Ambrosia Salad: An Interview with Julia Prudhomme and Shannon Lester

I met with Shannon Lester and Julia Prudhomme in Shannon’s studio at UBC’s Platypus House. Inside: a cache of costumes, penis statues and Shannon’s most recent painting in progress. And Mytha, the manikin, frozen in her ‘come-hither’ stance, decked in a sheer turquoise nightgown, surrounded by domesticity. Rubber gloves on her stiff hands, and men’s underwear over her stiff arm. Cans of beer lined up on a TV tray. And where is her husband?

The first question, rightfully so, was why “Ambrosia Salad” for the exhibition title? It started a back and forward on the treat’s merits:

J: It’s a euphoric meal.

S: It’s gooey and delicious.

J: And pastel.

S: We made it for Julia’s birthday, and it’s a symbol of our collaboration-

J: A combination of everything.

S: Both of us are connected to things that are old-

J: Specifically 60’s suburban housewife sort of thing. You don’t normally see salads with marshmallows in them anymore. It’s indicative of a specific time period. It’s kind of like the Jell-o thing, putting carrots in it so it seems healthy.

S: Ambrosia is fruit of the gods.

J: It’s pretty much that if you were stuck in a bomb shelter, this is what you’d eat.

S: The sour cream is what brings it all together. It’s kind of sexual too I think: the pastel pink colours, the softness, and the gooey bits. Euphoric. And our show does deal with sexuality and gender.

Ambrosia Salad is a video/tableau installation, comprised of a compilation of objects both Julia and Shannon have collected or borrowed, juxtaposed in order to tell a story. This isn’t a new venture for them, they’ve done installations before, but they normally work in 2D forms: Julia with photography and Shannon with painting. But they told me their aesthetics mesh well together: “we both explore identity so much, and taking on personas. It’s something we both do. And we’re both interested in female characters as well. Our work overlaps in so many ways.”

“We wanted to have different layers of how to present a video,” Julia said. “Putting these domestic objects into a gallery space, but then creating something that’s almost museum-like. And that’s very much what a gallery is a lot of the time: that sort of  “do not touch” dust covered idea.”

Their show is tackling some big (and often controversial) subjects prevalent to the Okanagan Valley and its largely conservative community. Although this years Pride Week was bigger and better than ever, we’re still long strides away from equality and understanding in small cities like Kelowna. Shannon explains, “We’re kind of displaying an old idea of what a couple is supposed to be. And looking at what goes on underneath the surface.”

When asked how everything related specifically to Kelowna and area their response became a personal one:

S: It’s funny because Kelowna still seems to be in the 1960’s in a lot of ways.

J: The architecture alone. The suburbs. I think it’s definitive of the area.

S: And how conservative people are here. How they still have these strange ‘traditional’ values.

J: It seems like people hold onto these veneers that aren’t necessarily expected anymore, but they still hold onto them because that’s what they know. And these objects are indicative of that. They’ve all been found here, they all existed here for some time and people have held them or kept them for a while until people chucked them.

S: This piece is personal to me. It’s refreshing to do a piece that’s related to something very vocal, but also very personal, because part of the piece is talking about a husband and a wife… the absent husband. The secret life, and the suggestion that the husband is gay, or at least that he has a dark fantasy life.

J: It gives a different light to the obvious assumption that a couple saying they’re 100% heterosexual is ridiculous.

S: And also that a couple is automatically happy. In our culture we praise relationships and marriage and it’s what everybody wants, but the reality is it’s not quite as wonderful as everyone makes it out to be. The reality of actually being in a relationship, or the reality of being married…

I’m interested in looking at those realities from the point of view of my own parents, for example. Or, also just from my time living in Kelowna I’ve learned that there are so many married men here who don’t behave as they’re expected to. But it’s also always been expected that a married man can do whatever he wants. It’s part of the cliché stereotypical view of men, that the woman stays at home and the man can go out and do whatever he wants. And the wife just smiles and pretends that nothing is happening.

J: There has been lots of changes in society but these things are still glaringly obvious, but people still hold onto them. So what does that mean?

S: It means that we still live in a predominantly patriarchal world.

J: Exactly.

S: That hasn’t changed. Awareness has changed, and certain rights have changed, but this world is still ruled by men. I think that’s something we’re both looking at in our work, not necessarily directly. We ended up looking at different couples, like William S. Burroughs who was gay and married and he ended up shooting his wife in the head with an arrow. He went to shoot the apple from her head but he shot her right in the forehead.

And Salvador Dali, he was married but he had male lovers. It’s quite common.

J: Or subtly, Kurt Cobain used to wear dresses, it was his character with Courtney Love and they were just crazy.

S: But they’re an example of an artist couple that lived publically and out of the closet so to speak.

J: But then it still ended in disillusion.

S: And controversy. It comes down to your interest in marriage too. You’ve always said you don’t want to get married.

J: True. While I was going through the etiquette crap (some of her previous work), and we were talking about how you have these stages of courtship and you’re supposed to go along this chronological set up.

S: In terms of a final goal.

J: Which is always supposed to be marriage, and that the only way you could be happy is if you follow the rules.

S: Completion. But it’s weird because I think those rules are still very much implanted in our culture. Especially if you’re a person who watches Hollywood movies, that’s always the success story in movies: when couples miraculously join.

J: And that’s the end. That The End, happily ever after.

S: That’s the focus of our culture, that’s how you reach happiness.


Mytha, the manikin is representing the wife in their scenario, a woman starting in her role as housewife, her husband absent. Shannon set up a sad depiction of her life: “She mixes his cocktails when he gets home but he just drinks his beer, and she probably ends up drinking it on her own.” They’ve worked on creating a Stepford –type, a woman bound to her house and appliances, captured in the manikin form, a sadly “empty plastic vessel… She’s like a large Barbie doll you can play around with.”

Although the topics being explored in the show are controversial, I think it’s an important one to slog through. “Whenever you’re playing with ideals,” Julia stated in closing, “I think you’re going to offend someone.” Offending someone, though, might be the way to get people to notice.

The exhibition will run from October 20th until November 10th at The Alternator. The opening reception will be on October 26th 7pm-9pm


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