A Victorian photograph of two young girls sits atop an ornate, old-fashioned, pump organ in Annapolis Royal's O'Dell House Museum.
Who are they?
Canadian artist Jennifer Angus speculates they are the Oliver sisters — avid collectors of insects, believers in fairies — who left Annapolis Royal to go exploring in the woods one day in 1867 and vanished.
“What is interesting is a number of people have thought the Oliver girls are real,” says Angus, a 1984 Nova Scotia College of Art and Design graduate now teaching textile design at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
“Oliver is a common last name in this area.”
Angus creates a walking tour and a wonderful journey into the imagination with Lookabout, an art installation that is part mystery, part immersion in the Victorians' love of cabinets of curiosities and collecting nature and a creepy emotional experience in notions of mortality and the end of nature.
Angus draws on her own collection of 25,000 exotic insects to create patterns on the walls at ARTsPLACE Gallery that look like Victorian lace or wallpaper. (This is Lookabout's starting place where the public can pick up a passport that tells the story.)
Populated throughout the town — at ARTsPLACE, the O'Dell House Museum, Sissiboo Coffee Roaster, King's Theatre and the Historic Gardens — are glass bell jars of bugs, plant life and miniature objects; musty-looking wooden drawers full of collected insects and jam jars with insects and plant life suspended in jelly.
The ARTsPLACE exhibit, which runs to Sept. 2, inspires enthusiasm and controversy, said ARTsPLACE board member Ted Lind, the former head of education at the Newark Museum who moved to Annapolis Royal four years ago and previously worked with Angus in Newark.
“It's been quite provocative. Some people have seen it as a bug holocaust. Bugs are not killed for this; they died naturally. What Jennifer wants you to see is the beauty of these insects.”
Angus, in a phone interview from Seattle where her latest show is opening, is quick to affirm this point.
“The insects have been accumulated over nearly 20 years and are used from exhibition to exhibition. They're reused and they haven't been killed for this show.
“People have to realize if you are upset, that's fantastic. You should be. They come from a rainforest jungle, and we know how fast rainforests are being cut down,” said Angus, who has purchased from specimen dealers and collectors.
“These aren't endangered species; they're very common. They do reproduce at a tremendous rate.”
One day many years ago, when she was researching ethnic minority dress in northern Thailand, she saw a woman wearing a shawl with a fringe of green metallic beetle wings.
“I was blown away. I never realized there were beetles with this metallic sheen. I'd never given insects much thought at all.”
She learned that groups of people from southeast Asia have traditionally used insect wings and sometimes whole insect bodies as embellishments for their clothing.
Victorians also cut out beetle wings to apply to their garments as a precursor to sequins, she says.
Underpinning all of the fictional recreation of Oliver artifacts, collections and ephemera is this artist's love for the Victorian era.
“It's the age of seeing, the dawning of photography, a lot of scientific exploration. It appeals to me as this age of adventure.
“That's a very romanticized view.”
As a child in Niagara Falls, she was taken to a Victorian museum where she saw insect collections much like the ones she creates in wooden display cases that are supposed to belong to Anne and Victoria Oliver, who are represented in a photograph of anonymous people that she bought on eBay.
“The Victorians were rabid collectors and the way they arranged their collections was often esthetic. I remember seeing these arrangements of insects as patterns or forming words.”
Angus also loves storytelling and in 2013 published her first novel for young adults, In Search of Goliathus Hercules. (ARTsPLACE, open daily except for Monday, is selling her tiny, enchanting storybooks.)
“In the Victorian era, science was really popularized and there were publications that took the form of a narrative to convey scientific information. It was a heyday of science in which ordinary people were encouraged to study their environment.”
Angus and her dog Pippy spent the month of April in Annapolis Royal, which is full of Victorian architecture to create Lookabout, her first installation with more than one site.
She was anxious to work with the O'Dell House, built around 1869 and described by Lind as “a Victorian dream.”
The artist makes the most of the museum's crammed, furnished first-floor rooms by hiding bell jars and jam jars in unexpected places. Prints and patterns seem to climb out of the elaborate Victorian wallpaper.
Particularly creepy — and amusing — is a jam jar with a suspended bug that sits nonchalantly next to an empty silver toast rack on the dining table.
Angus put even more of these luminous jam jars — sensuous and repellent — in the window of the Historic Gardens.
“A lot of people have commented they look like insects in amber,” says Angus.
She came up with the idea as she worked out her story and speculated about how the Oliver girls would preserve their specimens.
“I thought: If in 1867 you were interested in science, what skills would a young woman know? You would know how to make preserves and one way to preserve your specimens is in jelly.
“It's good to eat for three years.”
The common theme in Angus's work over the last 30 years is pattern.
“As I got interested in insects, I decided to put them in a pattern on the wall, and as soon as I did, I thought, 'This looks like wallpaper,' and you have this tension between something that looks like wallpaper, a domestic space, but we never want insects in the house.”
All the bugs in her displays are from away, even the cicadas, although as one walks through town, one hears the August zing of the cicada.
The plant material, however, is local and was collected for her in the fall and then dried over the winter by Granville Ferry horticulturist Lorraine Beswick.
Angus's story for Lookabout is a mystery with little clues in objects and narrative prints.
However, she never solves it. “It's boring if you tell people,” she says. “I love it when schoolchildren come in and tell me what they think is happening. It's often wild and crazy.”