Shary Boyle and Emily Vey Duke have been friends for twenty years. The artists met in Halifax, where the Nova Scotian Duke was attending NSCAD. Boyle, who has spent her entire career living and working in Toronto, was visiting Nova Scotia and the two hit it off.
After seven years of corresponding, and of seeing each other in various cities as they pursued their art careers, Boyle suggested an idea to Duke: a call-and-response project where Duke would respond to a drawing by Boyle in writing. Boyle then would respond to a text, and the project would continue. To introduce a certain amount of surprise to the process, Boyle threw a curve ball: Duke would send Boyle a text, she, in turn, would make two drawings in response, sending the second drawing back to Duke, who would then write two texts, but only sending one to Boyle. They continued this artistic discussion intermittently for 10 years, working it into their burgeoning art practices.
Emily Vey Duke, who works in collaboration with her partner, Cooper Battersby, now works in upstate New York, where she and Battersby teach at the State University of New York, Syracuse. They have built remarkable careers, with an international exhibition record and inclusion in film festivals across the globe. In 2013, Coach House Books published The Beauty is Relentless, a book on their short films. Boyle has continued to show internationally as a solo artist, though she works collaboratively with other artists as an ongoing part of her practice. Twice shortlisted for the Sobey Art Award, Boyle represented Canada at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.
In 2014, the 31 sets of drawings and texts were exhibited for the first time at the Oakville Galleries outside of Toronto. It marked the first time that either artist had seen (or read) the complete set of responses to their work. As the exhibition’s curator, Jon Davies, noted, “the resulting works demonstrate the generative power of female friendship and artistic collaboration in a world that worships myths of individual genius and success.” This January, Shary Boyle & Emily Vey Duke: The Illuminations Project, opened at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
In a talk at the AGNS, Boyle and Duke spoke about the process, sharing insights into how it evolved and into some of the inherent tensions that are inevitable between two artists who, while sharing an affinity, nonetheless have distinct and disparate approaches to art. Boyle wanted to avoid illustration, what she called “art in the service of words,” and was instead interested in “how visual art is a language,” and was hoping that Duke’s responses would be “text as art pieces.” Boyle hoped, for this project, “that each pairing would be unique.”
“My work and Emily’s are always narrative but there are so many narratives to tell without imposing a repeating character,” she explained. In the end, Duke’s responses introduced several repeating characters, including the remarkable figure of “Bloodie,” a girl we follow through several incarnations and experiences. Duke’s texts don’t stick to one style of approach, but include prose, poetry, and song lyrics.
What is consistent is an abiding concern with questions about being and becoming women. “The two central questions here are about power in romantic love,” Boyle explained. “The sense of purpose in that, and its different for men and women. The other is about the alienation from, and a desire for a return to nature. The looming loss of nature is a source for anxiety, pain, and fear.”
The exhibition is constantly surprising and rewarding. Duke’s texts are presented in the same manner as Boyle’s drawings, either framed and hung on the wall or in vitrines. The back and forth between the texts and images keeps the viewer engaged. Duke’s texts are by turns evocative, frightening, beautiful and mysterious. Boyle’s drawings are assured, remarkable in their imaginative invention, and endlessly engaging. It is, simply and complexly, a remarkable and haunting exhibition project. There is an equally remarkable book, available at the AGNS store – that pairs the drawings and the texts in a large format hardcover, an illustrated book for adults.
The exhibition runs until April 29 at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.