Friday, 16 September 2022 19:00
Estonian Life No. 37 2022
In the second interview in “The New Face of Estonian Museum Canada/VEMU” series, we focus on Estonian-Canadian artist Jessie Anneli Viirlaid McNeil. Her 2015 collage series Outsider Inside delivers us back to the Estonia of 2014’s Tantsu- and Laulupidu. While walking or parading down the streets of Tallinn, in modern and traditional dress (often a gracious and tactful mixing of the two), visitors and residents from all walks of life were immersed in a celebratory en- vironment of the festival week.
During her time in Tallinn, McNeil captured this sensation with her camera, then later, assembled the collage re-repre- sentations in her studio. The series was on display at VEMU in spring 2015 and explored the perspective of a Canadian- Estonian during the festival, from moments of mundanity to emotional highs. While express- ing themes of memory and experience, McNeil’s collages in “Outsider Inside” posed the complex question, “What is an Estonian today?” While work- ing on VEMU’s new brand in 2021, we came back full circle to Jessie’s meaningful collages depicting being Estonian and multicultural tensions. Her works were found to be perfect to visually convey the messages within VEMU’s new brand, here are her thoughts on it all...KK: When did you first get into being creative, realized you would want to be an artist and pursue it more seriously as a career?
Jessie McNeil (JM): I think somewhere between 3 and 9 months old, one of my parents put a pencil in my hand. It probably started there! Being creative is something everyone is born with, and it just takes one teacher or person to tell you you can’t draw or sing and then suddenly you believe it to be true. I’m lucky that didn’t happen to me. And a career in the arts is definitely part of my family history. My maternal grandfather was a writer and poet, my mum majored in Art History and worked as a talented registrar at the Vancouver Art Gallery and my father is an artist, and his mother was a draftswoman. It was probably inevitable that I would take on the “family business.” Although at one point in high school I suddenly became aware of the realities of working as an artist and thought I should take on a more practical career as a designer. Then art school (Langara College and then Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver) happened and I was officially hooked.KK: Your cultural back- ground is both Scottish and Estonian. Do you notice simi- larities between the two cultures? How have both cultures affected your art and career?
JM: I’d say most Estonians and Scots are very patriotic, and rightly so! I encourage my (non-Scottish) husband to wear a kilt at every possible opportu- nity and my rahvariided is/are (?) one of my most prized possessions. I am not born in or live in either country, and my inability to speak Estonian fluently can leave me frustrated and in a perpetual state of long- ing. But that’s a good place to be when it comes to making provocative art, right?KK: You were in Estonia a few years ago during the song and dance festival and cap- tured photos that you would re-work in a series of collages that VEMU is using as a part of their new image. What was that experience like, being immersed in Estonian culture and “Estonian-ness?” Did your travels there affect art you’ve done later on in the past few years, maybe add an additional or new perspec- tive?
JM: It was a true honour to live in Estonia. I had visited a couple times for the Laulupidu in 2004 and 2009 and like many of us, I felt swept away in the magic of midsummer, the music, and drinking with friends and relatives in the mid- night sun. But there was something very special about spending several months there for my artist residency with the Tartu Printing Museum in 2014 and then again for the Fall and Winter months of 2017/18 after a 4500km month-long bike journey across Europe. During that last visit, I got a much more “real” sense of how much I truly do not know and under- stand about living in today’s Estonia. I think that would be the take-away, that everytime I go to Estonia, I go there think- ing that I will understand my culture better, and I just leave with more questions. Estonian traditions are so rich and important, yet there is so much to be learned from experiencing life in Estonia today and spend- ing time with its people. I try to remember this when I make my collages today and when I travel. I can’t answer any ques- tions with my art, but being an artist can be a life-long journey of examining yourself and the world around you.KK: What do you try to capture in your artwork? Why do think does works were chosen by VEMU team? Tell us more about the people in “Kristen’s Friends”.
JM: This is one of my favorite pieces of this series. I believe it was actually the first one I made! As I was parading to the Tallinna Lauluväljak with my choir that sunny afternoon, my dear friend Kristen (who also has a similar mixed heritage) spotted her Toronto- based friends on the sidewalk waving the Canadian and Estonian flags. The larger Esto- nian flag was blowing around so hard in the wind that it wrapped around the friend try- ing to photograph the parade. And I remember two of the women in the photo were a couple. So there was something about this image from the start that was very telling of this day in age - a collection of women, some of them belonging to the LGBTQ+ community, to Esto- nian heritage, to African- Canadian heritage all celebrating this uniting event, celebrating art. It felt like a moment filled with hope.
Materially speaking though, the paper I used to place these collage figures on is actually a photo-transfer of a ship mani- fest that shows my Scottish grandparents’ immigration to Canada (I am still trying to ac- cess the one that my Estonian family is on!). Given the sub- ject matter of the work, I found it appropriate to use some print- ed material that represented my mixed personal history of immi- gration on both sides of my family. My collage-making pro- cess is now quite automatic and intuitive but the photos I depict are selected with a lot of inten- tion. I want to work with imag- es of people that really repre- sent the place or space they are inhabiting. I want their posture and expressions to communi- cate the place’s history and feeling of the moment. I think this is something that VEMU appreciated when choosing my work.KK: How do your collages help convey the stories being told within VEMU’s rebrand- ing?
JM: I feel like this series really celebrates the diversity and complexity of Estonian- Canadian culture while also acknowledging our beautiful traditions and history. The whole world is watching. VEMU’s future is bright, because our story is ever-evolving.KK: What are you up to right now? Do you have any- thing you’re currently work- ing on or planning for the near future?
JM: I have a lot of unfin- ished projects – some collage series, weird card games and publications and some photo series that I can’t figure out what to do with. But I am cur- rently involved with the Van- couver School Board’s Artist in Residence Studio program, exploring place-making and ways of making maps with three grade 1 classes. It’s been a great way of incorporating more collaborative work into my practice. I am also looking at how art-making can co-exist with motherhood. Taking in- spiration from artist Lenka Clayton’s Artist Residency in Motherhood, I am spending the next year exploring interdiscip- linary ways of art-making that are in relation to motherhood and not despite it. There is an aspect to exploring public space with this new chapter of art-making that has been really interesting. My 18-month-old daughter gets me out into the world in many ways that re- mind me of being a student again. We move very slowly and look at lots of things...KK: What is your favourite part or aspect in the artistic process/in the creation of a new piece of artwork?
JM: It depends. Before I had my daughter, I could spend hours and hours researching and preparing for projects – an activity I loved and it gave some projects a lot of sub- stance. But I love feeling abso- lutely lost in the making of my collages. I’ll have a great podcast going in my studio, my phone is on silent mode, no- body is around to bug me... And of course, there’s some- thing very satisfying about see- ing your work finished, framed beautifully and hung on a wall (and hopefully with a big fat red dot sticker next to it, indi- cating that it’s SOLD!).KK: Your grandfather Arved Viirlaid, a great and famed Estonian-Canadian author, would have had his 100th birthday just recently on April 11th. What was he like and what was it like being his granddaughter? Did your grandfather encourage your creative nature and did he somehow inspire you to become an artist?
JM: Thank you for mention- ing this. His 100th birthday... I feel so proud of him and I wish I could have celebrated this day with him. I remember him as a quiet, wise and dedicated grandfather. I remember him eating vegetables for breakfast and being so active in taking care of the land around him. It’s very humbling thinking about his life and what he accomp- lished. The exhausted new parent that I am cannot imagine com- ing home from a full-time (and often overtime) job as a type- setter for a newspaper, and sitting down to write!? I wish I could sit down with him and ask him what his secret was. But I have a feeling he was able to do what he was able to do mostly because he had a sup- portive and loving wife. I am only able to do this interview right now because I have a hus- band who, after coming home from a hard job, happily takes our daughter out so I can work for a few hours. Being an artist/ parent is an insane juggling act. But it has been done and continues to be done somehow.
My grandfather always told me he was proud of me and my sister (even when I chose to go to art school and not law school haha). We miss him a lot and wish so much that we had lived closer, to spend more time with him and to hear his stories – the ones that didn’t turn into novels or poems.KK: How do you see “Estonian-ness” and that part of your heritage peeking through in your personality and day-to-day life?
JM: My love of dark rye, sauna, (my friend Kadri calls me “sauna hunt”), choirs and dairy products runs deep. And you’ll always find a jar of eesti mesi in my kitchen. However I don’t automatically think of bringing gifts to the host of a dinner party, I smile in photos and like a true Canadian, I ask strangers how they are doing. Seriously though, I think Esto- nians and descendants of Esto- nians are built with a certain resilience or perseverance and this is something I definitely try to carry with me living my life and while making art. Stay tuned for the next inter- view coming up soon! If you’re interested in knowing more about the design aspects of VEMU’s rebrand and the stories behind them, check out a seminar on that here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Smjko_LwwYg&t