The old wear a mask that most never try to peel away. All that is seen is the wrinkles, the stoop, the arthritic hands and fading memories. No recognition of the past, the fights against racism, the battles with the elements and the war waged against workers by a ravaged economy. Elder is a position of respect in many cultures, but in the civilized western world’ elder is just a concept that is paid lip service.
And though the elders of today have lived through more advances and changes in society than any other generation, their voice is lost. Words may gather dust on the pages of history, but there is no visual.
At first it was just a “niggling little idea” in the back of artist Betty Kovacic’s mind. But it has expanded into 4,000 hours of laboured love, as she has travelled the province talking to seniors and gathering their memories and insights.
“I do this gladly and joyfully,” says Betty, as the results of her work sit scattered around her Prince George living room. “I just had them speak about their lives and thoughts. I asked them the basics, where they were born, when they came here, but I tried to let them guide the conversation. ”
And what Betty discovered was an amalgam of humanity in the men and women that she interviewed. “There was a commonality among the diversity,” she says, noting that the intent of the project was to have a broad geographic, cultural and racial sampling.
One of the strongest bonds was the lack of bitterness and pretension that all the subjects possessed. “These people were searching for a better life and their main concern was the well-being of their children,” explains Betty. “Our society is geared to the accumulation of material things and that’s cost us to lose something.”
The subjects of her paint reside far and wide stretching from Prince George to Dawson Creek to Abbotsford to Nelson and some were known to Betty and others she found. A prime example of how this project has come together is the portrait of Stony Creek elder Mary John.
“I’ve always wanted to paint Mary John but was afraid to ask,” she says. “Then my husband and I were out camping and Blaine asked the owner of the campground if she knew anyone I could talk to. She said her mother and I asked how old she was. Bernice told me 80s and I said No, I’m trying to get people in their 90s.’
“But Blaine asked her who her mother was. She said Mary John and I said “wait a minute, let me back-up.”
And Betty likes to point out that her husband, Blaine Ozust, has been integral in creating these pieces which are much more than just a portrait painting.
Each painting represents the time and place of the person and, as much as possible, Betty has incorporated items from that time whether they be newspaper clippings, photographs, milk crates or paper clips.
One of the most intriguing works represents the life of Kay Okura, who lives in Nelson. A Japanese Canadian, Kay was rounded up and put into an interment camp and Betty has captured the feeling of claustrophobia by doing the piece in an old suitcase that was her father’s. “It represents the packing up of their lives,” explains Betty, who took pictures at the camp and painted them on the roof’ of the piece to give an example of what Kay would have seen every day. A bust in the box is delicately decorated and details the punishment inflicted upon Kay and her family for their ancestry.
Just about complete, Betty expects to show the pieces around the province over the course of the next two years. Then each piece will be donated to an appropriate location (for example, Mary John’s piece will go the Fraser-Fort George Museum).
And then Betty will go on to new projects, though a piece of her will never forget this experience. “I’m just interested in the human condition and the spirit and experiences. And when you look at these people, they just had such extremely good stories to tell. They just took things as being part of life and rejoiced in it, that life was good.”