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War brides’ story comes to life

Calgary artist Bev Tosh’s multi-media installation opens at the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie this weekend

War brides’ story comes to life
By KIRSTEN GORUK
Herald-Tribune staff, December 16, 2011

Eleven years ago, Bev Tosh was given the opportunity to tell the story of war brides from all over the globe. Today it remains a project the painter has fallen deeply in love with and continues to pursue.

“I just loved the stories. I am a visual artist, so I really struggled with how to tell those stories. I really didn’t know where it would take me,” she says.

War brides are the women who married military men from countries overseas during the Second World War. When the conflict ended, they left their homeland to live with their new husbands.

“These women, tens of thousands of them, travelled alone after the war to an absolutely uncertain future, to a country they knew virtually nothing about,” Tosh says.

“Telephone wasn’t an option and there was no money – it was post-Depression and post-war. So they truly were one-way passages.”

What originally began as a personal quest to research her own mother’s story soon became a living, breathing passion for her. Not long after, other war brides started to seek her out to share their stories.

“For me it’s a rite of passage and a belief in the strength of women’s stories. Not just history, but the strength of women and these women in particular who went through aspects of war and then had to make a completely different life in peacetime,” she says.

Tosh’s War Brides exhibit opens at the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie on Saturday and features 88 portraits of war brides from various countries as well as other multi-media installations and artifacts.

“It was the first time I’d ever worked on rough wood. It’s very utilitarian. I loved it as a painting service, it had these deep cracks and the graining patterns that I found wonderful and could follow a neckline for instance.

“The knots could be buttons or I could use the small ones as the centre for an eye. In one instance when I did that it was about a relationship and marriage that started with a wink.”

A contemporary artist who resides in Calgary, Tosh has among her degrees a masters of fine art in painting from the University of Calgary and is a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. She’s lectured and taught art across the country and occasionally abroad.

Included in this exhibit is a new portrait of a war bride who found herself in the Hines Creek area, about two hours north of Grande Prairie.

“I know hundreds more than these. They just keep speaking to me and I just keep painting. There’s a brand new one that’s never been seen before,” Tosh says.

“It was especially for this exhibition. She’s a Dutch war bride and she goes by Corrie. The stories stay with me and I want to keep working on them, so they are growing.”

As the daughter of a Canadian war bride who fell in love with a New Zealand pilot training during WW2 in Canada, Tosh has a special connection to the women in her portraits.

When her parents’ marriage didn’t work out, nine-year-old Tosh left New Zealand with her mother and sister for a three-week journey to a new home.

“I know what it’s like to see your homeland disappear from the deck of a ship. You’re up so high and it feels like the country is moving away and the ship is stationary,” she says.

“It’s described by war brides in this way too. It’s a loss that you can never quite replace.”

That sense of loss and the question of what is home or what makes a place home is a universal idea that anyone can relate to. Tosh hopes that people who visit the gallery will become aware of the plight of women and children and their experiences in wartime.

“It gives this population a voice, but I think it also encourages others to learn about their own family roots.”

Just as she became enthralled with the stories these women had to share, often times Tosh has heard that the exhibit inspires others.

“They’re starting to research and become interested in these generations that are now elderly and the stories they have to tell. It puts a face to history, but it also encourages a look at living history while we can still do it and pass those family stories on.”

kirsten@dailyheraldtribune.com