By Harriet Cooper
It's through that project that I know her best. When I asked her where she got the inspiration for the project, she said many of the images in her canvases came to her in dreams. “Canada doesn’t have the same iconography that we have in Eastern Europe. For me, everything was new. I had to arrange and rearrange the images in my mind to make sense of them.” Many of the original images came from walking around the city; other ideas came from Goodwill. Like many newcomers to Canada who are short on cash but long on ingenuity, she often shops there. In her case, clothes and small household goods weren’t the only things she looked for. She found heavy curtain material that she cut to fit homemade stretchers and created her own canvases. But her greatest discovery was a treasure trove of old books. She gravitated towards the pictures – old photographs, art books and even technical drawings piqued her interest. They spoke to her in visual images of what the Canadian experience was for different people at different times.
Over a period of months, these images somersaulted in her head until she had the beginning of a series of works that encapsulate her experiences and vision of Canada. The first time I saw the pictures, we were sitting on a small deck in the backyard off her former workshop/studio, only a few doors down from Goodwill. As she brought each canvas out from the basement, I became more and more intrigued with the series and the layers of meaning in each picture. These pictures depicted a montage of unlikely and disparate elements that nevertheless told a story. As a soon-to-be first generation Canadian, they were her way of making sense of a new culture. As a third-generation Canadian, I could also relate to them, weaving her elements into my own experience and knowledge of this country.
As we talked about the pictures, I was surprised where she found beauty – in recycling boxes, in kayaks, and in hot air balloons. Even black and white figures of referees became a starting point for an idea that grew into a picture.
The first canvas showed large Re/Max hot air balloons floating above a village of wigwams. On one level, the montage shows how we sold out our native peoples and stole their land. On a deeper level, we see the dichotomy between the old cultures and the new ones. The native peoples were part of the land while today, so many of us have lost touch with our roots. The idea of old and new rebounds through much of her work.
The next canvas brings together even more disparate images of Jewish men studying the Torah while sitting in kayaks. She explained this picture represents the Jewish Diaspora, in which Jews were forced from their homeland, an experience many newcomers can understand. Yet even in a new country, faced with an alien culture, they were able to hold onto what was most important to them. It is the blending of the old traditions with the new that give this picture its vitality.
In a third canvas, hockey players flank Chinese labourers working on the railroad. Without the Chinese there would have been no railroad. Without the railroad there would have been no Canada. Yet it is the hockey players who received fame and fortune, while the Chinese labourers remain buried in obscurity, even as so many of them were buried in unmarked graves beside the railroad they helped build. That the labourers and hockey players have the same body position, only serves to plays up their different fates.
Other canvases feature a young Queen Elizabeth, Canadian geese, Ukrainian women sawing wood, several people on snowshoes in High Park, and even our bright blue and green recycling bins.
The kayak motif shows up several times, a symbol of the first people who carved a life in the least hospitable parts of Canada and who struggle to hold onto their culture, much like immigrants struggle to make a home in a strange, new country.
Some of the canvases make me smile; all of them make me think. To me, these canvases belong in a provincial or national gallery where newcomers and citizens alike can see the images and compare them to their own symbols of Canada. When I asked her why she was showing these paintings in Goodwill, she said, “Art should be accessible to everybody, not just to people who go to galleries. The Canada I paint is their Canada, too.”
Then she smiled. “And Goodwill has big windows.”
Having made her mark on the Canadian art community, Natalia Laluque is now giving something back to other artists. She has opened her own gallery, Laluque Atelier and holds multimedia art shows for local artists, featuring everything from paintings to ceramics, quilts to 3-dimensional fibre art. She also teaches art classes for both adults and children. With children, the emphasis is on fun and creativity, while giving the children a chance to experiment with a variety of artistic styles. For adults, her goal is to provide students with knowledge and skills in drawing and painting, whether they're beginners or advanced. Small classes give Natalia the chance to work with each student on an individual basis and also moderate group discussions on various aspects of art.
Kayaks, hot air balloon and hockey players – a marriage made on canvas
Natalia Laluque is a multimedia artist who trained in Ukraine and has exhibited in Ukraine, South Korea, Egypt, Germany, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands, and the United States. After emigrating to Canada fours years ago, she struggled to find a place for herself both in a new country and in the Canadian art community. She has succeeded in doing both.
Her paintings and ceramics have been exhibited in such diverse venues as Goodwill and Second Cup on Christie and St. Clair as part of ARTWALK: The St. Clair Arts Festival and Studio Tour as well as The 0.7% Show/Fundraiser for HIV/Aids in Africa (The Propeller Centre For Visual Arts, Toronto), The Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition, and "New" Gallery (The Distillery District, Toronto). She has also received a grant from the Ontario Arts Council 2007 to work on her Canadian Project, a series of oversized canvasses which pay homage to a newcomer’s experience in Canada.
Harriet Cooper is a Toronto freelance writer and generalist. This is her first foray into the field of art. She generally writes about health, family, relationships, animals, religion, eco-products, and humour. Her work has appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines, newsletters, websites, anthologies, and on radio.