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Unique exhibit features Mennonite women of yesterday and today

Lori Penner

Mennonite Women Evolving starts tomorrow at the Manitoba Heritage Centre Gallery as part of the CANVASs exhibition, and features the works of two local artists, Gail Sawatzky and Bev F. Friesen.

The two women describe themselves as very different, but with a lot in common.

Both are Mennonite in culture as well as in faith, and were born and raised in and near Altona.

Both are married and farm with their husbands.

They were both born in the 60's when art was not emphasized in the schools.

Although they had loving families, they were not encouraged to pursue art as a career as it was considered more of a fun hobby, and not something that could truly earn a living.

Both women admit to playing the Mennonite game, and to their delight, have discovered they are related - second cousins once removed, through marriage. Sawatzky and Friesen became friends through art and have traveled to various art events together in the past few years. This includes two-week workshops in La Crosse, Wisconsin and in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and one week workshops in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Besides these occasional workshops, both artists are primarily self-taught.

The differences lie in their personalities, mediums, preferred subject matter and painting styles.

Friesen's medium is oil while Sawatzky's favourite is acrylic.

Sawatzky prefers to paint landscapes and abstract while Friesen favours figures and portraiture.

Both are interested in the past lives of Mennonite women and the journey that brings them to today.

The hardships, the rules, the traditions, the beauty are what they strive to portray, in both their own interpretations. "This exhibit, in a loosely defined timeline, displays how the roles of Mennonite women have evolved through the years," Sawatzky says.

She says the research required for the paintings, such as hunting for old photos accompanied by stories, was a process they both thoroughly enjoyed.

The 39 pieces on display will feature Mennonite women from the 1800's to the present day.

There will also be a number of landscapes and still lifes illustrating places and objects that played a large role in the lives of these women and their faith. Most of the pieces will be for sale.

Gallery curator Ray Dirks says the exhibit prompts him to think of his mother, aunts and grandmothers living within the German speaking Mennonite culture and faith.

"I can smell buns baking and see aprons, Sunday hats, purses clutched by gloved hands, and enough polyester to make me grin with a great affection broadened by time," he says.

This is the fourth exhibit stop for Mennonite Women Evolving. The exhibit runs from March 11-April 30. Opening night begins at 7:30 p.m. The Manitoba Heritage Centre Gallery is located at 600 Shaftesbury Blvd. in Winnipeg.

Gallery hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Sawatzky and Friesen's work can also be seen at and