Jeff Thomas at Oakville Galleries

Oakville Galleries in Gairloch Gardens is a contemporary art centre located in a former estate house on the shore of Lake Ontario. At night it is abandoned; only sensors and alarms are activated to protect it. Occasionally however, artists will stay in the creative isolation of the upper recesses of the house. There, they design art projects that engage the building's ambience and expose the house's singularity in broader terms. These ephemeral works, preserved in catalogues through photos and critical writing, add to the enchantment that inspired the landscaping and architecture of the estate long ago, since Gairloch Gardens was created as a picturesque lookout, a retreat and a restorative space of private reflection.

An initiative to branch-out from this rarefied environment took shape last year under the programme title Site Scope, which invites a guest to live at the Galleries for one month, during which he or she must venture out each day to explore their surroundings. The series of three residencies each year are designed to connect Gairloch with its neighbourhood and region. Each guest creates a Web project that charts his or her process of discovery. It was launched in October 2003 with the visit of art critic John Bentley Mays. Through on-line essays he probed the idealizations of domestic security and small town life that he found to be at the root of Oakville's identity. Interviewing its residents he raised questions critical to the town's future as it faces re-definition through the invasion of settlement from the Greater Toronto Area. His inquiry focussed on the notion of community as it is interpreted out of a yearning for security and continuity. The essays show how the town's investment in Neo-traditional or New Urbanism town planning, and its privately commissioned domestic architecture, translated this collective desire into image.

Jeff Thomas, awarded the second Site Scope residency in March 2004, continued the investigation into the ways that images are used to define a sense of place. Oakville is no different from any small town within a large metropolitan zone; its residents' constant shuttling between home, work, recreation and school undermines a settled existence. The cost of the frenetic pace and widening radius of individual activity is a loss of identification with location and community. This place-less-ness is compounded by the generic nature of residential development dominating the landscape.

To offer the town an expanded vision of itself, Oakville Community Foundation has developed Heritage Trails Oakville. These marked trails, punctuated with information kiosks, knit together the chapters of the town's history as it is connected to geographic features within its municipal borders. This form of story telling, based on cultural and natural heritage, is designed to be absorbed by crossing the physical terrain of the municipality. As the particulars of each locality strung together by the trails evoke a scene or chapter of history, the motion of every-day life evokes a heightened awareness of place.

Through the magic of Internet, Heritage Trails Oakville can also be read as a picture story or "image trail" in the sedentary comfort of one's home. This has the added advantage of offering a global reach to local definition, broadcasting the Town's control of its economic and historical destiny.

The themes of pilgrimage, trails, destination and destiny linked to images of history were the entry point forJeff Thomas, a First Nations, street-based photographer, to undertake the challenge of creating a Web-based project that correlated movement and story-telling with a search for cultural identity in the landscape. His work interacts dynamically with official narratives of history, and often exposes the role of monuments in entrenching a colonial presence.

An an artist, writer and curator, Thomas is a field worker in image-rich environments. Calling himself an Urban Indian, he lays claim to the city as a First Nations's New World. In the flux of the streets, manufactured images travel and are mixed and re-mixed. Within this synthetic environment the artist scouts for Indians -- catching the enduring cultural type in all kinds of symbolic situations. Through his camera he "talks back" to these embodiments of colonial mentality by inserting a witness, a token First Nations's attendance at the scene. The resulting image activates a new, relational identity for the monument: it is repossessed to serve as symbol of the Urban Indian's power to discourse with, and define, his environment.

In penetrating a landscape a trail is created. In a digital image database, an image trail connects a subject or topic represented in sundry collections through specific search terms. Jeff Thomas has worked with the digitized collection of the National Archives of Canada to open up the meaning of archival images of indigenous peoples. Creating on-line exhibitions, he offers identities and relationships erased through the images' assigned interpretative role within the collection. The subjects of the portraits, collected as objective, anthropological finding, are set free to offer testimony to their descendants.

Scouting for Indians, a survey of the photo-based art of Jeff Thomas was presented at Oakville Galleries in Gairloch Gardens from January 31 to April 4, 2004. In meeting him at the outset of his residency I suggested that getting lost might be the only way to encounter afresh a place that was already highly defined. I had not understood that being lost is one of the primary conditions that Jeff Thomas confronts through his art. While in the project's introduction he asserts that his journey is open-ended -- a photographer's chase of the transient moment -- it is nevertheless firmly directed toward locating himself and his past, in the landscape.

Jeff Thomas's journey is guided by officially designated site markers of First Nations history in Southern Ontario as listed on the Web through such sites as Oakville Heritage Trails. Scanning roadside inscriptions and signs, he also confronts the mythic Indian presence in the formulations of place-identity and the branding of such zones of tribal preserve as the Mississauga Country Club. Around him, the fluid commuter circulation reflects the wash of suburban development engulfing Southern Ontario. The car stretches his perimeter as a street-based photographer from the confines of the city to the distended urban environment known as sprawl. In the suspended place of a solitary car journey he recognizes the feeling of in-between-ness that emerged from being transported back and forth as a child from the duality of the reserve and the city.

Throughout the journey, Jeff Thomas actively works with the dual landscapes of the Web and the physical world. The virtual trail of his journey is hyper-linked to networks of history plaques and Web-based Heritage trails. His travel itinerary is formulated around geographic points marked to offer historical outlook on the First Nations presence in the region. These take the form of plaques, museums or, in the case of Crawford Lake, the recreation of a settlement. Thomas elaborates upon and adds to this system through marking new historical outlook points with the aid of his camera and a toy Indian. Meanwhile, the mythic Indian pops up insidiously as the journey's visual refrain, appearing on signs for streets, clubs, harbours and businesses. As his day trips radiate his search outward from Oakville, Jeff Thomas returns to his family origins in the Six Nations reserve. While he was born and raised in Buffalo, he and his reserve-born parents are members of the Onondaga tribe that make their home together with other Iroquoian populations in Six Nations. There, the nature of the Thomas documentation is adjusted to closer conversation and affectionate observation of details. In fact, these black and white images date from an earlier period of his practice; they are images of memory. One senses that this world, for the artist, is assumed and integrated -- in a word -- whole.

Looking back on the journey, one realizes that, like a good storytellers' delivery, it is not linear and sequential. There is no narrative arc with a climactic conclusion but a circular, repetitive consideration of the territory. The trip is in the cumulative process of relationships formed with each way-stop and destination site. The search is not for an Arcadian pre-contact, pre-conquered past but for the story of adaptation that has marked First Nations's cultures from the outset.

Teresa Casas
Head of Public Programmes
Oakville Galleries

For further information or to receive a print-out copy of this on-line project please contact Teresa Casas at (905) 844-4402 x 23

Jeff Thomas at Oakville Galleries