Cathy Mancuso helps bring War of 1812 to The Encampment

To commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812, the people at the City of Toronto and Luminato decided to go big.
To that effect, the City and the festival have commissioned a 200-tent installation on the grounds of Fort York, each tent representing a different civilian who lived in York during the war.To make it happen, organizers needed people.One of the 100-plus artists involved in the installation of The Encampment, which opens Friday, is Oakville artist Cathy Mancuso.

“I really loved the whole process. It’s been challenging in lots of great ways,” she said. “Typically when I do artwork, I’m sitting in my house and try to come up with ideas and work on my own inspiration. It was really nice to be challenged beyond that, to step out of my comfort zone.”

The Encampment was created by Thom Sokoloski and Jenny-Anne McCowan, commissioned by the City and the Luminato festival. It features 200 A-frame tents, each one 9 by 9 feet in size.

The exhibit is open to the public until June 17, free of charge, in the evenings. Each tent has a lamp inside to enable people to see the artwork. The objects inside each tent are a representation of one person, created by one of the collaborators (volunteers such as Mancuso).

To get involved in the project, Mancuso answered an open call for collaborators and was interviewed before hand.

“My interest was really piqued because I like history and I like art and I like the format that the sculptures are in,” the 47-year-old said.

However, not every collaborator is an artist. Mancuso said she’s met musicians, historians, EMS drivers, young people and the not so young people working on the project.

Like many of the collaborators, Mancuso was asked to produce two tents. The creators had done research on people who lived in the community during the War of 1812 and each collaborator was able to pick out whom to work on from a story bank. The collaborators were also asked to do more extensive research.

After picking whom to work on, each collaborator had some guidelines to follow about their creation. They weren’t allowed to spend any money on the projects, so they had to use whatever they could find.

“We had to think about what would it look like when they stepped outside of their door, where would they get their groceries, those fine details that really helped the process,” Mancuso said.

Though the production is meant to commemorate the War of 1812, it is not about battle.

“There were many more civilians around, the women, the businessmen, the First Nations people. This is really their stories,” Mancuso said.

Mancuso chose to do projects on two women: Elizabeth Russell and Mary Warren Baldwin. The two were friends.

Elizabeth was the half-sister of Peter Russell, who was the receiver general in York. She came to stay with him in Canada when her parents died in England.

“She was pulled away from everything. She lost everyone. Her parents died and then she had to leave her friends and everyone she knew behind and was brought up into Canada. She then continued to lose people,” Mancuso said.

“I was really interested in her personal story. She didn’t have any big events necessarily but this is her story of how she survived, and how horrible it would be to be dragged out of life in England and plopped here and fighting hordes of mosquitos and the environment here.”

The woman was mentally unstable, likely dealing with depression, Mancuso said. So the tent explores the woman’s fragility. Mancuso used an old barrel that she took apart and reassembled in a different shape, to represent that the woman was a survivor and kept everything together, even though things may have been in shambles. Mancuso also went to where the woman’s home had been in present-day downtown Toronto and found a feather on the ground that she incorporated into the tent creation.

The other person Mancuso worked on was a daughter of the then well-known Mancuso family. At the time of the war, Mary was 21 years old. Whereas her friend Elizabeth’s diaries revealed more of her mental anguish, notes of Mary’s life were more about her surroundings. The woman described having been lost in a Niagara forest with her family and spending a night inside a native chief’s home. The woman talked about having to deal with hordes of mice and other pests. The woman was afraid of animals, but they were necessary for survival.

Mancuso tried to show the contrast between the beauty of the forest and the difficulty of living in it and has incorporated fir trees inside the tent.

The artists were asked to come in for occasional workshops in Fort York, but otherwise Mancuso was able to work on her projects at home in Oakville. But the workshops have given her a chance to work with and see parts of the creations of other people.

“It was really nice to work with people from really all walks of life,” she said.

“I really can’t wait to see what this is all going to come together as. Even though we’ve been working together a little bit, it’s going to be such a surprise to see it all come together and look through everyone’s installation.”

The Encampment was seen previously in Toronto in 2006, in New York City in 2007 and Ottawa in 2008.

The Encampment will be open from 7:30-11 p.m. People can also bring a picnic between 5 and 7:30 p.m. to take part in a social exchange outside the fort’s walls. Fort York is located at 100 Garrison Rd. in Toronto.

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