Personal tragedy and loss can offer dark access to shifts in consciousness. In the deserted landscape of grief longings come asking for fulfillment. Follow A Path to the River is both a journey and body of work.

My Mennonite ancestors had established communal settlements in Ukraine in the late 1800s before fleeing to Canada’s prairies half a century later. Research and family conversations enabled me to locate my grandfather’s village, Andreasfeld in the region of Dnipropetrovsk. A historical map indicated a dot on the Dnieper River. I wanted to stand on that soil.

Six months later in 2009 I made a solo journey. A local guide and I drove past fields of red poppies outside of Zaporizhia. We eventually reached the site where Andreasfeld had been. The settlement was now under water due to the 1930’s damming of the Dnieper.

I was compelled to walk down to the river. I needed to get as close as possible. I was surprised by a concrete staircase lying at the water’s edge. Unsure how to adequately respond, knowing we had only a short time, I took photographs, stepping around the vestige, pondering this gift of my trip.

Perhaps the stairway remembers every footfall – part myth, part dream, part fairy tale. I embraced its brokenness and lack of purpose. My work is an examination of separation, displacement, identity and place. Developing ideas is a form of devotion, giving time to unseen value. The process brought me through a most difficult passage of my life but I put it away and have not fully shared or previously exhibited the work. Recent world events, especially in the Ukraine, called me back to the importance of dedicating time and focus as a form of care, and to bringing the ideas forward.

Shirley Wiebe

The Staircase Essay by Fae Logie © April 23, 2023

“Did you feel an ache for the village beneath the water when you were standing on the riverbank?” I ask.

“Yes and no,” Shirl responds, “My maternal grandparents had left the site long before the Dnieper River was flooded.”

We sit side by side in Shirl’s art studio with the window ajar. Semi-trucks gear up along Clarke Street, hauling cargo from the Vancouver Harbour to points south. Today the white painted studio appears like a gallery, an installation of photographic works juxtaposed with multitudes of drawings of various sizes, shapes, and materials. Everything is carefully curated and positioned from low to the floor to almost ceiling height. It is a narrative of inquiry imbued with a sense of timelessness.

“When did you work on these?” I ask.

“After my journey to central Ukraine in 2009. My grandparents were part of a Mennonite colony along the river, back in the late 1800s.”

Having collaborated or critiqued each other’s art for many years, I intuit Shirl’s process. Her interest is in finding unexpected encounters in the environment, places of transition and flux, and recreating a sense of “coming across it” for the viewer. Things of day-to-day life are transformed into iconographies of memory. They take shape, often using what is at hand in the landscapes, to define an ephemeral presence.


Read the full essay by Fae Logie:

Shirley Wiebe discusses her art practice and her inspirations for the exhibition 'Follow a Path to the River'