Paule Kelly-Rhéaume

Do You Know What I Did That Summer? My Summer with Snow

Paule Kelly-Rhéaume reminisces about a summer spent digging through boxes at the AGO’s E.P. Taylor Library & Archives, as the 2016 Digital Special Collections Assistant. She was tasked with creating a finding aid for the latest accrual to the archives of the late seminal Canadian artist Michael Snow.

archivist with glasses in a room surrounded by latptop and boxes of papers

Me at my workstation, archival boxes to the right. Behind me, faithful laptop and piles of files patiently awaiting sorting.

In the summer of 2016, I moved back to Toronto.

For the blissful weather and a stint at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s archives

It did not involve murder, nor Sarah Michelle Gellar.

No. That summer, I spent bundled up in Snow. The capital “s” kind.

The Michael Snow kind.

From June to the very end of August, in a supremely air-conditioned room, knee-deep in Snow’s paper trail, I sifted through boxes and boxes of faxes, printed emails, scribbled notes, exhibition postcards, the occasional photograph and letter from the artist’s beloved Québécois mother, noting the content of each folder, its date, what it pertained to and the major players involved.

This is called arranging and describing a fonds, a collection of someone’s possessions given to an archive. In the course of this endeavour, you produce a finding aid: a handy document listing everything that can be found in the 38 boxes the late artist Michael Snow donated to the AGO at that time.

There I was, surrounded by all his things. Paper paper paper, remember that? File folders in red, pink, yellow, green and beige. Sporting titles like “Letters and many amazing things: NY 1960s and 1970s.” Or “Arnolfini” (a Bristol gallery), “Australian Tour” and even “French Television.” Each holding a smörgåsbord of correspondence, from pamphlets, press releases, maps, airplane tickets, restaurant recommendations for Austin, Texas, to curious word collages from his friend Paul Haines (Canadian poet and father of Metric singer Emily Haines).

Huddled in my cocoon, formally known as the Edward P. Taylor Preservation Laboratory, I became a prime witness of the passage of time. Privy to the running gags, scribbles and back-and-forth conversations about receiving and sending the print of a particular film from the distributor, say Canyon Cinema in San Francisco, to a museum in Europe, I saw an artist’s trajectory shaping before me.

stack of art books video art an anthology, bill viola, deep storage and the michael snow project
A pile of extra copies of art books for inspiration while I worked.

3 smiling people at a table outside in the city eating from plates of BBQ
Paule delightfully accompanied by esteemed colleague librarian Larry Pfaff and volunteer Vanessa Lameche, at the 2016 annual AGO summer BBQ.

You could say I also became intimately acquainted with my laptop, a – gasp – PC, during this process. Memorising the various ALT codes needed for French or German accents. Beaming sillily at the screensaver of upward-floating bubbles in bubblegum colours that would magically appear after I’d step out into the hallway to munch on a crumbly muffin or nibble on a peach. 

No sad desk lunch for me.

Yes. You could say it was a summer of peaches and Snow and gradual defrosting as I ambled along towards Chinatown and Kensington Market, marvelling at the endless midday dining possibilities.

But, always, I returned to my boxes, like a moth to light; their entrails had become my little paper friends. Plus, it’s not like I was left to fritter away at the rate of non-archival grade paper: I was periodically rescued by my dear colleagues (and the just as dear volunteers!) at the Library who punctuated their visits with jovial conversation about Proust, the mechanics of reupholstering furniture and luscious-sounding trips to the Bahamas.

By the end of the summer I am filled with a sense of Snow.

I become familiar with a wry sense of humour, Snow’s affection for his mother and her grand piano, his tilted but legible handwriting, addresses and institutions, extinct and still-running festivals and a whole cast of characters who, at some point in time, crossed paths with Snow one way or another. 

Reading the invitations, perusing the announcements, deciphering handwritten drafts of books yet to hit the presses, laughing at a friend’s pun on words, imagining the scene at an opening, it’s like being more than fashionably late to a dinner party – I’ve missed all the fun. 

“let’s have a drink together in grenoble” reads a certain lower-case email subject line, from the year 2000. “I hope that we can amicably meet when I’m in LA.” goes the note to Connie Butler, recently appointed director of MoMA PS1, regarding an article in C Magazine. Et tout bon fax se doit de se terminer par “et bonne chance à Victoriaville” (provenance: Pierre Théberge, 12 mai 1997).

But my favourite remains: “Talk Telephonically soon,” from an email planning the 2005 MoMA exhibition, Stillness: Michael Snow/Sam Taylor-Wood.

Talk Telephonically soon

Artists’ archives, like anyone’s material trace, illustrate components of a life lived. And more particularly act as a sort of behind-the-scenes look at the logistics that get a work made. Or at least seen.

A lesson in geography, public relations and exhibition installation, processing this addition to the AGO’s Michael Snow fonds was also a lesson in learning that no man is an island. 

No artist, either. 

Turning over page after page, I discover manifestations of a career upheld, relationships forged, places seen.

The evidence is compelling, but I make sure to remind myself that the source of these is the act of living itself. Art matters. So does time. And what we do with it. 

So forget Freddie Prinze Jr., or Jennifer Love Hewitt for that matter. I don’t know what I’ll do this summer but I hope it’s worthwhile.

Even if it can’t be found in the end, in the corners of a box.


Paule Kelly-Rhéaume

Ancienne bibliothécaire en beaux-arts. Librarian and art school graduate.


AGO by Kevin Cabral, 4 July 2015, flickr.