Category Archives: History

The Architect’s Apprentice

Tonight my book club at the West Kildonan Library will be discussing The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak.   Shafak, a Turkish author,  says her book was inspired by this image of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent which has an elephant in the background. The print created in 1559, during the same time period as the events in the book, is by a German artist Melchior Lorck and is in the British Museum.

Here are four things I found interesting about the novel The Architect’s Apprentice. 

Cristofano dell'Altissimo portrait of Mihrimah Sultan

Mihrimah Sultan is the protagonist’s love interest in the book.  Here she is portrayed by Italian artist Cristofan dell’Altissimo who lived at the same time as Mihrimah did.

Although the protagonist Jahan is a fictional character author Elif Shafak has populated her novel with other characters who are real.  Jahan is an apprentice to Sinan the renowned architect of the Ottoman Empire. Sinan oversaw the building of some 500 structures and nearly 200 of them are still standing. Jahan’s love interest is the Sultan’s daughter Mihrimah. She is a historical figure as well. So are the three sultans who are in power during the time Jahan serves Sinan the Royal Architect. In one section of the book Jahan and another apprentice go to visit Michelangelo in Italy. 

the architect's apprentice book coverThere are many thought provoking reflections in the book.  Here are a three I really appreciated. 

“If you carry a sword, you obey the sword, not the other way round. Nobody can hold a weapon and keep their hands clear of blood at the same time.”

“……Jahan understood his master’s secret resided ……… in his ability to adapt to change and calamity, and to rebuild himself, again and again, out of the ruins. Sinan was made of flowing water. When anything blocked his course, he would flow under, around, above it, however he could; he found his way through the cracks, and kept flowing forward”

“Stones stay still.  A learner never.” 

another edition cover of the architect's apprenticeJahan’s closest relationship in life is with an elephant named Chota. Jahan arrives in Istanbul as Chota’s keeper and immediately sets about saving Chota’s life.  I am not necessarily a big animal lover and will admit that I’ve never understood the deep love some people have for their pets, but I was quite taken with the way Jahan and Chota care for one another, know each other so well, come to one another’s defense, respect each other and provide each other with solace and comfort at crucial times. 

posing at the taj mahalAnd finally at the end of the book Jahan travels to Agra India to help design and build the dome for the Taj Mahal.  I have been to the Taj Mahal and my husband made me pose for this photo where I am appearing to hold up the magnificent structure by the top of the dome. 

Other posts……..

The Taj Mahal At Dawn

Do Buildings Have Souls?

A Story Board in a Painting




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The Perfect Novel For Me

madonnas of leningradMy friend Marilyn recommended The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean and it was the perfect novel for me.  I am an art gallery tour guide and so is Marina, the main character in the book.

trucks leave the hermitage in 1941

Trucks filled with artwork leave the Hermitage in 1941

Marina is a docent at the Hermitage Museum.  During the siege of Leningrad in 1941 all the canvases in the galleries are taken down, and shipped away to the Ural Mountains to be hidden from the approaching German army. The Hermitage walls hold only the paintings’ frames. Most of the museum staff have left their homes and taken refuge in the basement of the museum.

hermitage hall during seige

One of the gallery halls during the siege

In order to preserve her sanity Marina begins walking through the galleries and looking at the empty frames.  She remembers the paintings that once hung there and begins to describe them in detail, making the artworks come alive even though they are gone.  

The museum housed many, many paintings of the Madonna and it becomes especially important to Marina to remember how these art pieces look once she realizes she is pregnant. Her fiancée is on the battlefront and she doesn’t know if she will ever see him again. Near the end of the novel she is describing one of these Madonna paintings by Raphael to a group of young boys.  Even though the painting isn’t there she makes it real for them. 

the holy family by raphael hermitage

The Holy Family by Raphael – Hermitage Museum

“This is a wonderous painting because Raphael took these mythical characters, the Virgin Mary and Joseph and the Christ Child and he reimagined them as real people in an actual family. It is a rather melancholy painting. On one side we have Mary. She is beautiful but very distant and unaware. And quite apart from her is Joseph. He is much older than Mary and leans on his walking stick and looks almost frail. Between them standing on the mother’s lap is the Christ Child. He’s a mama’s boy. He is eyeing Joseph fearfully and his arms are reaching out to his mother. Joseph has an expression of resigned disappointment, a father whose child rejects him for the mother. One doesn’t notice the halos at first but they are there fine as piano wires. It’s almost as though Raphael was saying that what sets them apart from any other family is almost invisible. They might be us.” pg. 221 and 222 of The Madonnas of Leningrad.

What an eye and a way with words Marina has!  She is an inspiration to all guides as we try to make art come alive for the people we take on our tours.  

Other posts………….

A Book Takes Me Back to Rome

Thinking About Mothers at the Met

The Family of Jesus Portrayed in a Controversial Way

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The Great Statue Debate

I am a regular columnist for The Carillon newspaper based in Steinbach.  Here is last week’s column. 

Steinbach just might have it right when it comes to public art. Have you ever noticed there are no statues of people in Steinbach?  I commented on that in a column I wrote in 2006. I had just spent a week in Savannah, Georgia a city full of statues of famous folks.  

anna shilstra

Anna Schilstra was Steinbach’s first female doctor in the early 1900s.

I came up with a list of people who had lived in Steinbach and might be good subjects for a statue- everyone from Anna Schilstra one of the first female doctors in Canada to Miriam Toews the celebrated author.   

Reading about the controversy regarding the recent removal of Sir John A. MacDonald’s statue from the front steps of Victoria’s City Hall I’ve rethought my suggestion that Steinbach should have statues of people. Probably the city has saved itself from lots of controversy that way.  


The legacy of Sir John A. MacDonald is a complicated one.

The conflict over the removal of Sir John A. MacDonald’s statue is intense.  In Saturday’s Free Press, columnist Niigaan Sinclair voiced support for the statue’s removal and received over a hundred online comments. Most responders disagreed vehemently with Sinclair and made angry statements, some fairly racist in my opinion.

There are many Canadians who stand in solidarity with Victoria’s mayor Lisa Helps who after lengthy consultation with British Columbia indigenous leaders decided our first prime minister’s role as an architect of the residential school system was grounds for having his statue removed from such a prominent spot.  Other Canadians were livid about the statue’s removal and agreed with Toronto Star columnist Gwyn Dwyer who wrote a 2015 piece suggesting the country of Canada wouldn’t even exist without Sir John A. MacDonald. Dwyer admits our first prime minister had faults and made many errors but believes his enormous contributions need to be recognized.  

I am sure the controversy about statues of Sir John A. MacDonald will be an ongoing subject for debate as his role in Canada’s history continues to be re-examined. 

louis riel st. boniface statue_1024

The original statue of Louis Riel caused lots of controversy

Statues can cause lots of headaches. When it was finally decided in 1970 that a statue of Louis Riel should grace the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature an expensive artwork was commissioned.  It showed Louis Riel with his face contorted in anguish. His body was naked and twisted.  Artist Marcien Lemay who created the statue said he wanted to show Riel as a martyr who had suffered for his people.

The statue caused a great deal of controversy when it was unveiled. Some people thought it was ridiculous to spend so much money on a statue of someone who had been mentally unstable and had been responsible for the murder of Thomas Scott. Many other people however found the rather grotesque statue an insult to both Louis Riel and the Metis people. They said Riel had been a great statesman, the founder of Manitoba and his statue should reflect that.

legislative building louis riel statue

A traditional sculpture of Louis Riel now graces the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature.

In 1994 the offensive statue was moved to the grounds of St. Boniface College and a new more traditional statue of Riel erected on the river front side of the legislature grounds.

Artwork can invite honest dialogue and inspire important conversations about values and perspectives but it seems statues of people are often the cause of ugly conflict. Perhaps Steinbach has saved itself lots of headaches by having different kinds of public art. 

love for learning sculpture steinbach

Love of Learning Sculpture- Steinbach Cultural Arts Center

There’s a colourful sculpture at the Cultural Arts Centre about an idea.  It is called Love of Learning.  And then there is the sculpture of that giant car which pays tribute to one of the city’s bedrock businesses. As far as I know they haven’t caused any controversy. Steinbach just might have it right when it comes to public art.  

Other posts……..

Agnes MacDonald’s Railroad Adventure

A Century is Only a Spoke

Time to Stop Honoring People With Statues? 

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Things Are Changing

sent to residential school

Part of the heritage mural at the Upper Fort Garry Park in downtown Winnipeg that shows indigenous children being taken away from their parents to residential school.

Just over a decade ago I was teaching grade ten and eleven English at the Steinbach Regional Secondary School.  For one reading assignment I gave my students some memoirs written by residential school survivors.  For most of them this was their first introduction to this shameful part of Canadian history. Many of my students were shocked.  “Did this really happen?”  they asked me in disbelief. 

insurgence:resurgenceI led tours for more than a hundred teens during the recent seven months long Insurgence Resurgence exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.  It featured indigenous artists from across Canada.  The nature of some of the art pieces on display led me to ask the junior and senior high students if they had heard of residential schools.  Without exception they all had, and most could tell me about their devastating legacy.  The young people on my tours knew far more about indigenous history and culture then I ever would have growing up in Canada in the 1950s and 60s and far more than teens knew even a decade ago.  

I realize we have a long way to go to achieve real truth and reconciliation but things are changing.

Other posts………..

Bold and Beautiful

Another Shameful Chapter in Canadian History

So Disappointed


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Filed under Art, Canada, History, Winnipeg

She Persisted

she persistedI’ve just added She Persisted Around the World to our church library.  The book written by Chelsea Clinton and illustrated by Alexandra Boiger tells the stories of thirteen women from around the world who persisted despite all kinds of barriers placed in their way.  marie curieSome of the women are familiar like Marie Curie twice awarded the Noble Prize for her discovery of two new scientific elements. She persisted despite the fact she had to leave her home country to study.  j.k. rowlingAnother familiar woman is English author J.K. Rowling who persisted in writing her award winning series of Harry Potter books despite being rejected by dozens of publishers.  caroline hershelOther women featured in the book are not so familiar like Caroline Hershel an astronomer who discovered two planets.  She persisted in studying astronomy even though her parents thought she should try to get a job as a servant.  Sissi lima do amorAnother woman I hadn’t heard about before was Sissi Luna do Amor one of the first women to play soccer professionally in Brazil.  She persisted even though she got in trouble for wanting to play because she was a girl.  viola desmondThere is even a section in the book about Canada’s own Viola Desmond who persisted in retaining her seat in the “white” section of a movie theater even though she was black. 

Elizabeth_Warren_2016“She Persisted”  is the famous phrase directed at American Senator Elizabeth Warren when she insisted on reading a letter from Coretta Scott King to the Senate as a way to defend her objection to the appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General.  Sessions had an abysmal record on civil rights which had previously prevented him from being appointed as a federal court judge.  The Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell called for a vote to silence Senator Warren. He said he had no choice because she wouldn’t listen to him. “She persisted” he said and kept reading the letter. The phrase “she persisted” has quickly come to refer to women’s persistence in breaking barriers despite being silenced or ignored. 

kate sheppard

Kate Sheppard who persisted in getting the vote for women in New Zealand.

There are so many interesting women profiled in She Persisted Around the World and they come from every continent and every area of endeavor.  I think the book will be an inspiration for everyone who reads it and not just children, but adult as well.

Other posts……….. 


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Filed under Books, Childhood, History

Getting Involved at the Human Rights Museum


me and nelson mandelaOne of the things I really liked about the Nelson Mandela display at the Canadian Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg is the way it provides the visitor with a variety of experiences to draw you into the story of the fight to end apartheid in South Africa.

south africa park benchYou can sit on a park bench clearly labeled For Europeans Only and read information about what it was like for a black woman to work as a domestic servant or a black man to be a miner in Johannesburg. Photos show how they were given unsanitary cramped living quarters and made to wear an identification bracelet with a number assigned by their employer.

mandela cellYou can stand in a cell like the one where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for twenty- seven years. As silhouettes of Nelson appear on the walls you almost feel like you are with him on Robben Island where he was imprisoned because of his activism and leadership in the anti-apartheid movement.

interview room mandela exhibitYou can sit on chairs in a secret hideout and watch Nelson Mandela do a television interview with a British journalist at 2:00 am in 1961. nelson mandela interviewMandela had gone underground after been convicted of treason for his peaceful protests against apartheid.

apartheid postersYou can make a poster.  A display features a whole variety of posters that helped to advance the ideals of the anti-apartheid movement. posterOn an interactive board you can choose from many different options to create a background, wording and illustrations and create an anti-apartheid poster of your very own. If you take a photo you could even print up your poster at home.

mailbox mandela exhibitYou can write a letter.  As you leave the display you watch young South Africans share their hopes and dreams for the future of their country.  After being inspired by what Nelson Mandela did to bring about change in his community you have the opportunity to write a letter saying what you will do to change your community for the better. Letter writing paper, felt markers and even colorful envelopes are available and once you have written your message you can either keep it or ‘mail’ it to the world in the mail slot provided.

letterThe Nelson Mandela exhibit is informative and thought-provoking and provides opportunity for hands on involvement.  Since experiencing the exhibit I’ve been thinking a lot about how the South African colonizers knew ending apartheid would also end their comfortable and successful way of life. Their story reminds us that people are always susceptible to following their basest instincts of self-survival and self- promotion even if that damages others and is not fair or ethical.  Sadly it is still a timely message in our present day.

Other posts……..

Images of Apartheid

An Inspiration

Not the Harlem I Expected



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Images of Apartheid

I went to the Humans Rights Museum to see the new Nelson Mandela exhibit.  There are images there you won’t easily forget. This wall of signs illustrated how whites and blacks were segregated in everyday life in South Africa. This public notice about relationships between whites and non-whites reminded me of Trevor Noah’s autobiography Born a Crime.  Noah grew up in South Africa. He and his black mother had to walk on the opposite side of the street from his white father when their family was going somewhere so no would suspect his parents had a relationship with one another. This armoured truck was used by the South African government in the 1980s to stop apartheid protesters.These are the coffins for some of the victims of the Sharpville Massacre. In March of 1960 thousands of people protesting apartheid practices went to a police station in Sharpville, South Africa. The police fired into the crowd killing 69 people and injuring nearly 300 more including some thirty children. Today March 21 is a public holiday in South Africa to commemorate this massacre. 

I felt so proud of Canada as I watched this video.  Stephen Lewis, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1988 describes a ground breaking speech Brian Mulroney, Canada’s prime minister made to the United Nations that year. Mulroney declared that his country would impose tough economic sanctions on South Africa unless they changed their apartheid policy.  The United Nations assembly rose to its feet to applaud Mulroney at the end of his speech. Of course the exhibit tells visitors all about the important role Nelson Mandela played in ending apartheid in South Africa and includes his famous 1962 quote……”I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Other posts………

Born a Crime

Racism Pure and Simple

Bear Witness



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