The stunning set of 18 portraits that line the Humboldt and District Gallery walls bears a weight and depth of story that defies description. Carol Wylie’s exhibition “They didn’t know we were seeds” is the culmination of years of work, travel, interviews and introspection about the lives and histories of her subjects. Wylie talked about the works at a Gallery event on Saturday, March 9.  

The project juxtaposes the experiences of two very different communities of people, but they are two communities that have walked a common pathway of persecution and intense hardship. Wylie spent time with Holocaust survivors, whose numbers are dwindling, and residential school survivors sadly whose membership is expansive.  

The exhibition is an examination of survival and trauma for survivors and their families in the wake of both Holocaust and residential school internment. Following the discovery of graves near the sites of residential schools, Wylie attended a service for Holocaust survivors at a Saskatoon synagogue, and it occurred to her the parallels that people had experienced, even though the residential school structure had been established as a “final solution” years prior to the Holocaust.  

As a portrait artist, Wylie thought she could shine a light on the lives and experiences, and the subsequent intergenerational trauma, by talking to survivors and capturing the essence of their stories in her portraits.  

“When I started the project, I was calling it my survivor project for a long time, not really thinking about what I’d title it,” explained Wylie. “I was scrolling through Facebook one day and one of my Facebook friends had posted this proverb, ‘they buried us; they didn’t know we were seeds.’ I thought that represented so beautifully the experience of these people who had been buried under oppression and abuse. Out of that darkness, they had grown lives full of light and life, and education, and full of family.” 

Given the low numbers of holocaust survivors on the prairies, Wylie trekked to Toronto to meet and speak to the Jewish community and those remaining individuals about their lives during and after the years of the horrific experience. While some were challenged to talk about those days, others were candid. Their words are subtly embossed in the dark backgrounds of some of the portraits. Those are the only words accompanying the works. The rest of the experience is translated through the hues and textures of the portraits themselves. The philosophy of withholding the verbal stories is simple, said Wylie. 

“I didn’t want to tell individual stories because they weren’t my stories to tell; they were their stories.” 

Wylie also made it clear that the exhibition was not an exercise in comparing the events or the life experiences in any tangible way. Rather she was looking at the inherent connections that dwell within those experiences.  

“I was looking at individual trauma and the connections between people and how they experienced oppression and abuse, and that it all equalizes us. We all experience it the same way regardless of what the oppression has been, regardless of what the exact experience has been, and regardless of who we are as individuals. There’s going to be that pain and that traumatic memory that we pass on to the next generation.” 

Through her work with the Remai Gallery in Saskatoon, she came to meet residential school survivors, some of whom have gone on to become authors like Louise Halfe and Augie Mirasty or educators like Gilbert Kewistep, all of whom have their portraits painted in the exhibition. 

Carol Wylie’s exhibit is open now at the Humboldt and District Gallery.