Carol Howard Donati remarks on our daily habits

By STUDY28|Violette Stepaniuk

Sometimes art is simply play and fun, and I had plenty of both trying to decipher Carol Howard Donati’s “remarks” at the Trinity Art Gallery. Donati’s exhibition Remark is a collection of wall-hangings made of reclaimed fabric, plastic packaging and other household remnants, and bits of nature for balance. But, as is the case with modern art, it took determination to get to the fun part.

The beginning was a mixed bag of emotions. A piñata-like explosion of colour begins the exhibition. What a happy sight! Or is it?

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Photo by Violette Stepaniuk

Remark exhibition by Carol Howard Donati at the Trinity Art Gallery in Orleans.

As I stood there smiling, enjoying the fiesta, I also struggled to push away thoughts that this is only plastic, only garbage in pretty colours. I couldn’t reconcile the cheerfulness of the reds, oranges, yellows, blues, and greens with the fact that those were pieces of ordinary, often unnecessary, plastic packaging, the kind of trash I feel guilty for bringing home and throwing away moments later. Was Donati trying to make me uneasy and guilty?

Struggling to connect

As I made my way clockwise around the room, I struggled to engage and connect with Donati’s art. Not only her chosen medium was in the way, but I couldn’t figure out the concept. Eighth work into the exhibition, I decided that this collection was not for me. After all, I don’t have to like, understand or connect with all art. I gave it a try and that’s good enough.

But giving up so easily didn’t feel right either, so instead of trying to figure it all out myself, I turned to the titles for hints…Natural World, Where Have All the Mothers Gone?, Break/through…still nothing.

But, the quilt with plastic cards arranged in a kind of radiating spiral spiked my interest. Why all these gift cards? Spending Time. I chuckled. How clever! It’s so true; this is how we spend much of our time: shopping, going to performances, getting coffee. We also spend time working to earn the money we later spend by using all this plastic. We even spend other people’s time by spending the time they spent to earn the cash to buy the plastic cards to give to us.

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Carol Howard Donati | Spending Time | upholstery fabric, paint, plastic cards, beads | 36 in x 37 in | 2016

A good pun

Now I knew, I was onto something. I could play this game, trying to figure out each “remark” like a good pun. Engaging with Donati in her “remark” game was thoughtful fun. Here are my other favourites:

It took me a few minutes to get Not All the Same, but once I “saw” it, I couldn’t unsee it.

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Carol Howard Donati | Not All the Same | silk, wool, dye and clip tags | 40 in x 26 in | 2016

And Carried Away…how true. Take a moment to reflect on this as we are heading into THE shopping season of the year.

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Carol Howard Donati | Carried Away | cotton, carrier bags | 69 in x 69 in | 2016

And that explosion-of-colour quilt? Cought Up. How clever is that!

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Carol Howard Donati | Caught Up | carrier bags, vegetable net | 79 in x 54 in | 2016 

Although it’s not easy to see in the pictures, the some of the wholes are filled with vegetable net. The net has been caught? Are we all caught up in the net of plastic bags?

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Carol Howard Donati | Caught Up, fragment | carrier bags, vegetable net | 79 in x 54 in | 2016 

Game changer

I didn’t get all of Donati’s “remarks”, and my interpretation may be off, but I sure had a lot of fun trying. More than that, by not giving up, I came to see this kind of art – art made of recycled or found objects – in a new way. I still can’t see myself hanging a quilt made of plastic bags in my house, but my perspective has changed. (Actually, space permitting, I think I could live with any of the above works because the wit behind them really makes me smile.)

Remark is definitely a game changer for me. Going forward I will try harder to see the idea behind the work, and not allow myself to be turned off so easily by a medium or technique. The key is to have the willingness and patience to see the whole because the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts…at least when done right, and from where I stand, Donati has done it right.

Artist statement

Ps. As I learned later, from the artist’s statement and exhibition notes, Donati is an anthropologist. No wonder she tells tales using discarded objects and nature. Here is an excerpt from her statement:

“The focus of my art is everyday life and how we connect to the world around us. My work is personal; examining what is particular, common and familiar as a way of locating the source of our shared humanity in individual experience. Who I am as a woman and my own particular story inform my process. I have something to say. To create I draw upon my background as an anthropologist, an appreciation for the natural world, and fascination with design ideas taken from ordinary circumstance. As a person and an artist I am interested in things that are so close and familiar that they may be transparent to our attention or even purposely set aside from our gaze. Referencing the hidden-ness of things we take for granted is the starting point for my examination of broader human concerns including identity, domestic labour, food security, and the environment.

“My work typically begins by transforming a pieced or whole-cloth base of reclaimed fabric with textured layers of paint, print, appliqué and stitch. Incorporating detritus of our domestic life is a signature aspect of my work, a process I find both transformative and political. I recycle plastic items, clips tags and discarded packaging as both base material and embellishment, contrasting the human-made with organic forms to reflect our daily habits and provoke awareness.”

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