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Empress of Ireland tragedy retold – through art

Pier 21 hires first artist-in-residence to commemorate 1914 nautical disaster

3 min read
caption Pier 21's first artist-in-residence, Kyle Jackson, points at some of his favourite panels.
Samantha Calio
Pier 21's first artist-in-residence, Kyle Jackson, points at some of his favourite panels.
caption Pier 21’s first artist-in-residence, Kyle Jackson, checks some of his favourite panels in the Empress of Ireland artwork.
Samantha Calio

An artist at the Canadian Museum of Immigration has brought new attention to the sinking of the Empress of Ireland – Canada’s worst marine disaster and one of the deadliest in history.

Pier 21’s first artist-in-residence, Kyle Jackson, has spent five months working on the interactive piece entitled, “To Those Still At Sea.” More than 500 visitors have contributed to the 18-by-10 foot silhouette sculptural painting.

Most people who come to the exhibit have never heard of the Empress of Ireland, says Jackson.

Since it sank after the famous Titanic in 1912 and before the Lusitania in 1915 – the more recognized disasters involving ocean liners – the Empress of Ireland was “lost in the fog of history.”

On May 29, 1914, the Empress of Ireland was crossed the Atlantic for the 96th time. After colliding with a Norwegian freighter at around 2 a.m. in the St. Lawrence River, it sank in just 14 minutes, with the loss of 1,012 lives.

“This is much more significant to Canadians than the Titanic ever was,” says Jane Sather a visitor of Pier 21 from Regina, Saskatchewan. Sather emphasizes the importance of knowing Canadian history.

Since beginning his work at Pier 21, Jackson says he has felt a more “spiritual” connection to the artwork. “I feel like I’m working for those 1,012 people.”

Kyle Jackson places a new panel into his piece, one of around 600 panels.
caption Jackson adds a new panel to the work.
Samantha Calio

“It’s great to use art in service of remembrance and bringing that story back to life,” he adds. “I do feel that the spirits from that wreck are kind of coming into the painting.”

The artist-in-residence program at Pier 21 will be an annually funded program, says Carrie-Ann Smith, chief of audience engagement at Pier 21.

Smith says it has drawn more visitors than many of the museum’s temporary exhibits, and she believes Jackson is a big part of the success.

“Hundreds of visitors have a little piece of themselves in it,” she says. The interactive perspective was one of the major reasons Jackson was hired.

Marie Chapman, the museum’s CEO, says Jackson stood out from other applicants because his vision was “respectful but still interactive” and vibrant.

The piece will be made up of around 600 panels that have been carved and shaped by Jackson. Some panels are made of wood, others from a form of Styrofoam. Each tells a story of the Empress and the artist who made it, allowing the piece to fully encapsulate the tragedy.

The piece will hold around 600 panels once completed.
caption The piece will hold around 600 panels once completed.
Samantha Calio

“This piece has more to offer,” says Jackson, who wants to continue working with the subject, by either writing a book or play about the ship.

The completed piece will be displayed at Pier 21 for Nocturne: Art at Night on Oct. 15.

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