This month I’m heading west across Canada on the Trans-Canada Highway, starting from Toronto. Although I’m tempted to call the series of dispatches I will be writing along the way a “regional survey,” the limited time I can spend in each community means that my coverage will be highly subjective—it would be unfair to consider this a comprehensive overview. Instead, these articles will offer a condensed journal of this journey, and an opportunity to recognize a few of the dedicated artists and organizers who advance the arts in these locations.
The rain poured during my entire drive to North Bay, but as I rolled into town the sky opened up and the sun blasted down onto my car. I stopped here to visit White Water Gallery, one of Canada’s oldest artist-run spaces, which began programming in 1974. As I walked into the gallery I found a familiar sight: young volunteers learning to hang art alongside staff. They were busy installing a retrospective by the duo Duke and Battersby called “Curiosity Built the Cat,” curated by Evan Tyler. The director of the gallery, Clayton Windatt, has run the gallery for the past seven years and is currently in the process of leaving, while the new director, Serena Kataoka, has already started. It was funny to watch the dynamic between the two—Kataoka has begun making the space her own by ripping a wall down that used to separate the office from the gallery, while Windatt seemed perfectly happy with the original floorplan. It was a classic example of one overworked director on their way out, while their successor jumps in, confident and ready to assume the demanding workload.
In town I grabbed a coffee with artists Duane Linklater and Tanya Lukin-Linklater, who have settled in the city. They enjoy its rural qualities and relatively close proximity to bigger centres like Toronto and Ottawa. Though neither show in North Bay very often, they actively support spaces like White Water Gallery. They were also excited about Line Gallery, a commercial gallery dedicated to drawing. They mentioned “Ice Follies,” a site-specific biennial set out on the frozen lake in the middle of winter. It’s organised by Near North Mobile Media Lab, White Water Gallery and Aanmitaagzi (an artist-run organization that serves the Nipissing First Nation and the surrounding area), who invite artists to submit proposals to work on the lake, including the individual ice-fishing huts dotted around. “It’s freezing, but it’s the kind of thing that makes it interesting to live out here,” said Lukin-Linklater. “It’s so specific to North Bay.”
The second artist-run centre I visited along my North Ontario route was La Galerie du Nouvel-Ontario, which is almost a three-hour drive from North Bay. GNO was showing video work by Montreal-based artist Maryse Arsenault. I sat down with director Danielle Tremblay and communications officer Daniel Aubin, two of the gallery’s three staff members. Tremblay has run the space for 20 years since its establishment as an artist-run centre in 1995. Tremblay is confident that the community understands the purpose of having the gallery in Sudbury—they have busy openings and local businesses are happy to offer services when needed. Aubin adds that there’s a “faithful crowd of GNO aficionados.” With their biennial Sudbury Fair of Alternative Art, the gallery also introduces the public to art in unexpected contexts: one year they invited artists to work with shipping containers, in another year they took over the Rainbow Centre, a shopping mall, and had artists make works in shopping carts. In the upcoming iteration of the fair they will fill metred parking spaces in a similar manner, engaging the public sphere and bringing artists together to work on different methods of art production.
After a long haul through dense fog with no phone service, several wrong turns and a couple of moose sightings, I wound up in Thunder Bay to visit the Definitely Superior Art Gallery (or, as the locals call it, “Def Sup”). There I met with director David Karasiewicz, development administrator Rene Terpstra and outreach administrator Lora Northway. The gallery was preparing for its annual members’ show when I arrived, so the main gallery space was full of paintings leaning against the walls ready to hang, while art collective Die Active were working in the back gallery space. Definitely Superior Art Gallery was humming with the social energy of an engaged and culturally mixed community, signalling a healthy artist-run space. Karasiewicz told me that they never do an opening without live music or performance involved in some way, while Northway mentioned that her desk can quickly be converted into a bar when needed.
Later that evening, I visited artist Shayne Ehman, finding him leaning over his patio railing joking around with the local neighbourhood kids. I brought him a box of Persians, pink iced donuts that are practically delicacies in Thunder Bay. Over the last year, Ehman has been working on stop-motion films and a solo record. I was invited to listen to the record in Ehman’s basement, where he has built a small sound booth and does his mixing. The record, Hand to Eye to Land to Sky, consists of layers of sounds, music and a disassociated narrative; it’s as eclectic and humorous as the illustration work for which he is known. Ehman explained that he gravitated toward this artistic form during the long winters when he hunkers down and gets cozy in isolation. I left Ehman’s and returned to my hotel, led by a giant plume of smoke that resembled a mushroom cloud, the product of a massive fire roaring in a timber yard on the bay, with flames reaching up into the air. The inferno was still burning the following morning as I made my way back out of the city and began heading toward Manitoba.