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We become our own wolves (2007)

Created with women at the Isabel MacNeil House (prison) during a month long residency at Modern Fuel Gallery and has since been shown in festivals in Canada, Germany, Poland and the UK. Music by Rae Spoon.

The Isabel McNeill House, Canada’s only federal facility for low-risk female offenders, opened in 1990. It has been providing residents with employment training and community programs to help in their transition into society. In 2007 it was announced that the government intended to shut down the facility, leaving no real resources for women’s reintegration into society after imprisonment.

In the summer of 2007 during a residency at Modern fuel Gallery, I created a project for the women. For three weeks, two hours a day, three times a week I painted and drew, conversed and hung out with the women at the Isabel MacNeil House with the intention of possibly creating an animation. Each day materials would be brought into the institution alongside whatever imagery was requested by the prisoners (I would photocopy images for them at the library). Sensitive to the women’s privacy, the subject matter of the video was taken from the women’s drawings and references the conversations we had. The animation frames the women’s work inside a fictional home inhabited by wolves, reflecting the women’s current situation of imprisonment as well as their previous experiences of spousal abuse. All of the women who were involved in this project had served over ten years in prison and were on their way out of the system.

This project was extremely challenging for me (negotiating trust and the constant institutionalization of lives). Without being overly idealistic I hoped to inject some concept of freedom back into their daily activities. This took the form of my outsider position, as a volunteer I was not exactly a part of the system that held them there and yet was not an insider either. As someone who is politically against imprisonment as an answer to social problems, I wanted my role to be one of support and encouragement.