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Who are we when memory fades? Coquitlam artist asks

Leanne M. Christie observes the rapidly changing landscape of Port Moody, and how memory plays a part in identity, in her new oil painting series "Even If I Wasn't Here."

If truth be known, Coquitlam’s Leanne M. Christie started thinking about the project a decade ago.

That’s when she returned to her home country of South Africa for a visit and didn’t recognize much. Not the benches, not the trees, not even the home she grew up in, which has since expanded.

And that led her to think about fluidity of urban landscapes and how memory shapes who we are.

“Nothing looked the same,” she remembered, “so I felt there was no way to validate my identity.”

As Christie began to process her loss, she thought about how to communicate her feelings in her art.

In 2022, PoMoArts gallery manager Janice Cotter asked the internationally recognized oil painter to mount a solo exhibition at the St. Johns Street arts facility, focusing on the theme of how our physical settings — or the removal of them — impact our being.

Last December, she began to stretch the canvases in her Chinatown studio in Vancouver to create the first of her “memory” series, called Even If I Wasn’t Here.

The inaugural phase, which opens Thursday, May 16, with a reception at PoMoArts, is split into three categories designed to capture the essence of Port Moody, the city she spends time in the most:

  • The Neighbourhood 
    • 80 10” x 10” paintings
    • five 24” x 24” paintings
    • one 36” x 18” painting
      • Port Moody’s urban and natural landscapes
  • The Zone
    • Three 84” by 72” paintings
      • exploring the changing neighbourhoods
        • each canvas is stitched using the pre-development property lines as the pattern
  • The Quiet
    • Two 64” by 96” paintings
      • showing the unchangeable elements of the environment — that is, the forests and ocean

In an interview with the Tri-City News on Monday, May 13, Christie said she sees her display as one big painting — in some cases, taking viewers down memory lane where scenes have, or are, rapidly changing.

She cites Coronation Park, an area close to her home on the Coquitlam border that will soon see more than 10,000 residents in towers (the adjacent Coronation Heights development, in Coquitlam, will double that number).

She also points to smaller anchors like a bench in Rocky Point Park, which is also undergoing a city master plan update, where she and her grandmother once enjoyed an ice cream. Her grandma died in January and Christie’s exhibit is in part dedicated to her.

Will that bench soon be a ghost, too? she wonders.

Through observation, photos and videos of the shifting landscapes over the past six months, “You realize how important the physical environment is to you because it’s by interacting with the physical environment that you bring meaning into the world and meaning to your memories, and you start solidifying those memories,” she said.

“Every time I see that bench at Rocky Point Park, I remember that moment with my grandmother and I relive all those emotions of being with her. It reaffirms who I am in the world, but without those things, who am I?”

Memory, she said, is a process of unpacking, reaffirming, reassembling and reinforcing.

“It’s not just sitting back, thinking about life,” Christie stressed. “It’s a very fundamental determination of how you are in the world and how the world makes sense. It brings stability to who you are as a person. Memory is the foundation of identity and being and moving forward. And it’s about acceptance.”

Christie said she looks forward to the public feedback, as well as the continuation of her collection.

Leanne M. Christie’s Even If I Wasn’t Here runs at PoMoArts (2425 St. Johns St., Port Moody) until July 8, 2024. The opening reception on Thursday, May 16, is from 6 to 8 p.m. There is no cost to attend.