When local artist Jane Eccles left teaching behind, she says she never looked back.
Until that is, someone she worked with at Bowmanville High School (BHS) came to see her new art exhibit, In These Threads, at the Visual Arts Centre of Clarington (VAC).
As Eccles strolled through her display at the VAC, at the end of last month, her former colleague, Thomas Brasch, happened to stop in to sneak a peek, not thinking he was actually walking into a reunion.
The two had not seen each other for almost twenty years. Like Eccles, Brasch also gave up his life as a teacher to pursue art, in his case photography. He creates commemorative circular pieces by digitally manipulating photography.
Brasch takes photos at places of tragedy, such as the Pulse night club in Orlando. He says his work remembers those who have perished and gives peace to those who were touched by the event and are still living.
He credits his artistic success to people who supported him along his journey.
“It’s those key people along the way that give you the extra nudge,” Brasch says, “Jane is one of those key people.”
Brasch says art tells a story for those who will listen. “Jane tells a good story.”
Now retired, 69-year-old Eccles devotes her time to painting.
She paints dresses but for the artist because, she says, a dress has more meaning than its material.
“There isn’t a dress in here that didn’t start with words,” Eccles says.
Eccles, who has called Bowmanville home since 1974, paints portraits of dresses, intended to share women’s stories through her paintbrush. She says she is capturing the essence of a woman, their lives captured through the garments they wore.
The artist carefully picks her projects which she calls a “portal into the woman’s life.”
“That’s the key, it has to be beautiful for me to paint it,” she says, “I’ve turned down as many dresses as I’ve painted.”
The dresses featured in her first-ever solo show at VAC include a mixture of well-known and everyday women. The common thread is the power of their stories.
The show, on until March 17, features k.d. lang Costume, a wedding dress the singer wore with cowboy boots at a 1985 Juno Awards performance.
Ruth’s Dress belonged to Ruth Watson Henderson, a Canadian composer. She wore the striking red ensemble while performing at the Eaton Auditorium in 1953.
Eccles heard back from Canadian great Margaret Atwood one year after she initially reached out to her. Atwood wears many figurative dresses: poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, inventor, teacher and activist.
Atwood sent Eccles the colourful dress she purchased in Australia while writing Cat-Eye. The novel, as it turns out, feels like a biography to Eccles who says, “I am Elaine Risely,” the main character of the story.
Margaret’s Dress, along with a mask Atwood sent along, is the “pièce de résistance” of the exhibit.
Wind Chill is a powerful painting, which almost didn’t make the show. After careful consideration, Eccles and Sandy Saad, curator at VAC, knew it was needed to cement the entire exhibit.
“[It] symbolized not only that women are measured but women have these unrealistic expectations that society holds them to,” Saad says.
The sculptural piece and the painting it inspired, sit side by side at the exhibit. The object was Eccles’ 65th birthday gift from her husband, artist Ron Eccles. She describes it as a “measuring cage” and says even though it is decaying, it serves its purpose.
“Women are always judged, they’re always measured,” says Eccles.
Women’s stories are impactful to Eccles. Thus far, she has focused on Canadian women but has reached out to Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton.
“I’m a feminist, not in the bra burning sense, but I believe in young women and I believe in women achieving what they’re set out to do – whatever that might be,” Eccles says. “I had the good luck of having a series of teachers that didn’t see my sex, they saw something in what I was doing.”
Eccles started as a one woman show at BHS and grew her art department to a staff of five.
In the beginning, she didn’t think she would be at BHS for long but her students pleasantly surprised her.
“They were raw pretty much and I found I could work with them, I found they were phenomenal,” Eccles says.
She was still an artist on her own time but says she was distinctly a teacher at school.
“The artist and the teacher are compatible but I don’t like a conflict of interest. I didn’t like the idea I was the artist and they weren’t,” she says.
Brasch remembers Eccles’ passion to reach her students and push them to find their artistic edge. He says she was a strong teacher who wasn’t afraid to challenge the traditional education system.
In 1990, Eccles was one of ten recipients of the Marshall McLuhan Distinguished Teachers Award. She was the sole woman with the honour that year.
Eccles says McLuhan’s wife whispered to her “he [my husband] always thought that the artist knew it [understood life].” She then pinned a corsage on Eccles and said the men could do their own boutonnieres.
Jane’s Dress, is a self-portrait amongst 15 other paintings is on display at the VAC.
A then 40-year-old Eccles went to a store in historic Bowmanville and said to the lady at the shop, “I want a dress you wouldn’t expect me to buy.”
She says she wanted to be transformed from teacher to woman, for a colleague’s retirement party – she calls it her Cinderella moment.
Outfitted with the flowy purple frock, she was the only one dressed to the nines at the event, and that was okay with her.
“I’ve grown into my own rags, I’ve grown into my own being. You’re different at 70 than you are at 40,” reflects Eccles, on her own journey as a woman.
“Women are always waiting for ‘the event’, buying clothes for the event and then the event doesn’t come,” says Eccles.
Your life, she says, is the event.