January in the Legacy Gallery: Jennifer Darragh
Jennifer Darragh’s paintings are a very personal evocation of the often dark world she inhabits – a world of alcoholism, abuse and life on the street. Born in Gloucester, Ontario into a fairly prosperous, middle-class family, Jennifer first experienced sexual abuse as a child of five, and had her first introduction to alcohol in her teens. Despite struggling with these abuse and addiction issues, Jennifer did well in high school, receiving three orders of excellence in fitness.
At the age of 17, Jennifer began working with the Department of National Defense as a correspondence clerk, and was with this organization for 15 years. During this time she met her future partner. When he was left some property at Neyaashiinigmiing Aboriginal Reserve (Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation), the couple moved to the Bruce Peninsula, where Jennifer lived for 10 years. During this period, Jennifer experienced a sense of isolation which led eventually to a stay in a women’s shelter, after which she moved to Owen Sound. Another relationship resulted in abuse conditions, encounters with law enforcement, and eventual eviction, whereupon Jennifer lived on the street for several months.
Eventually, Jennifer moved into Second Avenue Lodge, a facility which accommodates persons with mental health issues. She lives there today, navigating the legacy of substance, sexual and physical abuse and their outcomes: anxiety, depression, PTSD, and BPD (borderline personality disorder). She paints as a way to express her feelings about her experiences, relationships and current state of mind. She has said that, “The reason I paint about the streets and the mentally handicapped is because I’m one of them. I give them a voice, and the recognition they deserve.”
Jennifer remembers painting even as a child and adolescent and has produced art throughout her life, but the paintings in this exhibition are all new works, having been painted within a few months of each other. They range in feeling from despair, fear, alienation and loneliness to moments of hope, survival, spirituality and joy of life. Her often black backgrounds contrast with vivid slashes of colour, evoking the heightened emotions associated with profound stress and the energy it takes to manage it. While much of her work deals with street life, she also touches frequently on closely related issues such as mental illness. What is particularly noteworthy is her frequent choice of portraits to convey situations and emotions – she asks the viewer to engage with her subjects eye-to-eye, instead of from the safety of across the street or via reports from social welfare organizations. Life on the street, she seems to say, must be understood in the context of individual stories, not statistics or police reports.
Powerful work addressing equally powerful issues, Jennifer Darragh’s paintings give us a sobering glimpse into one woman’s attempts to come to grips with her own vulnerability and damaged past. In so doing, she gives us a glimpse into a way of life that is hard and unforgiving, yet not without its promising moments.