An art gallery lines the hallway between the sanctuary and the auditorium of the Niagara United Mennonite Church near Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. The art hanging there reminds viewers of God’s guidance through difficult times, including separation, loss and escape.
When the Russlaender centenary train trip stopped in Ontario in early July, about half of the participants took a tour that included the gallery and the church. The “Memories of Migration: Russlaender Tour 100” was a re-enactment of the original train trip taken in 1923 when many Mennonites arrived in Canada.
Among the pictures in the gallery is a restored painting created by Martin Klaassen, great-grandfather of Randy Klaassen, titled “Memory of Home.” Painted in 1871, it is Martin’s memory of Tiegenhagen, West Prussia, the village where he had lived before migrating to Russia. Somehow the picture survived the Great Trek, where a group of Mennonites followed Claas Epp eastward through Asia. The Klaassen family subsequently immigrated to Oklahoma in 1894 and to Canada in 1918, eventually settling in Morden, Manitoba.
“Gate to the Past” is a pen and watercolour image of the entryway to the farmyard of Hermann Dau in Eschenhorst, West Prussia. Renate Dau Klaassen crafted this image from her paternal grandfather’s life in 1978 when she was a teenager, working from a black and white photo. Dau left this home when he was drafted into the German military at the start of the Second World War. His wife, Christel, fled from there in advance of the Russian invasion in January 1945, with their six children. Renate’s father, Hans Hermann, the eldest, was nine.
“I created this image of the gate as a gift for my aunt, who would have been old enough to remember this home that she had to leave forever,” commented Renate.
Leah Klassen is a newcomer to the art gallery. She loved the idea of connecting with her ancestors and heritage through art and says her work “could be called Neo Mennonite folk art.” Most of her art is done in acrylics, and her painting “In the Garden” portrays a mother’s love for her child. Her work is inspired by her deep love and admiration for her grandmother, Katie Klassen, who came to Canada alone, without family, from Germany.
Leah also draws inspiration from her great-great-grandmother, Sarah Funk Loewen Falk (1867-1943). Relatives gifted her with photocopied images of drawings found in Sarah’s sketchbooks during her life in Russia, and the flowers and bunnies in her painting came from images in these sketchbooks.
“I was impressed by the variety of art by different artists,” commented Marjorie Wall Hofer, a participant on the Russlaender tour. “There is everything from realistic still-life and farm scenes to modern expressionism. The most intriguing were the bold, colourful interpretations of sketches from a notebook which survived the Great Trek. A mix of art I’d expect to see in a modern metropolitan gallery.”