sheila spence: pictures of me

published: outwords inc., 2008

tagline: wag captures glimpse in to life of local queer artist

sheila spence: pictures of me. winnipeg art gallery. 2008.

sheila spence: pictures of me. winnipeg art gallery. 2008.

Sheila Spence: Pictures of Me, on now at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, offers viewers with an insightful look into the local photographer’s journey over the last 20 years. Selected from prominent periods in her solo career, the collection features 75 photographs that explore themes such as identity, relationships and community. Delicately mounted and framed, each image captures a glimpse into the life of one of Winnipeg’s most profound contemporary queer artists and activists.

“I think there’s more to a location than climate,” says Spence reflecting on her hometown. “My people are here, this is where my life is and I think that is what you’re looking at the wall.” The exhibit traces Spence’s artistic expansion outwards, from an early focus on the individual in the early 1980’s to her own community of West Broadway in the late 1990’s. Also included is her progressive work with families and her sensual Bed series.

Stirring fired debate upon their premiere in 1998, Spence’s Portraits of a Neighbourhood: Images of West Broadway was not the first time the artist found herself in the middle of controversy. This was also the case in 1991, after she teamed up with local artist Noreen Stevens to tackle homophobia in Winnipeg as part of the “Average Good Looks” collaboration. Launching a series of billboard installations directly targeting the problem, the two took their active campaign West across Canada. “An interviewer asked me if I considered myself to be a political artist,” says Spence, “I consider myself an artist who every now and then feels they have to speak up.”

Certain photographs from Spence’s recently revisited Families series will hold a particular resonance with queer spectators. Challenging traditional representations of the family, Spence’s portraits in this set are raw and emotional. Capturing through her lens what other family photographers would sooner leave out: Spence exposes the underlying tensions that bring loved ones together or tear them apart. In Bernadette, Jude and Katherine shot in 1988 and featured below, the artist explodes the image of the nuclear family while also taking typical notions of gender down with it.

Since Spence’s artwork first appeared in Manitoban galleries over two decades ago, her photography has been seen as far as the United States, Mexico, Finland and Serbia. When asked whether she feels her sexuality has affected her work in any sense, she honestly replies “I don’t know. If I had not been a lesbian for instance, I might have looked more like my older sister on the back wall who lives a very different life from me.” In every image, Sheila Spence: Pictures of Me reveals there is much more to life than what is simply developed on the surface.

Sheila Spence: Pictures of Me runs until February 22 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. For more information on the exhibit and the artist you can visit