Something to say about
women and the law

By Tasha Kheiriddin

Law Times
April 15, 2002



Despite the notion that lawyers are chained to their desks 24-7, most do manage to escape the office and mingle in the wider world. There are lawyers who sing, paint, or raise money for worthy causes. There are lawyers who leave the profession to pursue other passions, like kayak guiding (the most exotic story from my graduating class!), or, in my case, journalism. Every month, this column will bring you the story of a lawyer or group of lawyers who take their talents “beyond the bar” and bring law on a collision course with life. Ottawa’s New City Hall Art Gallery is not what you’d call a cavernous space. On this night, it feels particularly crowded as over a hundred people try to get a view of the unique art on display . . . without stepping on it. The works here are not limited to the walls — they hang from the ceiling, carpet the floor, and rest on telephone tables, inviting the audience to interact with them.

Whether it’s the pink telephones that spread messages of love, or the Black’s Law Dictionary with a hole in the middle, all the works have something to say about women and the law.
We’re at the opening night of “Bridging Visions,” an exhibit that combines feminist law with performance and installation art. The March 7 opening kicked off the 2002 biennial conference of the National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL), and was the brainchild of Ottawa University law professor Elizabeth Sheehy and feminist artist cj fleury.

According to Sheehy, there is a lot of commonality between art and law. “They are both creative endeavours that assist in organizing, structuring, and envisioning better futures. . . . The exhibit is an effort to build bridges between communities, for lawyers to find other ways to express ideas and commitments and for artists to reach into the legal community and connect with legal struggles.”

Fleury embraced the challenge. “I’ve been working with Elizabeth since the spring of 1999 on this idea of trying to develop an interdisciplinary terrain between law and art, both from a feminist perspective. . . . I’m starting to see the bigger picture, how it connects to labour and economics and international relations.

“Being an artist, I don’t have to function as a specialist and stay within my domain.”

Other artists share that view, including exhibitors Gayle Kells and Cindy Stelmakowich.

Kells depicts the legal vulnerability of the female body. She contributed two pieces, a painting of a woman’s back, and an old-fashioned girdle stuck with thousands of pins, yielding a dazzling but cringe-inducing effect.

Stelmakowich focuses on the impact of legal language on women. She punched a hole the size of an orange in the center of a Black’s Law Dictionary and suspended definitions in water, in test tubes, and a large, womb-like glass vessel.

“I started talking to female lawyers who consider themselves activists within law. They all voiced to me that the reason they were attracted to law and keep within it was the desire to change it, [including] the definitions themselves.”

Lawyers showcased their talents as well, in the opening night performance of fleury’s piece, “Hearings at the Rape Maze.” The work explores how the legal system treats women in sexual assault cases.

When the piece started, a hush fell over the audience as the mournful notes of a horn sounded in the crowded room. Then, a jury of 12 robed women filed in silently, wearing headdresses shaped like giant ears. One by one, they sang songs or recited passages from legal texts.

Lawyer, professor, and singer Llana Nakonechny chose to perform Tori Amos’ “Me and a Gun.”

“I knew she had done a song about her experience with sexual assault which had become an anthem for other women, and that Amos had donated part of the profits to support a rape crisis hotline. It intrigued me that a piece of music could have so much power and do so much good.”

Rosemary Cairns, vice-dean of the English program of Ottawa University’s common-law section, recited a quote from Bertha Wilson’s judgment in R. v. Morgentaler.

“It’s important for people who work in the law to be engaged in things that have to do with things other than the law,” said Cairns. “A lot of legal teaching is pretty dry and not particularly creative, so a chance to do these two things together was just something I couldn’t turn down.”

At the end of the night, organizers were pleased with the exhibit’s merger of art and law. According to NAWL president Bonnie Diamond, “It really brought together two communities to look at women and law and legal processes in a very new light.”

Co-organizer Sheehy shared that sentiment: “It’s a very simple bridge to build. Women working on women’s issues at some level both speak the same language. It’s lovely to create one sound with two voices.” Even if a Black’s Law Dictionary has to be sacrificed in the process.

The “Bridging Visions” exhibit runs until April 26 at the New City Hall Art Gallery in Ottawa.

Tasha Kheiriddin is the host and producer of the weekly legal affairs show Legal Talk, which airs Fridays at 8:30 p.m. on CPAC television. Do you know of a lawyer who goes “beyond the bar?” His or her story could be featured in Law Times. Email Tasha at

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