In a recent exhibition, artist Karen Bailey documented older women who work in the kitchen of Ottawa’s St. Thomas the Apostle Church.
The dwindling numbers of aging women who serve in parish kitchens across the country seldom receive public recognition for their work but an Ottawa professional artist is doing something about it.
Karen Bailey – an Anglican who once worked as a waitress – is creating a body of work entitled, “Blanche Dot Doris,” that celebrates “the patience and perseverance of servers, the people they serve and the environment in which they work.”
Although her plan to document elderly women working in the kitchen of St. Thomas the Apostle Church was sidetracked by a two-week trip to Afghanistan last June as an appointed military artist, Ms. Bailey has produced enough paintings for a recent solo exhibition at the Dale Smith Gallery in Ottawa.
“It would have been easy to abandon the church women altogether in favour of the Canadian Forces and my Kandahar paintings but I was determined to honour the commitment to my ecclesiastic endeavour,” said Ms. Bailey in an interview. “In December, when I was finally able to revisit my original theme – the ‘Ladies Aid’ – it came as a welcome relief.”
The women doing much of the work in church kitchens are in their 70s, 80s and even 90s, said Ms. Bailey. “There aren’t a lot of women coming through the ranks to fill their shoes and I just thought they are people who deserve to be recognized.”
Ms. Bailey’s mother, Mary, is 82 and serves at church teas at St. Thomas. She has frequently mentioned that the women who do the work “are getting older and older” said Ms. Bailey. “These are women who prepare things for, let’s say – funeral teas – and it’s such an important function, she said. “I know you can just get caterers in but it’s about community.” A lot of the work involves making sandwiches and squares, and some of the women wonder, “‘Who’s going to be making sandwiches for my funeral?'” said Ms. Bailey. “I think they still like the idea of it being catered by their friends.”
Ms. Bailey wrote on her web site (www.karenbailey.ca) that people who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s in a Christian tradition recall mothers and grandmothers preparing rolled sandwiches and squares for church functions. “Many of these women are still performing these duties albeit with bent backs and arthritic hands.”
Ms. Bailey believes that modern culture does not acknowledge the contribution these women make. “In painting them as they perform everyday tasks in the kitchen, I seek to celebrate their beauty, dignity and generosity of spirit.”
A professional artist for more than 25 years, Ms. Bailey has designed the portrait side of the Governor General’s Academic Medal for former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, worked as a courtroom artist for Global Television, illustrated seven books for Appletree Press, won awards and held several exhibitions.
Ms. Bailey is also continuing to work on a new series of acrylic paintings featuring Canadian military medical staff at work, the result of her visit to Afghanistan. “They are just incredible – the doctors and nurses over there, just amazing,” she said.
“It was an honour to have been chosen to document the Canadians who serve in Afghanistan. I feel privileged that the staff and patients at the Role 3 Hospital so graciously allowed me to share in their world and acted collectively as my muse.”
Art Babych is editor of Crosstalk, the newspaper of the diocese of Ottawa.