Meet artist Meichen Waxer

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June 5, 2024

Meichen Waxer is a queer visual artist, curator, and arts worker living in Toronto. Her installation I Will Relate to You is now on view in the FENTSTER window gallery space. We interviewed Meichen to learn more about working with her grandmother’s journals, the Jewish community of northern Ontario, what’s inspiring her in Toronto right now, and why she’d want to have Shabbat dinner with Barbara Streisand.


Kultura Collective: Hi Meichen! Can you please tell us a bit about your artistic and curatorial practice?

Meichen Waxer: My name is Meichen Waxer, queer artist, arts and education worker in Toronto. I work in many artistic mediums, but mostly I express myself through textiles, sculpture, installation, and photo-based mediums. Recently, I’ve been increasingly focusing on making space for what felt obscured and erased in my art practice. I love exploring the lesser-examined parts of history and narratives. I deeply connect with women’s stories, objects, and spaces typically associated with women, such as domestic spaces and ornamental and ‘crafty’ objects. By investigating and making space to retell and interpret stories, images, and understandings from my own family history and broader related Canadian history; I have engaged in a process of reclamation of history, community, and my own Jewishness.   

I Will Relate to You, Meichen Waxer, installation at FENTSTER, 2024. Photo: Brittany Carmichael

KC: What was the inspiration for I will relate to you, your new installation in FENTSTER’s window gallery space?

MW: FENTSTER and The Ontario Jewish Archives have partnered to present an installation derived from my research and my family’s story about their lives in the north and how they supported themselves through their work and community. 

With the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, I spent the last few years deeply entrenched in my Bubbie’s journals, where she tells and retells my family history in a very lively and conversational style. She passed when I was 12, and both her absence and presence have marked my life. She writes about her childhood in Cochrane, Ontario, and, along the way, accounts bleed in from what her own Bubbie and her mother and aunt told her about the establishment of the Jewish communities in northern Ontario. These accounts prompted me to seek out others to try to fill in a broader understanding of the ‘north.’ 

I Will Relate to You, Meichen Waxer, installation at FENTSTER, 2024. Photo: Brittany Carmichael

KC: The exhibition is also a collaboration with the Ontario Jewish Archives. How did archival research inform the project?

MW: I met with other former residents and their descendants to learn about their memories and associations with the Jewish-Canadian north. I spent time up north at the Northern Hebrew Chevra Kadisha (the region’s only active remnant of Jewish life), and at the Ontario Jewish Archives, where I could connect with images of my family I had never seen before. 

For this installation, I’ve chosen to focus on my family’s general store and, by extension, the other stores established and run by Jews in the north. The first family store, which grew into Perkus Limited, began out of necessity. A recent widow (at almost the same age I am now), my great-great-grandmother opened the shop to provide for her family and community. This work brings together a constellation of borrowed objects, images, metaphors, and members of my own local Jewish community to share this history and, by extension, lesser-known immigrant histories. 

Waxer’s installation is inspired by the general store – Perkus Limited – started by her great-great grandmother in northern Ontario. PHOTO: J. Perkus & Co. General Merchants, Cochrane, ca. 1910. Ontario Jewish Archives, item 1608.

KC: This is a very personal project. How did reading your grandmother’s journals and connecting to the community in Northern Ontario contribute to the installation?

MW: I had in my possession the journals for about 20 years before deeply delving into them as an inspiration. During COVID-19, I had an existential crisis about my artwork and realized there is more value in speaking directly than focusing on all the forces of erasure, masking, and assimilation. As a queer femme woman and intercultural Jew, I am sensitive to what it means to pass [be seen as straight, assumed not to be Jewish], and explore this in my artwork. My explorations have included revisiting objects and images from my past and broader cultural history to tease out unseen or overlooked Jewish and queer stories. 

This project was a conscious choice to move in a new direction, and one that centered love, my love of my Bubbie, and of all the generations and people whose personal resilience and choice to come into community together to work to sustain their remote lives in Northern Canada. This sense of togetherness and resourcefulness was channeled into how I approached this project and the community that developed around this work in a bigger way. I often use memory as a theme or starting point in my work to weave together personal and broader perspectives, and this installation for FENTSTER challenged me not to rest on the previous difficulty I had faced in locating my own history. Within an assimilative and heteronormative culture, I have felt both queerness and Judaism obscured in relationship to the environments I am familiar with. I’m interested in expanding and diversifying what queer and Jewish histories, stories, and materials could be. I appreciate how exploring lesser-known Jewish history that I am a part of actively carves out spaces for other under-told histories, past, present, and future. 

Embroidery in progress for I Will Relate to You, 2024. Photo: Meichen Waxer.

KC: As part of the production for the installation, you have been inviting fellow Jewish creatives to help you embroider a large canvas. Apart from the help creating the labor-intensive embroidery, what has this informal collaboration given to the project?

MW: In my Bubbie’s journals, she captures the day of my great-grandmother’s (her sister’s) wedding, calling it a ‘community’ affair. She writes, “Like bright butterflies, women with covered dishes of food hovered above the table seeking the most advantageous spot for their treasured recipes.” Touched by this image of community, women’s collectivity, and care, I reached out to the women and queers in my Jewish community to embroider together. For several afternoons and evenings, I sat with my friends, teaching some to embroider, and refreshing my skills with others who were more adept at textile arts. We chatted about our lives, good and tough times, and, of course, about our grandmothers.

I delicately stitched in golden thread from my Bubbie’s weaving supplies so she could be threaded into these moments and the work. Within the butterflies is a single dragonfly. When I first went to Krugerdrof and came to my great-great-grandmother’s headstone, there was a dragonfly on the headstone. The whole time I spent walking the cemetery, the dragonfly stayed. The dragonfly, like my friends coming together to stitch are some of the magical ways the spirit of connection and collectivity has resonated through this work.

I Will Relate to You, Meichen Waxer, installation at FENTSTER, 2024. Photo: Brittany Carmichael

KC: What else are you working on right now?

MW: With the support of the Toronto Arts Council, I’m continuing to work on researching the Jewish communities of the north. My next project will be focused on the distance and remembrance surrounding the Jewish cemetery in the north. I will cast approximately 100 small stones in bronze that I collected by the river near Northern Chevra Kadisha Cemetery (also commonly called Krugerdorf by the community members). This cemetery is the last active space of Jewish history of Northern Ontario. It is also personally important to me since my family members were the first to be buried here. Through the project, I will offer to the descendants I have come to know from the Northern Jewish communities a bronze stone.  I will place the originating stone at the headstone of an ancestor of theirs buried in Krugerdorf. This part of the project acts as a conduit for memory and connection, a way for those unable to visit Krugerdorf to stay connected to their family, the cemetery, and the history of the “Jewish north.”

KC: What is inspiring you in Toronto right now?

MW: Since November, FENTSTER has also been hosting “Gatherings in Difficult Times” for Jewish creatives.

It goes without saying that life has been difficult since October 7th. It has been challenging to straddle many different public spaces and situations while wishing for an equitable, human rights-centered, and peaceful path forward. It has been invaluable to have a safe space that does not assume political and personal positions and allows for and fosters community healing and resilience. Personally, I have built a lot of community through these gatherings and have been better able to navigate polarizing spaces and conversations.    

Grandmother’s journal entry. Courtesy of Meichen Waxer.

KC: What other Jewish creatives should we know about?

MW: Na’ama Freeman! A thoughtful emerging curator who is also the kindest and was one of the curators for I Will Relate to You

Brittany Carmichael. An amazing photographer; get your headshot done by her. Also, a descendant of the north!

Noah Gano a poet with the most delicate and thoughtful soul. 

KC: What’s inspiring you Jewish-ly lately?

MW: Standing Together (not just Jewish but a collaboration with Israeli-Arabs). Their message of shaping shared society and pragmatic peace is one that I am deeply inspired by. 

KC: Who are your creative Jewish role models?

MW: Babs and my Bubbie

KC: If you could have Shabbat dinner with anyone, who would it be and why?

MW: Again Babs and my Bubbie. I would just want to listen. I think they’d get along, both fashion icons. But more so, both so sensitively attuned to history, story and the human connection. If you’ve read Bab’s 970-page (or listened to the 48+ hour audiobook) memoir, you’d agree.

KC: Lightning round question!

  • Raisin vs plain challah? Plain
  • Poppy seed vs prune Hamantaschen? Prune
  • Tiffany Haddish vs Fran Drescher? Fran
I Will Relate to You, Meichen Waxer, installation at FENTSTER, 2024. Photo: Brittany Carmichael

Meichen Waxer is a queer visual artist, curator, and arts worker living in Toronto. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from Emily Carr University of Art + Design and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Ontario College of Art and Design University. Meichen has exhibited her work nationally and internationally and is currently exhibiting at FENTSTER Gallery, Toronto. Artist residencies have included Treignac Projet, France; Anvil Centre, New Westminster and Halka Sanat, Istanbul, Turkey and Turkish Cultural Foundation Fellow. Meichen is the Co-Director and Co-Founder of Arts Assembly. Arts Assembly is a community-focused arts organisation that emphasizes artistic collaboration, discursive research, and reciprocal exchange.

www.meichenwaxer.com 
instagram: @_near_far_ 

I Will Relate to You

APRIL 25 – SEPTEMBER 23, 2024
OPENING SIDEWALK PARTY | JUNE 23 | 3 – 5 PM

FENTSTER, 402 College Street,
Visit FENTSTER @ Makom day & night

An artistic ode to the general stores that sustained a family and the unlikely Jewish communities of northern Ontario

A new multi-layered exhibition mines one family’s experiences and archival treasures to explore the little known story of Jewish life in northern Ontario beginning in the early 1900s. Toronto-based artist Meichen Waxer has been recuperating a relationship to the place where her family traces its roots in this country – the small Jewish community of Kirkland Lake. For the FENTSTER window gallery, she creates a striking installation informed by accounts in her late grandmother’s journals and inspired by the general goods store that her great-great-grandmother started. The installation is accompanied by a history exhibition on the onetime Jewish communities around Kirkland Lake featuring images from the Ontario Jewish Archives.

Presented by FENTSTER and the Ontario Jewish Archives with the support of the Kultura Collective. Curated by Donna Bernardo-Ceriz, Naama Freeman and Evelyn Tauben

FENTSTER (Yiddish for ‘window’) was established in 2016 as an independent window gallery in downtown Toronto presenting site-specific, installation-based work connected to the Jewish experience. Since then, FENTSTER’s activities have moved into other areas to catalyze critical community-building conversations through exhibitions, programs, and gatherings, reaching a wide and international audience. FENTSTER is currently collaborating with No Silence on Race and Shoreline Collaboratives on a new initiative commissioned by the Ontario Arts Council called SHVILIM, focused on enhancing the visibility of Jewish culture in Ontario’s arts landscape while supporting the arts sector to address antisemitism.

Founded in 1973, the Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre (OJA) is the largest repository of Jewish life in Canada. The OJA’s collections span all segments of Ontario’s Jewish community, including families, businesses, cultural organizations, and synagogues. These records date from the community’s earliest days in the province in the 1850s to the present. The OJA supports a wide range of researchers through its vital work. Through exhibitions, programs, research assistance, and walking tours, the OJA tells the stories of Ontario’s Jewish community. You can find us online at ontariojewisharchives.org 

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