Karen Cornelius: Fabric of Belonging

Patricia Bovey, FRSA, FCMA
Identity – Belonging – Fabric – Missing

These four words are the soul of the work of Canadian artist Karen Cornelius. They are often taken for granted; their true meaning rarely examined. This celebrated Winnipeg printmaker weaves the multiple meanings of these words together through her use of everyday objects and personal memories which become her core iconography and symbols. In all her work she questions the essence of our own identity and belonging within a culture or societal group.

In her series of prints, Fabric of Belonging, Cornelius uses children’s party dresses and letters written to her grandparents as both subject and background, concurrently uniting the various perceptions of the adult and the child. She layers past and present realities of the diverse cultures and situations she has experienced and her art poignantly voices sensibilities of place, history and particular social concerns. Cornelius’ life history embodies multiple cultures from the Congo to Eritrea, to the US, Canada, Asia and Europe. Many of these experiences and subsequent understandings are simultaneously reflected with gentleness and directness. Her work also deals with environmental and health concerns as seen in her choice of materials and techniques and her insistence on using natural fabrics and papers, plant dyes and water-based inks.
Fabric has several meanings, referring to all kinds of cloth: woven, knitted or felted, smooth or textured. It also relates to the structure or framework of society as well as building and construction materials. Belonging implies an individual’s feeling or acceptance by a group or society. Identity imparts the uniqueness or particularities of oneself or a culture; while missing denotes lacking, absent or disappeared. These meanings are all interwoven into the messages in Cornelius’ art.

North American born, Cornelius grew up in the Congo where her doctor father worked with the founder of the medical clinic and hospital. She was first home schooled and later went to a mission school which included both local and foreign children. The dresses depicted in these works, and in some cases put through the press themselves, are like those she wore as a child, made by the same company in Philadelphia from which her grandmother bought the young Karen’s dresses as gifts. They are hardly the appropriate garb for a child in the middle of the steamy Congo jungle in the 1960s! Yet it is these treasured gifts that she remembers. She recalls that her mother once asked if she could give one of her dresses away. It was to be a burial dress for a little girl, a few years younger than Karen. Karen’s childhood pictures show her in her North American frilly dresses, head and shoulders taller than her Pygmy contemporaries. The times she and her family witnessed while living in the Congo were not politically easy, further magnifying questions of belonging and identity.

As Cornelius says:

“This series marks the survival of me as a little girl and my escape from the Simba uprising. With the dress I work with the simplicity and innocence of childhood. With the patterning I work with the complexity of the situation, the danger, the fear, the feeling of belonging to a culture and yet being an outsider. I am working with the tension of being inside and outside of a society. The translucence of the nylon fabric which is fluffy, light and fun is contrasted with a background of uncertainty and vastness represented by repetitive patterning, hard edged shapes and aerial views that the evoke endless jungle.”

When we think of fabric in its wider meaning – that of the fabric of society—her choice of image becomes even more striking and poignant. While it links peoples, situations, times and cultures, fabric itself also disintegrates. Fabric tears, holes appear, it fades and it shrinks. The fabric of society does the same. Societies, particularly the ones Cornelius grew up in, have split, her family was forced to flee, there were life-threatening tensions, yet her father was there to heal and to care for its people. He was a pioneer doing what he did, when he did it and where he did it. None of that was missed by his daughter.

As she noted:  “Growing up in the Congo and Kenya, I was exposed to vibrant local arts and artisans although the political climate was often marred by uncertainty. Before moving to Winnipeg I spent two and a half years in Eritrea during politically volatile times and have had the opportunity in recent times to travel in art related capacities to Africa, Europe, China and Hong Kong.” Her grandfather’s correspondence documents the situations they faced, and thus her decision to include these letters as key elements in her work further underlines her concern for those troubled places and times.

Having had those experiences during her entire childhood, one can only imagine the shock she endured when she entered university in the United States. She was a complete outsider, though for the first time in her life she ‘looked like’ her colleague students. Their culture was certainly NOT the one she knew, so once again, Cornelius questioned her identity, her sense of belonging, and her feelings of ‘missing’.

Her art gives Cornelius the opportunity to explore the past and the present in the same work. She has returned to the Congo, Kenya and Eritrea a number of times. She has purchased their natural cotton fabrics and worked with natural dyes from indigenous plants. But she still uses the image of the dress as the central icon in every work in the Fabric of Belonging series. Images of jungle plants, geology and other elements of the landscape are included as the background foundations in many of these works. She thus links her myriad experiences effectively and with resonant personal meaning, profoundly conveying their layered nuances to those who view them.

She comments: “Within my art practice, printmaking has been my discipline of choice. The transfer of image and texture from one surface to another as well as the repetition and layering of image attracts me to the medium.” This series includes images of the front and the back of the dress, varying patterns, and they are executed in various colour combinations. She has also created works where a piece, or pieces, of the image extend beyond the paper itself. One has to question why? Is she looking to the future and better outcomes? Is she referring to the ties of the bow on the dress, the ‘untied tie’? Or is she referring to the torn fabric of the society she obviously loved and for which she has fond memories?

Cornelius is a collaborator. Her words on her website reflect that sense in her creative activity:

“Priority within my art practice is given to collaboration whether with national or international artists, community groups or educational settings. Collaboration provides a supportive environment for creative expression, experimentation and exchange of knowledge and information while cultivating mutual understanding and respect. Artists from diverse cultural experiences and disparate geographical locations offer unique and sometimes unexpected insight into one’s own cultural experience.”

This is at the heart of Cornelius’ work so ably shown through the Fabric of Belonging.  For her the process is as important as the final outcome. She is an inveterate experimenter. She explains why printmaking is her chosen medium:

“Printmaking is my discipline of choice. Although trained in traditional printmaking methods, I have progressively pushed the traditional boundaries exploring non-traditional materials and methods.

Cornelius has travelled to China frequently and has worked with Chinese students and professional artists. It is very appropriate that this work is the focus of a special exhibition in China. She has exhibited nationally and internationally and has participated in artist residencies in Hong Kong, Mainland China and Newfoundland. She has received many awards from the Manitoba Arts Council and the Winnipeg Art Council and grants from the Cultural Division of External Affairs Canada and Canada Council for the Arts. Her work is in the collections of the Canada Council Art Bank, Foreign Affairs, the City of Ottawa, Ernst and Young and the National Archives of Canada and in many international corporate and private collections. Cornelius has also taught in the Artists in the Schools, a Manitoba Arts Council program and in the Winnipeg Art Gallery studio program, Yang Mythos Education in Shenzhen China and other community based programs such as Art City, Artists in Healthcare, St. Amant and Video Pool.

Karen Cornelius’ work shows artistic integrity and her contribution to the field is significant. Her ongoing visual explorations continue to expand the range of expression in printmaking and her portrayal of intercultural experiences will continue to enrich her viewers.