Wiebe, Shirley


Outdoor Site-specific Installation
August 12 – September 18, 2005
Artist’s Talk & Opening Reception: Friday, August 12, 3 PM



Underpinnings is the title of a site-specific installation inspired by Dawson City’s beginnings and by its current reputation as a site of living history.

Among the throngs of men who came north to seek their fortunes in the late 1890’s were a small number of spirited women. Some of them turned to prostitution as a means of survival, and the town of Dawson soon marginalized them to an area across the river known as Klondike City or Lousetown.

Recent historical writing examines the role of prostitution in the Gold Rush era in a wider social context, and what it meant to the community and its economy. These women had the reputation of
being gold diggers for ‘mining the miners’, yet shrewd business practices were only part of their character. There are also stories of their compassion in caring for miners who were sick, and in
performing the role of nurses at a time when medical attention was scarce or unavailable. In the spirit of adventure in which many of these women left the confines of social restriction in the south and east, Underpinnings acts as theatre for social memory, as a gesture to embody a sense of their imagined past and their fragile yet indomitable existence in a northern frontier town.

The form of the corset is utilized to acknowledge the significant role of Dawson’s pioneer women in the early settlement of the town. The installation consists of a series of large-scale two-dimensional forms based on corset patterns of the late nineteenth century, a time when corsetry production, fashion and design was at its zenith. Two different types of screening materials were employed to create the forms, one of which was discovered locally.

The installation is suspended between widely spaced clusters of tree trunks in a secluded ravine that forms a natural divide between two historic properties. There, the mesh-patterned torsos hover between church and state – the Anglican Church on one side and The Commissioner of the Yukon’s residence on the other. Dignified turn-of-the-century architecture and formal landscaping stand in sharp contrast to the lush uncultivated vegetation that lies between. The mud-bottomed ravine is part of the Yukon River water table and its own level fluctuates in direct response to the rivers.

Ministers of religion and politicians have both been influential in determining the politics of sexuality. With Underpinnings posed in this setting, the ravine and the architecture collectively allude to the fundamental nature of desire and to a social order’s efforts to dominate and restrict it. 


Shirley Wiebe is a Vancouver based sculptor and installation artist. She was born and grew up on a farm close to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. As a young child, she observed her father Peter’s relationship with the land he farmed. In this environment, she was his constant companion, free to roam, discover and revisit particular places in the surrounding prairie that felt distinct and compelling. This residue of place is carried within and continues to inform her work.

Shirley creates temporary installations as interventions in the landscape. There is an emphasis on creating work that is accessible to the passer-by who can discover it at any time, often in unexpected places. The work is based on an exploration of the familiar world of everyday life, the routines that support it, the materials that sustain it, and the rhythms that mark its progress. The objects and materials she brings into play are derived from an immediate cultural landscape and are typically associated with manual labour in the fields of building construction, agriculture and industry. While their original intent is subverted, the materials relate the work to our physical gestures and interactions with the natural and built environment.

Her recent work concentrates both on the land and on the interaction of a community with its environment. Shirley has created site works and private commissions in a number of landscapes and communities in the Pacific Northwest and has recently completed her second public art project for the City of Vancouver. She has been awarded art residencies with the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture in Dawson City in the Yukon, and with the Department of Agriculture at the University of British Columbia Farm in Vancouver.

Shirley Wiebe Links

Westcott Bay Sculpture Park
Landscape as Muse
Arts in the Meadow
Bellevue Sculpture Exhibition
Julie Leung on Arts in the Meadow
Public Art Registry – City of Vancouver