Maria Whiteman’s basement studio is full of animals. There are photos of pickled pigs and deer in jars, stuffed birds perched on stands. A film of a hand caressing a taxidermy bear plays on her computer. Her two dogs, rescued from the Edmonton Humane Society, flop onto blankets and steal pencils from the drawing table.
Whiteman, an assistant professor of art and design at the U of A, submitted that short film to the Toronto Urban Film Festival (TUFF). It was accepted as one of about 60 one-minute-long silent films the festival is currently showing on 300 televisions in Toronto subway stations.
“I always thought the festival was such a great idea, so I thought I’d just apply and see what happened. I sent two films, and was thrilled when they accepted the bear film. They get about 500 applications from all over the world,” Whiteman said.
The film, viewable here, is an exploration of humans’ relationships with animals.
“It’s about touching and the idea of caring for animals,” she said.
“There are whole rooms full of these stuffed mammals, and a lot of them are just left there.”
Whiteman worked with the curator in charge of the taxidermies of mammals at the Royal Alberta Museum and created a total of 16 short films of her hand touching different animals, like owls and deer, in addition to the bear featured in the TUFF film.
Whiteman has also taken still images from some of those films and converted them into photographs for the upcoming Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art exhibition at the Art Gallery of Alberta.
“I love the relationship between video and photography. Stills are not quite the same as photography; there’s movement, motion,” she said.
Whiteman was originally interested in marine biology as a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University. That interest evolved into studying the native animals and landscapes around Hamilton, Ontario, while she was teaching at McMaster University.
“There’s always an ongoing relationship between one body of art and another for me,” she said.
“I’ve always been fascinated by our connections to animals, both emotional and psychological.”
Whiteman has experimented with photographing the pickled animals held in jars of all sizes at the University of Alberta’s zoology department. She takes her students there to draw the animals they have in their collection.
“There’s something about seeing those animals through the barrier of the jar that I find really neat,” she said.
Whiteman has also been involved with art that represents Alberta’s oil sands, and recently organized an exhibition called Petrocultures, which featured the work of four former students of the undergraduate art and design program at the U of A and one master of fine arts graduate student.