A mother portrays the chapters of her life with photos of her daughter as iconic women

Paula Brook, Vancouver Sun
Saturday January 22, 2005

Photo by Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun

The last time I did an art project with my 20-year-old daughter, I'm pretty sure Play-Doh was involved. If any mother-daughter dialogue ensued, it probably concerned her favourite colour (purple).

Grace Gordon-Collins and her 20-year-old daughter, Alexandra, have taken creative collaboration a fair bit further, and their art-table dialogue too. Life, love, lust, betrayal, violence, revenge -- you name it, they've talked about it, dramatized it, photographed it, and are now about to mount it in an exhibition called Pulp, opening next Thursday at Diane Farris Gallery in Vancouver.

Trust me, Play-Doh was a lot safer than this stuff. But then, without risk it's not really art, as mother and daughter pointed out to me last week when we met at their studio to talk about the spicy pulp-fiction-inspired series that Grace created using Alexandra -- Ali for short -- as her model and muse.

The studio is on the ground floor of a renovated warehouse near the North Vancouver waterfront where Grace and her husband Ernest run their carriage-trade architecture practice and their interior design firm, Archipelago. In the last 25 years they have designed and built some of British Columbia's most striking private residences. Up until the last two, Grace's photography has been a professional sideline.

The turning point was 9/11, when Grace, having returned from New York City two days earlier, watched the twin towers fall on television and thought, "All those people who went to work today had no idea it would be their last day on earth. What about all their dreams -- all the things they had put on hold, saying, some day I'm going to do this."

She had been saying just that about photography, on and off, since studying under the eminent American photographer Minor White when she was working on her masters degree in architecture at MIT in the '70s. Galvanized, she registered at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design and spent the next two years earning a fine art degree in her spare time.

Then she stumbled upon her muse, at home. This is the thing to remember about the Pulp series, if you're a Play-Doh mom harbouring any doubts about the propriety of Grace and Ali's collaboration, which is a shade of purple not made by Hasbro. It was Ali's idea in the first place. The normally shy young woman, who is a dead ringer for her mom at the same age, was herself a budding art student at Capilano College (she has since transferred to Emily Carr). She was working on an art history project -- a study of the post-modern photographer and master of disguises, Cindy Sherman. It entailed disguising herself, a la Sherman, as various characters from pop culture and mythology -- Marilyn Monroe, Freda Khalo, Cher, Madame Butterfly -- and she asked her mom to photograph her. It was more acting than posing, and they were both startled at how good Ali was at it. A regular chameleon.

The result was stunning and provocative, and earned Ali an A. Grace later reworked it for a book-making class she was taking at Emily Carr, adding poetry written by Ali, and she got a lot more than an A for it -- she got the idea that would become Pulp.

"I sort of appropriated it," Grace confesses to me. "A lot of these characters were my generation, not Ali's. I knew a lot more about them, and was able to help Ali explore them as icons."

But more than that, Grace was able to use the characters as lurid bookmarks to chapters in her own early life. Turns out there's a lot more truth in these dimestore images than first meets the eye, which is precisely the game Grace is playing with her art and her audience. Truth or fiction? "You tell me," she says coyly.

Of course it helps if you know the backstory, which is set in rural Manitoba where Grace grew up tough and angry and by her own account almost dead several times over. Best thing she learned from her dad, a hard-boiled character Mickey Spillane might have created, was how to shoot a gun while riding a horse, or a motorcycle. Kicked out of home at 18 for dating her Japanese judo instructor, she hit the big city of Winnipeg bruised, beautiful, half victim, half vixen -- "looking for love in all the wrong places."

It was "a blueprint for tragedy," just like it says on the paperback's cover, except this is not a Spillane thriller, it's a 30- by 45-inch photographic C-print selling for $2,600 at Diane Farris's gallery.

That's the first in the Pulp series, starring Ali as her mom as a chesty Marilyn Monroe. In the second, Ali is her mom as Jane Russell, "Renegade" in a haystack: "I don't need a gun to catch a man." Then she's Madame G (for Grace instead of Butterfly), "torn between two cultures." All true enough, says Grace, and it gets grittier after her move to The Rooming House where she has to battle her way past The Pervert every time she goes to the bathroom ("How long would the lust maddened roomer control his urges?"), then fights off a home invader ("The crazed punk forced her door open") and finally morphs into an Emma Peel-like Avenger who sets things right.

Of all the iconographic women in Grace's life, Monroe has always been tops. In fact, she says, her whole family embraced Marilyn's hardship-to-fame-to-hardship legend, starting with her mother, a Ginger Rogers look-alike who actually won a Hollywood contest to be a Ginger stand-in on set, but had to back out in order to marry Grace's dad.

Grace's father preferred Jane Russell. Her sister danced in the original Sonny & Cher revue.

Her daughter Ali was secretly hoping the risque Marilyn piece would not be chosen as the title shot for the Pulp series, but Diane Farris loved it and Ali sucked it up. "Being artists changes how we perceive ourselves in the world," she tells me, earnestly.
"It was like making a movie," adds her mom. "If at any point Ali felt uncomfortable I would have stopped it."

On the contrary, Ali seemed to thrive in the role of vixen, and has since moved on to riskier projects. She recently asked her mom to photograph her nude in a plexiglass box in the snow, for a sculpture project titled Girl in a Box.

She also loved the process of making Pulp, during which she heard many of her mom's true confessions for the first time. "We had some intense moments," says Grace. "It's a risky thing, opening these padlocked doors. But when Ali and I started working together, it opened up such a wonderful dialogue between us. Ali did have the benefit, for better or worse, of finding out why I have the ticks that I have."

"She's very tough," says Ali. "She doesn't take any crap from anyone. Now I feel that's kind of embedded in me."
Pulp runs to February 12 at Diane Farris Gallery, 1590 West Seventh Ave.

Grace Gordon-Collins
Exhibitions Press
  • Vancouver Sun, 2005

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