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News / August 8, 2019

“A Disaster that Keeps On Giving”: Winnipeg’s Art Community Rebuilds Weeks after Tragic Fire

Following a fire that destroyed years—decades-worth—of artworks in late July artists are finding new ways to continue their practices
274 Jarvis Avenue building during the fire. Courtesy City of Winnipeg/Twitter. 274 Jarvis Avenue building during the fire. Courtesy City of Winnipeg/Twitter.

Winnipeg’s 274 Jarvis Avenue, an old mattress factory, was a nexus of the city’s arts community, housing the studios of dozens of artists. When the first group of artists started using it, in October 2014, they encountered raw, undeveloped space. So they brought in lumber, installed the drywall themselves and built it up using their own resources. And they created a community where access to shared tools, knowledge and criticism was just across the hall. In performance artists Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan’s studio, they had collected every prop, costume (including the spacesuits from their Astroart Space Corps performance piece), publication and source material from their 35-year-long career. “Being surrounded by that material is the fertile ground you work in,” says Dempsey.

The 83,000-square-foot building had 16,000 square feet dedicated to studios—studios often full of flammable materials. The building was up to code, with a sprinkler system and fire doors, but that didn’t prevent an early morning fire on July 22 that was so intense nearby dumpsters in the North End neighbourhood combusted and parts of cars in the adjacent autobody shop melted. The fire burned for six hours before firefighters were able to fully extinguish it. Nothing was left but remnants of the outer brick walls. The air quality throughout Winnipeg was affected for 24 hours. The city’s fire marshall says it will take a while to know the cause of the fire with any certainty. 


Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan, <em>Astroart Space Corps</em>, first performed in 2014. Photo: Lindsey Bond Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan, Astroart Space Corps, first performed in 2014. Photo: Lindsey Bond

Artists’ entire bodies of work, art supplies, archives, research, film negatives, publications and personal items were all lost to the blaze. Some lost decades of work, like painter Steve Gouthro, who estimates he lost 49 years worth of artwork as well as family photos. The irreplaceability of what was lost weighs heavy. Dempsey says that “Some artists that seemed so buoyant at the beginning seem incapacitated now. Some can’t get out of bed in the morning.” Every day artists are realizing more and more things that were lost to the fire. Some were finishing works for upcoming gallery shows. It’s “a disaster that keeps on giving,” says Dempsey. “From every turn and every perspective, it’s horrifying.”

Other artists who lost work include Keith Oliver, Dominique Rey, Tom Lovatt, James Craig, Paul Robles, Paul Zacharias (who runs Lantern Gallery and was storing other artists works there) and Eleanor Bond. The losses are inconceivable. Lorri Millan says she has experienced a range of “incredible pain, nausea, numbness, sleeplessness” in the days since the fire.

Winnipeg’s arts community rallied support almost immediately, with a GoFundMe page set up by Border Crossings Magazine, the Winnipeg Art Gallery and Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art the day of the fire. As of August 6, 989 donors have raised $106,109 of a $250,000 goal. The money will be split between assisting affected artists and covering costs for new infrastructure.

Moncton-based artist Mathieu Léger donated to the GoFundMe campaign because he sympathized with his fellow artists’ misfortune. “I can’t even imagine how I would deal with it.” He’s held several residencies in Winnipeg and counts a number of the artists affected among his friends. A sense of Canada-wide artistic solidarity emerged following the fire. “When someone is really hurting, people want to help,” says Léger.

Paul Robles' studio before the fire. Courtesy the artist. Paul Robles' studio before the fire. Courtesy the artist.

Building manager, craftsman and artist Keith Oliver says, “If anything has come out of this tragedy it is the tremendous outpouring of concern and support from both the local and national arts community that has truly touched us.”

“It’s really overwhelming, the support,” says Dempsey. She attributes this to “a lot of can-do Prairie spirit.”

Some uplifting news came in the days following the fire. Although art studios are hard to come by in Winnipeg, they were able to find a new building with a property owner who was looking for artist tenants specifically. Oliver says all the artists from 274 Jarvis will be able to move into the new building, and they’ll be able to bring in new artists since gaining an extra 8,000 square feet in their new home.

Of course, there’s still the issue of the losses, but working together toward the future gives them something concrete to focus on, says Millan.

The fire has forced some of the artists to grapple with their artistic identity. “If we’re only artists based on the fact that we’ve produced artworks, when those are gone who are we?” asks Dempsey. Steve Gouthro is more optimistic, and looks forward to what he can create next, untethered by his past. “I don’t know whether it’s okay to justify your existence simply through what you do [for a living] but for an artist it’s a large part of it, so in that way it’s tragic. However, I no longer have any responsibility to that work, so in a way it’s freeing.”

Kelsey Adams

Kelsey Adams is an arts and culture journalist from Toronto. Her writing explores the intersection of music, art and film, with a focus on the work of marginalized creators. She has written for the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, CBC Arts, The FADER and C Mag.