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The Essentialists Exhibition

THE ESSENTIALISTS: material proofs in extraordinary times

Image graphics with text and background colour green


You are a force
Curatorial Statement

As an online exhibition, The Essentialists: material proofs in extraordinary times is the product of the pandemic. During our six week course, while the world outside of our non-existent classroom was under lockdown due to COVID-19, each of us has come into direct contact with a new normal that filters people, things and actions into two distinct categories: essential and non-essential. There are essential workers (health care), essential supplies (hand sanitizer and masks), and essential behaviour (social distancing). Yet, what happens to these categories when the lens zooms out — geologic time out — and the categories begin to blur, distort and dissolve? When it comes to climate change and the future of human life on earth: what do we need to survive?

According to many of us in the class, the answer is simple: a walk outside in nature.

The Essentialists explores, earnestly, and with a wink, how seismic change brings the material world back into focus. Individually and collectively, artists show us what it means to live at new distances from, and, gain new proximity to, people, places, routines, purposes, things and beliefs. Like a seed that has sprouted into a plant the concepts of “normal” and “natural” — just as materials in this exhibition — have been transformed.

In an essay called “The Force of Things,” theorist Jane Bennett, out for a walk, describes how a mix of human-made and natural items left on a storm drain including tree pollen pods, a dead rat and plastic bottle cap “[shimmy] back and forth between trash and thing — between, on one hand, stuff to ignore...and,on the other hand, stuff that commands attention vital and alive in its own right...The second kind of stuff has thing-power: it commands attention, exudes a kind of dignity, provokes poetry, or inspires fear.” (350) This exhibit has thing-power. Works in the show shimmy, too.

Clicking through the list of artist names and representations of the body, landscape and everyday objects exude humbleness, wonder and pride. New works of sculpture, painting and photography bring forth prose. Feeling-filled GIFs, video and digital media contain a mix of anxiety, distress, humour and hope.

As a witness to your creative process, I am extremely proud to be a part of this exhibition, as an experiment in separateness and togetherness, and I wish all of you the best as you move forward in your creative paths. You are a force.

Penelope Smart,

Words cited

Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter, Political Theory, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Jun., 2004), pp. 347-372 Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. Accessed: 02/05/2012 13:19.


Created during the summer of COVID-19 lockdown, The Essentialists: material proofs in extraordinary times is an online exhibition querying materials, memory and values that shape and define our human-nature relationship. Working across various media — from foraged leaves to digital video — students create new visions of life, loss and survival in the Anthropocene.


Minkyung An, Tina Fong Fiona Chan, Andy Chitty, Jessica Darzinskas, Anam Hasan Feerasta, Kristy Fung, Yujia Guo, Wesley Huang, Bisma Iqbal, Arashjot Kaur, Andria Keen, Abby Kettner, Julia Kota, Ronald Lam, Jennie Lau, Eileen Li, Griffin McAllister, Sydney Millet, Farzaneh Moallf, Cassie Pellerin, Eric Pon, Mashal Pouya, Sasha Shevchenko, Hio Lam Kylie Sio, Wei Sun, Janna Tjanetis, Hannah Warry-Smith, Yicheng Wu,Yixin Zhang, Daniel Zhou

Tutorial Lead/Curator: Penelope Smart

Curatorial Assistants: Farzaneh Moallef and Hio Lam Kylie Sio

Undergraduate Research Assistant: Angie Ma

Web Designer: Heather Evelyn

A special thank you to Dr. Pam Patterson for her guidance, dedication and vision which shaped Materials and The Anthropocene and our online exhibition.

Thank you students for your work; for your adaptability, creativity, engagement with the materials of learning for a summer course during COVID-19: screens, posts, links, join, images, texts, discussions, chat boxes, mute, unmute, readings, videos, windows, canvases, Teams. And being willing to wear a mask in Open Studio on Teams as we scoured each other’s refrigerators for objects!

A big thank you to Angie Ma for hosting Angie’s Open Studio — an online space to meet, share, and create community.

Thank you, Heather Evelyn, coordinator of the OCADU Learning Zone and our web designer, for your skills, patience and support in making our exhibit come to life.

A sincere thank you to the following people and places for your meaningful contributions to our class and digital community:

Alea Drain, OCADU technical assistance (Toronto)
Pamela Dodds, artist (Toronto)
Daniel Payne, OCADU librarian (Toronto)
Joanna Black, professor and researcher (Winnipeg)
Becky Forsythe, curator and collections specialist (Iceland)
OCADU Writing and Learning Centre
OCADU Learning Zone

Thank you Abby Kettner for originally brainstorming “The Essentialists” in our Feedback Loops.