel Kemano Completion Project, silkscreened onto Alcan tin foil. (Bill Horne)

'Elegant' letter on a toilet seat

"If it's flat, I can print it," Horne told North by Northwest host Sheryl MacKay.

Horne said his passion for writing to government officials began when he visited Montreal as a boy, and, distressed to see the pollution in the St. Lawrence River, was prompted to write to then-mayor Jean Drapeau.

He said he got a one-and-a-half page response, which took him seriously, but didn't quite answer all his questions.

"It was a realistic, pragmatic letter, elegantly written on beautiful, creamy paper, and I've taken that letter and I've silkscreened it onto a toilet seat," Horne said.

Silkscreen on toilet and salvaged metal. The letter is the first one Horne ever sent - a letter to former Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau, regarding pollution in the St. Lawrence River. (Bill Horne.)

"If you lift the lid you will see inside there's an ancient dinosaur reptile skeleton silkscreened on rusty corroded metal, which is where we'll be headed if we don't deal with pollution."

'The power of the letter'

Horne said his years working for Amnesty International in Canada showed him the "power of the letter, and what one can do by speaking up."

"In Canada we have a privilege of living in a democracy where most public officials want to be accountable, they do want to hear from constituents, [though] they may not always agree with them."

Horne said there have only been a few times that he hasn't gotten a reply from an official.

One of those who didn't respond was former Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, when Horne sent him a letter regarding an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.

For this exhibition, Horne said he created a letterhead for Valcourt, and silkscreened that onto Plexiglas, "so it's transparent."

Silkscreen on plexiglass with reclaimed fir, linen, truck mirror, metal and Gobo silhouette projection; Valcourt's letterhead. Overall, the CBC has identified more than 250 unsolved cases of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada. (Bill Horne)

"It communicates silence, or denial. It's the only blank page in the whole show."

The exhibition includes some other pieces on the subject of missing and murdered women and the so-called Highway of Tears — where many women went missing or were killed — such as a projection of a woman hitchhiking.

There are also pieces in the exhibition that relate to the Site C hydroelectric dam project, silkscreened onto an electrical panel, and the North American Free Trade Agreement, silk screened onto blue jeans.

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Artist Bill Horne silkscreens letters from politicians onto different materials