As most of her passengers slept in their berths, RMS Empress of Ireland collided with another ship in the fog on May 29, 1914. The ocean liner sunk in just 15 minutes, taking with it 1,012 of the 1,477 passengers and crew aboard. Though it’s Canada’s largest peacetime maritime accident, many people are unaware of the disaster. But not for long, hopes Halifax artist Kyle Jackson.
“I guess it was really forgotten because the First World War started soon after after, and the Titanic was two years before it,” he says. “I like the idea of using art to breath life back into a forgotten tragedy.”
Jackson is the Canadian Museum of Immigration’s inaugural artist in residence. The program’s goal is to enable an artist to create work that advances his or her career while contributing to the museum’s mandate and engaging the public.
The project, titled To Those Still At Sea…, will feature a nearly three- by five-metre wide cross-section of the Empress of Ireland. He will place 600 small paintings on pine panels inside the ship silhouette.
“[The panels] will tell the story of what happened, of those who lost their lives, of the lives they could have had or did have,” he says. “They’ll be placed in the silhouette, but can be moved around to work with the narrative. It’ll be very tactile and colourful, but respectful.”
He’ll work on the project two days per week from May 1 until Oct. 31 in a studio that opens to the public in June. Museum visitors are invited to work on some of the panels alongside Jackson.
Jackson describes the process like making a film.
“You do the raw footage first,” he says. “Everyone can come in and add to the raw footage, as the pieces are assembled, it’ll get edited. The parts that help tell the story will stay in and the things that don’t quite work will be removed as it becomes a final piece.”
The artist is best known for his paintings of Halifax. “I love the city, just flat out,” he says. “The geography, locations, like Citadel Hill, the city skyline, the harbour. I’ve painted those 25 years and I’m just in love with that motif.”
He’s often described as a folk artist, due to the colourful and tactile nature of his work, but he is educated in the fine arts. He came to Halifax to attend NSCAD in the 1980s, and never left.
Collaborative public projects like To Those Still At Sea… aren’t new for Jackson. For 15 years he volunteered with Visual Arts Nova Scotia’s Professional Artists in the Schools (PAINTS) program. He recently finished a nearly 5-metre panorama of Spring Garden Road with students from Sacred Heart School.
“We’re starting off on a voyage really,” he says of the public’s involvement with the project. “We have all of this great information; we have this big space to work in and all these tiny panels to use. Away we go, we’ll take off and see what happens.”