In the spring of 2019 I was invited to participate in an art exhibition titled Art: Key to Conflict Resolution, to be exhibited in Athens, Greece, July 17th to 31st, 2019. I was over the moon, as I had no idea that I would ever be invited to show my art works again, after so many years. It was a bit of wee dream come true!
Eric Volmers contacted me from the Calgary Herald and wrote an article about the whole affair, which follows here:
Calgary photographer lands spot at international art show in Athens
Author of the article: Eric Volmers
Publishing date:Aug 01, 2019 • Last Updated 11 months ago • 4 minute read
“It was a hot August day in 2005, when Karen Patterson went to a construction site in the Chaoyang District of Beijing to photograph the workers who were building a new China.
While she calls them migrant workers, they were all Chinese citizens. But they were low on the social scale. Paid next to nothing and housed in shanty-town-like pop-up communities on the massive construction sites, they would move from project to project but remained stuck in abject poverty. Among other things, they built luxury apartment buildings they could never afford to live in and high-end shopping malls they could never shop in.
The workers were a little taken aback. Many had probably never been photographed before, at least not as the subject of portraits. Patterson captured dozens of images, compensating the workers with food and water. She took all the photos from behind and all of the portraits featured the bare backs, necks and heads of the workers. That way the subjects all maintained their anonymity, a symbol perhaps of how they were largely invisible in the world where they lived.
“This new China was being built on the backs of these migrant workers,” says Patterson, a photographer and Calgary real-estate agent. “The back symbolizes this platform. I wanted it to be literal and figurative. So, literally, I had to get them to remove their shirts. It was August, so it was deathly hot in Beijing. It wasn’t like getting them to take off their shirt in -30. It was a normal occurrence in a construction zone.”
“At first they were shy,” Patterson adds. “It was like ‘who the hell is this foreign girl with her camera?’ There was a meeting with their leader and just chatting about how we weren’t exploiting them.”
Patterson chose 36 of the portraits and put them together in an orderly 1.5-metre by 1.5-metre collage that she called Background. Up until July 31, it was hanging at the Serafio Gallery in Athens as part of the international exhibit, Art: Key to Conflict Resolution. Patterson, who went to Greece for the opening and a panel discussion last week, was the only Canadian artist asked to participate in the show that also featured work by Nelson Mandela and journalist/activist Asra Nomani.
Patterson’s ex-husband, the now New York-based Chinese artist Wu Yuren, was also featured in the exhibit. In fact, he was indirectly responsible for getting her a spot in the show. While they are now divorced, Yuren had asked Patterson to act as translator for a phone conversation with the exhibit’s curator, Washington-based Greek artist Vasia Deliyianni.
“He texted me one night and asked if I would mind facilitating a phone call in Chinese and English,” says Patterson, who speaks fluent Mandarin. “The three of us had a conversation about this upcoming art exhibition. After the art exhibition talk, the curator emailed me and asked if I had any photography work because she had a feeling that we were both artists but the focus had always been more on him. So I sent her the work and she liked it.”
It was a nice surprise for Patterson, who admits she had not considered herself a working artist for a number of years. The last time she participated in a group exhibition was 2008, when she displayed Background as part of China Under Construction: Contemporary Art From the People’s Republic.
Patterson studied photography and anthropology at the University of Calgary before leaving for China as a 25-year-old in 1994 to teach English. She became involved in Beijing’s art circles, where she met and eventually married Yuren. She returned to Calgary in 2011, where she now lives with their 14-year-old daughter.
But prior to her return, Patterson made headlines by bringing attention to the plight of her then husband, who is also a photographer and installation artist. Already on the radar of Beijing police for his political work and protests, Yuren had been arrested without charge, beaten by police and held at a detention centre for 11 months.
“That was part of why I put my life on hold,” Patterson says. “It started in 2009 and in 2010 he disappeared. I spent the next year, basically, looking for him and getting him out of prison.”
After spending a period of house arrest and being prohibited from exhibiting his work in China, Yuren relocated to New York in 2015. The two are still on good terms and Patterson is currently writing a book about their ordeal, which she says left her with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Patterson now works as a real estate agent and also does cross-cultural training for people arriving in Calgary from other countries or Calgarians leaving the city for work abroad. But she says her involvement in the Art: Key to Conflict Resolution exhibit has re-energized her passion for photography.
The Athens exhibit is expected to travel to other cities, including Tel Aviv. Participating artists will be asked to contribute new work for future exhibits.
“Being an artist, your head and your heart have to have a certain space to be able to do that,” she says. “I think this trip to Athens was a wake-up call, in a positive way. I still have the eye and the good concepts, there is no reason why I can’t do more work. It’s just about finding the time. But if you love something and are passionate, you will find the time. I have some older work, but it’s also about taking that theme and looking at what is around me instead of just thinking about China.””
After the exhibit was finished, the logistics of bringing my art work back to Calgary was not very convenient, and was possibly going to cost a lot of money. I actually asked the curator to cut up my work and send it back to me in Canada in an envelop. She was horrified and suggested that I contact the Embassy, as an attache had come to the opening and talk, maybe she could help. So, I asked at the Canadian Embassy in Athens if they would hold it or could hang it some where. They were very nice about it but stated that the works that they do hang in the embassy must go through a process, and so it would be hard for them to just hang my work. Not wanting to end the possibility of helping me there, they offered to help me connect to a Canadian-Greek joint venture art museum to see if they would collect it. Lo and behold, the Vorres Museum (https://www.vorresmuseum.gr/content/71/about-/eng) agreed and were excited to house my work along side their other international works. To this day, my work, BACKGROUND, is still hanging in their space. You just never know what will happen, somethings we can not predict in life.