Missing Zimbabwean Sculpture Changes Fran Fearnley’s Life
Fran Fearnley is the owner and curator of ZimArt, an outdoor gallery of Zimbabwean sculpture located in Bailieboro, Ontario, Canada. The first part of Fran’s tribe story was published as Fran Fearnley’s Secret Creative Goal (her goal had nothing to do with starting a gallery). In this second part, a video, Fran talks about the serendipitous path that led to the opening of ZimArt.
A transcript of the video follows if you’d prefer to read rather than listen.
Would you mind talking a little bit about how you got to this part of the process? How did you end up with a gallery? Have you done this forever?
No. I’ve had a few careers in my life. I should say that I owned this property before I started doing this, so there’s a lot of serendipity involved here.
I went and volunteered in South Africa for two years, in 1998 and ’99. And the first project I was working on – because I used to be a journalist – was at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. They sent me to Zimbabwe on assignment, to represent them at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair which used to be–I’m talking in 1998–the biggest literary event in Africa, bar none. You’d have publishers from all over the world, including Canada. It was a five day event that took place in the sculpture gardens attached to the National Gallery.
So I spent a week being immersed in particularly work from the first generation including Walter’s father, Joram, and really falling in love with the work. I added on a few days to travel around Zimbabwe to select some sculpture for myself, which I did. I took it back to the capital, handed it to a shipper and said, “Okay, I’m not back in Canada for two years, so no rush. Here’s the money. Here’s the money for the shipping”, and off I went back to South Africa.
I returned here two years later to no sculptures.
So I always say that was my first lesson in international shipping. You don’t hand over the goods, the money, and say “I’m not in a rush.” It’s kind of a fatal trio. (laughs)
So but I guess the good thing about that is that I was very distressed not to have my sculptures. So when someone I’d worked with in South Africa was in touch with me, he was curating a show in Washington D.C. of this work. It was part of a kind of South Africa Youth Day or Youth Month, whatever, celebration of art.
And then it was supposed to travel with the gallery around the States, but when they saw what was involved, they kind of changed their minds at the last minute. You’re dealing with weight issues. You’re dealing with how do you display them. I mean, having a sculpture gallery is very different from hanging paintings on the wall.
Um, yes! Especially a STONE sculpture gallery.
So I basically said, well why not ship them up here and I’ll see what I can do.
Now the work you see in Zimbabwe is always outside. That’s where the artists work. They have three national galleries. All three national galleries have outdoor sculpture exhibition spaces. And when the work first travelled to the U.K. and Europe in the 60’s and 70’s, it was always shown in outdoor spaces – in botanical gardens, in stately homes in the U.K., that kind of thing.
So I just thought, you know it would be hard for me to have an exhibition in my house anyway, so why not follow with tradition and have this exhibition outside.
So I cleared a little bit of the space that you’re looking at here because this actually was pretty much bush before I started showing the work. And I had an exhibition with 42 pieces and the response was phenomenal. People were so moved by the work, intrigued, had so many questions which, quite honestly at that stage, I couldn’t answer. And I felt the best person to answer it would indeed be an artist from Zimbabwe.
So when I decided it was worth giving this another try and going to Zimbabwe and selecting more work, I also decided that was the time to always make sure that there was an artist here during the exhibition. And that’s kind of how it all began.
Wow. Wow. I’ve often heard that a creative life isn’t planned –that it’s one step and then whatever the next step opens itself to being. That’s what this sounds like. Is that what it felt like?
Very much so.
When you look back in hindsight now, it’s “Oh, she did this, this, this and this” but it really was serendipity, wasn’t it?
When destiny has a sense of humour, you call it serendipity.Unknown
It was. And I mean I was also very open to it. When I went to South Africa, I had said, “I’m expecting that somehow this experience is going to change my life. I don’t know how. I don’t know what I’ll do when I come back to Canada. But I’m open to it really changing my life.”
And I always joke that part of the reason I went was because I was colouring my hair at the time and I wanted it to go grey without looking like ‘poor white trash’. No one would know if I were in Zimbabwe.
And the other thing is I had too many points on my driver’s license and this was a way of getting myself back to zero, and learning to keep my foot off the gas pedal. (both laugh)
Whatever the reason!
So, but I was expecting it to change my life. I just never expected it to take this direction. I never predicted this.
It transformed. Fran, thank you so much for agreeing to do this. For telling us about your absolutely outstanding gallery. It’s just such an amazing space.
Well, thank you. And I love sharing it, as you know, so this is just a pleasure.
Have you had an experience that changed the direction of your life? Please consider sharing it in a Tribe Story or in the comments section below.