An Innovative, Multi-Sensorial Exhibition Exploring Human Nature in the Landscape of War through Floriography, Sculpture and Scent

Edmonton, Alberta – During the First World War (1914-18) Canadian soldier Lieutenant-Colonel George Stephen Cantlie picked flowers from the fields and gardens of war-torn Europe, pressing and drying them within a book. Every day, he sent one flower home, along with a short, affectionate note to one of his children, including his one-year-old baby daughter Celia in Montreal, so that, as she grew up, she would have something to remember him by in the event he didn’t survive that terrible war.

Flash forward. A century has passed, and with it all living memory of the First World War. But Cantlie’s letters and flowers have been saved and ultimately passed to his granddaughter, the late Elspeth Angus in Montreal, who lovingly preserved them in a special red box. And that’s where, six years ago, a Canadian filmmaker, Viveka Melki, to her utter amazement, first encountered them, speaking to her from the past, and the germ of an idea was born in Melki’s mind.

Now, more than one hundred years after he picked the flowers, Cantlie’s touching wartime ritual can be experienced anew in WAR Flowers – A Touring Art Exhibition, opening January 31 at Edmonton’s Borealis Gallery, located in the Alberta Legislative Assembly Visitor Centre, and running through May 3. Admission is free to the public.

“WAR Flowers”, developed by exhibition curator Melki and produced by Les Jardins de Métis/Reford Gardens (Alexander Reford, director) in Grand-Métis, Quebec, is an art show presenting Cantlie’s original century-old preserved letters and flowers. But that’s only as the starting point. From them, Melki has created a multi-sensorial, emotionally-involving vision of the effects of war on all who experience it personally. The exhibition provides visitors with a unique, immersive experience centred around Melki’s intense personal belief in the resilience of the human spirit.

Melki has reinterpreted ten of Cantlie’s flowers using floriography, a Victorian-era method of communicating meaning and emotion through flowers, to tell a larger story of human nature in the landscape of war.

As conceived by Melki, the exhibition is comprised of ten stations, representing ten of her core beliefs about the nature of war. Each station showcases a different flower picked by Cantlie and draws on his wartime letters, exhibited publicly for the first time. Actual artifacts of the First World War era complement each station.

Each station also profiles ten Canadian men and women of The Great War era, each of whom exemplified, through their personal stories, one of curator Melki’s ten core beliefs about war. WAR Flowers features John McCrae, Georges Vanier, Elsie Reford, Jean Brillant, Talbot Papineau, A.Y. Jackson, Percival Molson, Julia Drummond, Edward Savage and George Stephen Cantlie. The links between these individuals provide diverse perspectives on the Canadian contribution to the war effort.

For each station, optical crystal sculptures created by award-winning Toronto-based artist Mark Raynes Roberts portray scenes that illustrate different aspects of human nature, while original scents at each station, created by Magog, Quebec, olfactory specialist and perfumer Alexandra Bachand, evoke memory.

Other members of the WAR Flowers creative team are Céline Arseneault, botanist and librarian for over three decades at the Montreal Botanical Garden, who oversaw the conservation and mounting of the fragile 100-year-old flowers and letters; Normand Dumont; the exhibition’s designer, who transformed Melki’s creative vision into a unique, sensory and physical reality for exhibition visitors; Marie-Claire Saindon, the exhibition’s music composer; and Claude Langlois, creator of the sound montage.

Complementing the exhibition is the dedicated website, featuring profiles of the artists who created the elements of the show and offering behind-the-scenes access to the design process.

“I am thrilled that WAR Flowers is continuing its national tour at the Borealis Gallery in Edmonton”, said Alexander Reford, director of Les Jardins de Métis/Reford Gardens in Grand Métis, Quebec, who produced the exhibition. “From its first stop at Les Jardins de Métis, this exhibited has wowed audiences at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, in Toronto, at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France and, most recently, in Montreal. The power and the force of the exhibition is visible in every station and in each of the stories that brings to life an important moment in our nation’s history.”

The exhibition is presented at Borealis Gallery from January 31 to May 3, 2020 and is the sixth and latest stop for the exhibition that began in June 2017 at Les Jardins de Métis/Reford Gardens in Grand-Métis, Quebec, and then travelled to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Campbell House Museum in Toronto, the Visitor Education Centre of the Canada National Vimy Memorial in Vimy, France and, most recently, Château Ramezay Historic Site and Museum in Montreal. Wherever it has been shown, the exhibition is a tremendous popular success, eliciting an enthusiastic and emotional response from visitors.

Following its exhibition in Edmonton, WAR Flowers will move in the Fall to the Museums of Mississauga in Mississauga, Ontario.

WAR Flowers – A Touring Art Exhibition is produced by Les Jardins de Métis/Reford Gardens, and made possible thanks to the generous support of Canadian Heritage, and with private support from Air Canada, TD Canada Trust, 78th Fraser Highlanders, Drummond Foundation, Hay Foundation, Jack Herbert Foundation, Jackman Foundation, Molson Foundation, Montreal Council of Women, St. Andrew’s Society of Montreal, WCPD Foundation, Zeller Family Foundation, and many individual donors.

The Borealis Gallery is situated within the Alberta Legislative Assembly Visitor Centre in Edmonton. Since opening its doors in 2015, it has presented 15 world-class art and heritage exhibitions. Admission is free to the public. The Gallery is open Monday – Friday from 10 am – 5 pm and Saturday from 12 noon – 5 pm.

For interviews and further information about WAR Flowers – A Touring Art Exhibition, please contact:
Jeremy Katz,
Publicist, WAR Flowers – A Touring Art Exhibition
Office: 416.656.6970; Cell/Text: 416.997.6970

About “WAR Flowers” curator Viveka Melki
WAR Flowers – A Touring Art Exhibition curator Viveka Melki (pron. ViVEKa MELkee) is a Canadian filmmaker and screenwriter. She has lived, worked and travelled in cultures where repressive regimes are dominant. From these experiences are born her projects around conflict – and the capacity of the human spirit for resilience. Reflecting on the subject of war, she says: “My goal as an artist is to tell history using the tools of our time. Our voice as artists in this era is unique. How we look at history, our understanding of the past, determines and defines the attachment to that story by audiences today. I bring my film experience into all my work so, in the end, I am a storyteller. I always ask one question when looking at Canadian history – what did it feel like? And if we can capture a fraction of that and bring you into that experience, then we have succeeded.”

Born in The Gambia, West Africa of Brazilian/Lebanese descent, and educated in the UK before immigrating to Canada, Melki sees the world through a multicultural lens. In 2014, she directed the two-part series War Correspondence (Radio-Canada, RDI). Her feature-length documentary After Circus (2015) received acclaim after screenings at several North American film festivals, including Hot Docs in Toronto and the Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal, as well as at the prestigious Sunny Side of the Doc Festival in La Rochelle, France. It was broadcast across Canada on CBC’s documentary Channel in June 2016.

Melki makes films within Canadian Francophone culture as well. Her 2017 documentary Carricks: dans le sillage des Irlandais (Radio-Canada & RDI) tells the tragic story of Irish immigration to Canada in 1847, and the Francophone-Irish diaspora in Canada.

Viveka is currently working with the New Chapters Canada Council for the Arts on her new docu-animation, Alouette, about the Asia-Pacific experience during the Second World War. She is also directing a new docudrama feature, “The Fence”, on the Battle of Hong Kong, to be broadcast on documentary Channel in 2020. She is the founder and owner of Melki Films.