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Reviews / January 21, 2020

Creation

Sylvia Nickerson, Drawn & Quarterly, 192 pp., $24.95
Sylvia Nickerson, <em>Creation</em> (excerpt), 2019. Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly.
Sylvia Nickerson, Creation (excerpt), 2019. Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly.
Sylvia Nickerson, <em>Creation</em> (excerpt), 2019. Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly.
Sylvia Nickerson, Creation (excerpt), 2019. Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly.

The boundlessness of imagination and fantasy meet the restrictions of physical limits and socio-economic oppression in Creation. Based on Sylvia Nickerson’s experience as an artist and new mother in Hamilton, this graphic novel conveys multiple foreclosures of possibility and of property. It also evokes the twinned strangeness and concreteness of making life and love in a toxic, grief-filled landscape. Here, destruction and arts-driven gentrification pervade most shiny claims to the “new.”

“I used to know things. Things I learned from books. Things I read in school. Now what I know are our bodies, and these streets,” the narrator states, spending hours pushing a stroller to kill time. On long walks, the narrator starts to also know the mix of love and rage, emptiness and fullness, utopia and dystopia that make up both the city and the family of which she is part.

Nickerson’s detailed drawings copy activist street posters: “evict the scum,” “welcome to the art district,” “revitalization = gentrification = rising rents = displacement = class war.” One drawing reproduces a food bank’s hours sign, indicating how restricted access is to this community resource. Another spread illustrates Hamilton as “an urbanist’s utopian fantasy,” complete with “restored Victorian architecture,” “chandeliers,” “DIY art spaces,” “exposed brick,” “counter-cultural consumption,” “lattes,” “vintage fashion,” “Apple products,” “craft beer” and so on. That spread is followed by one illustrating a different reality collecting weekly on the narrator’s lawn: cigarette butts, loans-past-due notices, the ends of food-bank bread loaves, empty medication bottles.

In one of my favourite scenes, the narrator tries to soothe a crying baby in front of a store sign proclaiming, “You can do anything in Hamilton.” Apparently the sign’s creator never had to quiet a colicky child, or steal away from an art event to breastfeed (the latter being another scene depicted in the book).

Most of the characters in Creation are rendered as smooth, featureless figures. I read into them exhaustion, dissociation and loss of identity, and the sense of being a ghost unto one’s past self. But keeping visual detail focused on the settings, rather than the actors, adds useful emphasis on the phenomena Nickerson is trying to address, like structural oppression, addiction and poverty.

City landmarks repeat across many pages. This repetition evokes cycles of seeing the same sights every day while also pointing to how a landscape can become a spectre of itself, haunted by dreams and crisis, waterfalls and waste. A shattering of lit and unlit worlds, and a mixing of their shards, is another visual motif. The veil between life and death can be thin when one is the primary caregiver for a vulnerable human being—and the vulnerability of other folks, whether strangers or not, can resonate more intensely then too. “In loving, we give our power away,” observes Creation’s narrator. And power—social or individual, biological or psychic—remains a haunting element, for me, in this complex and richly ambivalent read.

This is an article from our Winter 2020 issue, “Antimatter.”

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor of white settler Canadian (Irish and Ashkenazi) descent. She is also content editor at Canadian Art and has written for the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications. Sandals welcomes tips, corrections and comments anytime at leah@canadianart.ca.