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Orillia native's art portrays missing Ontario women

By Sara Carson, Orillia Packet & Times

Orillia's Ilene Sova has been painting portraits of 30 missing Ontario women.

Orillia's Ilene Sova has been painting portraits of 30 missing Ontario women. SUBMITTED PHOTO

For three years, Orillia’s Ilene Sova has been painting portraits of 30 missing Ontario women.

“In my 20s, I had a lot of friends in university and during my masters who ended up in violent relationships,” the 37-year-old said. “That really affected me and disturbed me.”

Since that time, the conceptual portrait painter has wanted to create pieces around violence against women, but wasn’t sure how to go about it.

“I didn’t want to paint women all cut up or beat up,” she said.

Inspiration came from watching a cold-case-file show and searching the OPP’s missing-persons database.

“I started seeing these images and became really intrigued by the idea of painting them,” Sova said. “I thought this would be a way in that wouldn’t be sensationalist.”

Sova created the large oil paintings using images from the missing women’s high-school yearbook pictures, wedding photos and family pictures.

“I’m trying to monumentalize them by using these images of when things in life were great,” she said. “They’re quite beautiful.”

Sova — who grew up in Orillia and graduated from Park Street Collegiate Institute — is now living and working in Toronto.

“My love of art came from growing up there,” she said of Orillia.

Sova has a master’s degree in fine arts in painting from the University of Windsor and works at the Ontario College of Art and Design in the department of liberal studies teaching writing.

On Saturday, Sova’s exhibit — the Missing Women Project —opened at the Creative Blueprint Gallery on Bathurst Street in Toronto.

“It’s really important to me because this is the first time the public will view my work,” she said. “I’ve been working on it for three years, so it’s a pretty big deal.”

Eighteen of Sova’s 30 missing-women pieces will be on display.

“I’m doing it to bring awareness (to) violence against women for International Women’s Day and to bring awareness to these unsolved cases ...” she said.

The 30 women Sova selected went missing in Ontario between 1970 and 2000.

“I wanted to focus on the cold cases, the unsolved, past cases,” she said.

Sova was looking for diversity when she selected the 30 women.

Along with elderly and young women, there are women of different colours and races.

“I wanted to show violence goes across all economic classes,” Sova said. “There’s sex workers, there’s also middle class, there’s runaways who lived at-risk lifestyles.”

Before she began painting the women, Sova researched each one to learn their stories and to find out who they were.

“Usually, I paint people who I know. This is the first time I was painting strangers,” she said. “I thought it would be a good idea to try to find something about their personality in the newspaper articles and in the databases so that I would relate somehow to the subject before I painted them.”

Among them is Joanne Foley of Port McNicoll. Foley was last seen May 1, 1989. She was 23.

“She was staying with friends in Port McNicoll and she didn’t return home,” Sova said. “Nobody knows what happened to her.”

Joanne’s sister, Pat Foley, had a message to share.

“Joanne, if you can hear this ... we just want you to know we love you and want you to come home,” she stated in an email.

When Sova began delving into the project, Sova found it “quiet depressing.”

“... I was learning about all these terrible situations,” she said.

Over the years, the project has turned into advocacy for Sova.

“I’ve started to try to think about it in a positive way, about creating a discussion around prevention of violence,” she said.

Sova hopes the exhibit will bring attention to the women’s cases.

“Maybe they will jog someone’s memory,” she said.

In some cases, the murderer is known, but charges have not been laid, Sova said.

“... The police and families know who did it, but they can’t convict because there is no body,” she said. “There’s a lot of cases like that.”

Sova also wants to spark a discussion about violence against women in Canada.

“... There has been a lot of focus on how women are treated in Third World countries or developing countries and yet we still have these violent things happening here and nobody’s talking about it,” she said. “I’m trying to remove the veil on that and get people talking about violence against women.”

Sova’s work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions in Canada and abroad. It has been shown in the Department of Canadian Heritage, MOCCA and, last summer, at Guadi’s Casa Batlo at the prestigious Barcelona Showcase.

In June, she will be doing a solo exhibition at Centru Mutro Gallery in Barcelona.

For more information about Joanne Foley’s case, visit

Twitter: @Sara_VRoss

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