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.
I watched a large jackrabbit hopping along the sidewalk as I drove down Dewdney Avenue in Regina. “It’s a commonplace occurrence,” said my friend Amber Phelps Bondaroff. We hadn’t seen each other since we were students at NSCAD University in 2007. Since then she’s been travelling Canada and the US, and recently finished an MFA at the University of Regina. She introduced me to Amber Goodwyn, another jack of all trades who organizes the Queen City Walking Distance Distro, a free artist-multiples delivery program that anyone can subscribe to. For the past two years, the Queen City Walking Distance Distro has organized biannual releases, with the contents varying from zines to posters, music and more. In editions of 40 or 45, the multiples are sealed in envelopes and delivered by Goodwyn or volunteers.
While we talked, Phelps Bondaroff and Goodwyn described the arts scene in Regina: a small and tight-knit community where everyone attends each other’s events, and plenty of collaboration occurs between different artistic fields. Since there are often only a few events happening at once, it’s not unusual for projects to receive media attention, which, in a bigger metropolis, can be a rarity. “When you live here your community is obvious, there is no searching for it like there is in a bigger city,” said Goodwyn.
For the past five years, CARFAC Saskatchewan has hosted a mentorship program that invites established artists, curators and critics to visit and talk with Regina and Saskatoon’s local artists. This year, the organization’s recently appointed executive director, Wendy Nelson, and past executive director, Jennifer McRorie, turned it into an inter-city crossover where Saskatoon artist Adrian Stimson visited Regina and Regina-based curator Michelle LaVallee visited Saskatoon.
At the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Stimson showed a range of work, from his days as a student to current projects like his ongoing Buffalo Boy performances and public-sculpture commissions. A member of the Blackfoot Nation, much of Stimson’s work looks at Indigenous identity, playing on and parodying racial stereotypes. His work also deals with the symbology of the bison, an animal that once roamed North America in the tens of millions and was nearly hunted into extinction by the turn of the century. I thought about Stimson’s talk as I drove through the Prairies towards Saskatoon; the land is so flat that the curvature of the earth almost becomes visible, and, while beautiful, there is rarely any untouched habitat. So much of this region has been turned into industrial farmland.
Before I left for Saskatoon, Phelps Bondaroff admitted (with her tongue slightly in cheek) that she has city-envy for Saskatoon. Larger than Regina, Saskatoon is rich in large trees. Early in the century, the city was home to a large government-supported tree nursery, where settlers could order trees to protect themselves from harsh weather conditions. It’s a beautiful city, and I stayed with Lynn Hainsworth, a retired environmentalist whose sister, Val, had been introduced to me at a small party in Sudbury only days before. She recommended that I stay at her sister’s home rather than a hotel.
The city is home to AKA Artist-Run and Paved Arts, two artist-run centres that share a large two-floor centre. The galleries’ directors, Tarin Hughes at AKA Artist-Run and David LaRiviere at Paved Arts, led me through the space. The building features a large, outdoor billboard for temporary public artworks. When we stepped outside to look at it, Hughes mentioned that it’s her favourite thing about the building. Edward Poitras’s Don’t Speak, a black-and-white archival image of a group of residential schoolgirls with multi-coloured thought bubbles, was exhibited on the billboard. “Shhh…Don’t Speak,” says one of the thought bubbles, while some of the others are left blank. This work, along with Bear Witness’s installation The Ultimate Warrior on the main floor and Dana Claxton’s Revisited, were part of the 20th-anniversary celebration for another Saskatoon based artist-run centre, Tribe Inc., helmed by Lori Blondeau. Tribe Inc. is a nomadic organization that finds different hosts for their exhibitions and projects.
Before I left AKA Artist-Run and Paved Arts, I met Derek Sandbeck, a local artist hired by AKA Artist-Run to work on a project. He told me about a collectively run non-profit art space he belonged to called BAM (Bridges Art Movement) located down the street. We walked there and he showed me the space, a storefront gallery that was showing works by University of Saskatchewan printmaking students, with a couple floors for artists’ studios in the back. The collective had only been there a year—the building’s landlord, Sandbeck told me, wants to tear down the building at some point. This is one of the only reasons they could move in. The occupants are given six-month leases with an unpredictable future.
Later that evening I headed back to AKA Artist-Run and Paved Arts to attend Michelle LaVallee’s talk. LaVallee is the MacKenzie Art Gallery’s associate curator, a role she stepped into as a young Toronto-based artist, who had worked as a curator trainee at an Indigenous arts organization and joined the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective. LaVallee noted that she is constantly learning about curatorial best practices and Indigenous methodologies within her work. During her talk she discussed her interests in the intersection between non-Indigenous and Indigenous identities and shared histories (LaVallee is half white and half Ojibway, belonging to the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation at Neyaashiinigmiing). Last winter, LaVallee co-curated “Moving Forward, Never Forgetting” with David Garneau at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. The show brought work from the gallery’s collection together with newly commissioned work by Indigenous artists and allies to grapple with Canada’s history of assimilation and cultural genocide.
I left Saskatchewan after spending the morning with Lynn Hainsworth at the Saskatoon farmers’ market, where we ate fresh pike pies (a variation of a chicken pot pie) and saskatoon-berry pastries. Although I only knew her for a few days, Lynn loaded me up with food for the road, which I brought to share with my Edmontonian hosts, who were awaiting my arrival.
This article was corrected on July 29, 2015. An earlier version erroneously stated that Saskatoon is twice the size of Regina.