Painting a picture of survival: artist depicts faces of residential schools and Holocaust survivors

Saskatoon artist Carol Wylie paintings of nine Holocaust survivors and nine residential school survivors are now on display.

Carol Wylie said people's life experiences live on their faces

Lena is one of the Holocaust survivors who posed for a portrait as part of Carol Wylie's 'They Didn't Know We Were Seeds' exhibit. (Carol Wylie/website)

A portrait exhibit opening in Yorkton, Sask., explores the experience of Holocaust and residential school survivors, in a series of evocative portraits.

In 2016, Carol Wylie went to the Holocaust Memorial Service in Saskatoon. She realized the survivors are disappearing as they age.

"I thought I had to somehow commemorate or memorialize survivors and thought I would do some portrait painting because that's what I do. That's how I speak as an artist," she said.

Carol Wylie is a portrait artist based in Saskatoon. (Carol Wylie/website)

While planning the project, Wylie learned more about the similarities between these survivors.

Both residential schools and Holocaust concentration camps were called 'the final solution,' she said. Indigenous and Jewish people had their hair cut and were assigned numbers.

"I thought, 'This is going to have to be both survivors.'"

She wanted to do one exhibit that depicted those she was connected to as a Jewish person herself, and residential school survivors that she did not know that much about.

It took three years for her to find the people, sit down with them, paint them and hear their story, before the works were ready to exhibit. The 18-piece exhibit is currently on display at the Godfrey Dean Art Gallery in Yorkton, Sask., about three hours east of Saskatoon. 

William is the name of one of the nine Holocaust survivors painted by Carol Wylie. (Carol Wylie/website)

Each portrait offers detailed portraits of the survivors' faces.

"I truly believe that people's experiences basically live on our face. We think we hide everything but we don't hide anything," she said. "Everything that we've experienced is existing in the nuances of our faces."

Wylie met Holocaust survivors in Saskatoon, Toronto and Edmonton, while she met residential school survivors through various connections in Saskatchewan.

She wanted to have nine pictures of each because the total number would be 18. In the Jewish tradition, the number 18 connects to the word 'Chai,' which is Hebrew for life.

Margaret is one of the nine residential school survivors. (Carol Wylie/website)

Wylie said while this was a heavy topic, she wanted it to be uplifting.

"These people have all survived and are all educating other people around their experiences to make sure that their experience leads to a better world, essentially," she said.

The title comes from the second half of a proverb: 'They buried us, they didn't know we were seeds.'

When people hear that six million Jews died in the Holocaust and 250,000 children were taken to residential schools, it can be hard to understand or connect with the numbers, Wylie said.

"But when you hear one individual story, when you look at one individual face, often times you can make a human connection that can lead to compassion."

Cecile is a residential school survivor. She was one of the people who volunteered to be a part of the 'They Didn't Know We Were Seeds' project by Carol Wylie. (Carol Wylie/website)

While going through the project, Wylie often had to take breaks to recover from it. But at the same time, she said it gave her purpose and she knew she was working on something really important.

"It was very emotional. I mean I felt I learned a lot from the people I spoke to," she said.

One personal story was from a woman named Helen, who lived through the Holocaust and who had survivor's guilt. 

"At 12-years-old, she had to hand her 6-year-old brother over to the Nazis. And she never saw him again," Wylie said. "The whole time I talked to her, she kept saying she didn't understand why she survived.

"She lives with that guilt all the time."

Gilbert was a residential school survivor who described the turning point in his life, and how he overcame alcoholism to get his education and take care of his son. (Carol Wylie/website)

The exhibit will be on display in Yorkton until May 17, following which Wylie hopes to show it in North Battleford, Prince Albert, Estevan and at the Wicihitowin Aboriginal Engagement Conference.

She wants people to engage with the painted faces and see the resiliency of the survivors, and how they have thrived.

"The human spirit has so much strength."


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