Conor Mac Neill’s Tall Tales (and Tails)

I will offer a disclosure, before I begin to talk about Conor Mac Neill‘s Canadian Myths and Legends. As a child, and still now as an adult, I am always reading ghost stories and accounts of monsters, so when I walked into the gallery space (one of two, at Niagara Pumphouse), and saw an image of Ogopogo or – more exciting to me – Sarah Ann Tracey, I was not only intrigued as an arts writer, making my first visit to the Pumphouse, but had that moment of keen joy you often experience, as a child, when confronted with something exciting. Its not accidental – and I wasn’t at all surprised – to find out Mac Neill also has produced a childrens’ book and is an animator. The night of the reception, he had copies of his latest book on sale, as well.

I’ve joked before about synchronicity: since my return to Niagara, I’ve also spent a great deal of time on Youtube, watching old CBC / CTV shows about the ghosts of Niagara, or the ghost ships of Niagara, and one of the papers I contribute to, The Sound out of St. Catharines, has tapped into a local urban legend / mythology with a column on The Screaming Tunnels. All of this, in certain ways, makes me an ideal audience for Canadian Myths and Legends, despite my age (some have argued I have never grown up, ahem).

Another portrait, James Andrews, also has a “ghosts of Niagara” resonance, as he is another “casualty” of the Great Lakes, like Edmund Fitzgerald, or the Great Lakes / Michigan Triangle or the Black Dog of Lake Erie or South Bay Bessie. Mac Neill described the show as two different bodies of work, and its installed in such a manner in the space, with Sarah, with Commodore Andrews and several others as portraits along one wall, and The Tail of Ogopogo, Old Yellowtop, The Gaasyendietha and The modern day Wendigo grouped together, like to like.

The modern day Wendigo

Before I offer Conor’s own words and some further impressions of my own, I want to add one more intersecting element.

The evening of the reception, Mac Neill spoke about how, as a child, his family moved from Ireland to Newfoundland. This caught my attention for two reasons, though really one that unites both places, with ideas of folklore and stories (and Mummering in Newfoundland) told to you as a child that you still cherish as an adult (a side tangent: as a child I watched some CBC thing, narrated by Gordon Pinsent – a Newfoundlander, if I’m not mistaken – about a ghost ship in NOTL, and how one of the sailors, one night, saw the headless ghost of a past captain, murdered by a jealous husband or jilted lover, I disremember, but the image of the headless uniformed body walking nonchalantly – or floating, to be exact – above the deck, to the horror of the crew, is still vivid. I must find that show, to watch again…).

The Gaasyendietha

One of my favourite books is American Gods by Neil Gaiman: one of his characters, Essie Tregowan came to mind, during Mac Neill’s brief talk about his works. As a child, at the start of her sad – or perhaps simply human, which is funny, in light of monsters and legends – story, Essie could never get enough “tales of the piskies and the spriggans, of the black dogs of the moors and the seal-women of the Channel. And, though the squire laughed at such things, the kitchen-folk always put out a china saucer of the creamiest milk at night, put it outside the kitchen door, for the piskies.” Later, in the “new world” when she’s old the hot Virginia sun can barely warm her, she thinks of how her daughter “Phyllida’s children would come to Essie for tales, and she would tell them of the Black Dog of the Moors, and of Raw-Head and Bloody-Bones, or the Apple Tree Man, but they were not interested; they only wanted tales of Jack—Jack up the Beanstalk, or Jack Giant-killer, or Jack and his Cat and the King. She loved those children as if they were her own flesh and blood, although sometimes she would call them by the names of those long dead.”

The Tail of the Ogopogo

Its worth noting that the person in American Gods who tells Essie’s tale, Mr. Ibis, comments at some point that one must trust the story, if not the story teller.

In his statement for the show, Mac Neill also cites the following, from D. Abraham: “There is no better way to understand a culture deeply than to know and appreciate its mythos, its stories, its dreams. Indeed, many of the symbols in our dreams are universal, or at least culture-wide, symbols whose meaning is invested in the mythic stories that they inhabit. And there are those who believe that these symbols and these stories are encoded in the very cells of our species’ DNA.”

Sarah Ann Tracey

Sarah Ann Tracy stands in front of a somewhat dark background, and even if you didn’t already know that she supposedly extends her short life by haunting Fort George, you’d surely get an eerie sense from her portrait. But she’s not frightening: I’m reminded of the poltergeist that inhabits the Marr Residence, which I used to live next door to, in Saskatoon, and they only became fussy when the Historical or Heritage group meeting became overlong, and I can’t fault that. Her large eyes are striking, and the whorls of her hair and her toy cat make her, on the one hand, just a small girl like any other, but the ethereal light, and her story, tell us otherwise.

Other scenes are more active, more vibrant in colour. There is a contrast of play and seriousness, a mix of myth and legend and a tongue in cheek contemporary re imagining – retelling – of some of the older stories.

I am loathe to offer too much about the specific works, as they have a joy, a vitality, that you have to experience in person. His process, a painterly approach to digital printed on canvas serves the works well (one might imagine several of the “portraits” sitting above a mantlepiece in a home). As well, there is an aspect of this show, this work that is collaborative with Mac Neill’s son, Declan, and he has smaller, expressive works also in the gallery space (in considering the work by both Mac Neills’,  I was reminded of how many books for children are important to adults, whether the obvious, like Edward Gorey, or one that I read as a boy, Norval Morrisseau‘s Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, where his images enchanged me as much as the tales, like why the birch tree is ‘scarred’).

This comes back to an idea that informs much of Mac Neill’s work: there is a child like wonder to it, a child like sensibility to it, but that’s not saying its “childish.” In fact, there is a sense here of the importance of stories we learn as children, and repeat to our children, and how, as he illustrates, literally and metaphorically, that is important to many of us, whatever our age.

The exhibition Canadian Myths and Legends is on display at the Niagara Pumphouse in Niagara-on-the-Lake until November 28th (247 Ricardo Street). Gallery hours are Tuesday – Sunday from 11 AM to 4 PM and his book is on sale at the gallery. All images are copyright the artist. You can see much more of Conor Mac Neill’s practice in various media here

About Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola has published with Canadian Art, Galleries West, FUSE, Hamilton Arts & Letters, BlackFlash, ArtSeen, ti<, Long Exposure and Magenta. Past curatorial projects include REGION (Contemporary Saskatchewan Painting) and Personal Geographies (an overview of The Photographers Gallery collection). Gazzola was Editorial Chair of BlackFlash Magazine (3 years), and was the visual arts critic for Planet S Magazine. He held the latter role for more than a decade, publishing reviews about Saskatoon visual arts and the larger community twice monthly. He's a frequent contributor to The SoundSTC and is the facilitator of the 5 x 2 Image Makers Conversations, through Rodman Hall Art Centre.
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