James Southard


Great Lakes Tour, Part 5: Erie

Photographer and University of Kentucky Educator James R Southard was sent on assignment to circle the Great Lakes and document artists of the region, their lives, work habits, social networking and their environment. Lake Erie was the final destination on James’ itinerary. Click on each lake name to view images from prior stops along the way: Michigan ~ Superior ~ Huron ~ Ontario.

When I was leaving Lake Ontario for Erie, I was eager to come to the final and most familiar leg of my journey. Though I had never been to Cleveland, Toledo or Detroit, I felt there would be some strong connection from my time living in a similar rust belt city, Pittsburgh. People had always spoken about the strong connections through industrial history and economic circumstances among these communities so I was expecting to show up and feel as if I already recognized the streets and people. With this preconception, I tried to set up meetings and interviews with artists who collaborate with a community. Those who work to create work that directly reflects what is going on in the rust belt. I also was curious to see if living and working in such an environment created an artist lifestyle I was familiar with from my years in Pittsburgh.

Cleveland – Kelley O’Brien met up with me on the grounds of one of John D. Rockefeller’s mansions, which is now Forest Hill Park. A place she likes to walk rather often to think about her work and the history of the city she works in, this park carries a lot of history of power and gender issues that date back to Rockefeller’s time. Kelley pointed out that, long ago, women were only allowed to leave the home if going to the park, so for her she looks back to the history of strong women challenging male societies one step at a time.

Cleveland – There is something I miss about the rust belt. It has a more practical, whatever it takes, kind of attitude.

Cleveland – Elizabeth Emery bought a house and turned the first floor into a gallery space. The second floor is her studio. It was a reminder of when work and exhibition space wasn’t too hard to come by. She loves the community that has grown up around these kinds of project spaces, though confused why the gap between east and west Cleveland isn’t smaller.

Cleveland – One of Elizabeth Emery’s storage spaces.

Detroit – In the middle of the night, I stopped by the Guardian Building to check out the Art Deco Tile, Limestone and Terra Cotta brickwork designed by Wirt C. Rowland back in the 1920s.

Detroit – While touring around Detroit, I kept hearing about the alternative art spaces. A few people have turned their plots of land in the city into outdoor art works. I stopped into one, Hamtramck Disneyland, and was impressed to find an artist group that organized after the artist Dmytro Szylak’s death, who have been working to protect and repair his work.

Bloomfield Hills, MI – Elizabeth Dizik gave me a tour of Cranbrook’s gorgeous campus and I was reminded of the art school tours I took when I visited long ago. It very much reminded me of a Hogwarts for art nerds.

Detroit – I visited Jon Brumit in Detroit while he was helping a colleague update their house so they could start hosting public art events. It seems this is rather common as there are many artists utilizing recently unused residential spaces for art events. I walked away from an interesting conversation with Jon feeling that the artists in Detroit are much more civically and economically minded than I expected.

Detroit – Jon Brumit encouraged me to go to his home studio to see his work space as well as meet his family.

Detroit – Sarah Wagner welcomed me to her and Jon’s home with pie. Most satisfying introduction of the trip.

Detroit – Sarah Wagner showed me their vast living/work space, including multiple warehouses with an onsite garden to feed the family. I didn’t expect to find such a large compound, and I kept forgetting I was in the middle of the city and not out in the country.

Toledo – My last stop was to visit Deborah Orloff at the University of Toledo, where she was working hard in the photo department while classes were out. The perks of teaching include year around access to the facilities. I had no clue the photo department was right next to the Toledo Museum of Art. It makes for a beautiful workspace. The students have quite the darkrooms and shooting studios so I was wondering why enrollment wasn’t higher. I know my own university’s dark room photography classes had smaller enrollment than our digital courses, but I felt the beautiful set up at UT would be encouragement enough.

While leaving Lake Erie, I did feel that I was leaving a place I knew well. Not that I got to know these communities in detail, after such a short visit, but it was the familial traits that I found in Pittsburgh years before. The strong presence of community project art spaces as well as art groups. That and the abundance of corner bars and diners. Hell, even the old union halls struck a few memories from my time up north. The one aspect of the area I had totally forgotten about was the activist aspect of many of the artists working and living in the area. Rarely did I find an artist who didn’t embed himself or herself in a low income or abandoned community without addressing the local concerns, people and politics through their artwork, curation or through public events. It is hard to judge how much these artists and activists actually helped their surrounding community, but I was struck by the strong amount of civic awareness I found in each meetup and it made me miss the rust belt. It made me eager to get back to Kentucky and take a closer look at my own studio practice and my own academic institution, to see how it has helped as well as detracted from my local community. 
Kelley O’Brian – cargocollective.com/KelleyOBrien
Elizabeth Emery – elizabethemery.com/home.html
Hamtramck Disneyland – hatchart.org/hamtramck-disneyland
Elizabeth Dizik – cranbrookart.edu/alumn/elizabeth-boyd-dizik/
Jon Brumit – kresgeartsindetroit.org/portfolio-posts/jon-brumit
Sarah Wagner – sarahwagner.net/
Deborah Orloff – deborahorloff.com/


Journey Summation

For years, I have been interested in learning how artists are living and working all around the country. From big metropolises to small rural communities, I have been eager to find out what my fate could have been if I pulled up stakes and transplanted myself there. I went up to the Great Lakes only knowing Chicago and Toronto from a few short visits in my youth; the rest of the tour, I was going in blind. I had never been to northern Ontario and knew little about the blue collar Canada. The only Canadians I had ever met were at art residencies. I knew nothing about the average Canadian. 

I am blown away with the diversity of the region. You have two of the continent’s largest cities full of contemporary art and people from all over the world in Chicago and Toronto. Truly international cities, while also some having of the most unknown and ignored communities in North America. In each place, I was surprised by the hospitality of each person as well as everyone’s eagerness to aid in my journey. I kept finding myself finishing an interview, answering questions about my next stop, followed by a dozen texts, emails and phone calls made by the artists connecting me with the next town or city. For every interview that fell through, five connections were made in the 11th hour, thanks to networking and recommendations that were above and beyond what I had expected. I left the Lakes feeling that I’d be welcome back for a visit with open arms. And if an artist ever wished to work up in that region, you’d find a community lacking in suspicions of outsiders along with an eagerness to draw attention to not only their own work and issues, but the concerns and successes of their own community. I wouldn’t use the word “pride” in the, “rah-rah, my home rocks” manner. I saw it more as a civic pride in a spirit of “what can I do to best represent or help my town’s issues?” It was endearing, especially when discovering that each community had similar concerns. Whether the issue was affordable studio rent prices, cost of living or even regional environmental issues, these artists were as vocal as any other citizens about the quality of life in their own towns. 

Above all, I left with an understanding that it wasn’t just one region, but many. The Lakes are one single water that links a variety of communities together. This consortium is populated by upstate New York craftsmen, Chicago contemporary performers as well as native Ojibwe metal artists in Thunder Bay and Mathematicians building logarithmic spiral instruments. Each lake is fed by a variety of different lakes and rivers from all over the northern US and Southern Canada, yet each lake also has its own unique history, weather patterns and mix of ethnicities and nationalities. All of this wondrous variety, yet I found that all artistic voices repeated similar themes on land, history and above all, the people. 


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Great Lakes Tour, Part 4: Ontario

Photographer and University of Kentucky Educator James R Southard was sent on assignment to circle the Great Lakes and document artists, their lives, work habits, social networking and their environment.

I knew that Lake Ontario includes the most populated region of Canada, so I felt that I’d be spending much of my time with contemporary artists and in fine art museums. To me, Toronto has always been the art capital of Canada as I had met so many artists working there over the years. Also, after a few weeks of being on the road for the most rural stretches of my trip I was eager to be in a metropolitan area and to catch up with the Canadian contemporary art scene. On the U.S. side of the lake, I was making a point to stop in a small town known for its historic role in the War of 1812 and not known for modern art. I was aiming to have a well-rounded tour of the Lake Ontario region. This was going to be my last chance to visit a small American town before I would stop at the larger Rust Belt cities on Lake Erie.

Toronto – Eric Kostiuk Williams is a Canadian illustrator whose work has been hitting the pages of Now Magazine, Dazed and Confused and the Believer. His comics exhibit his response to the gay community’s concerns in Toronto and his career is just taking off. I spoke in length with him about the Canadian comic world and how tight-knit it is, though all the successful comic artists still need that day job. Apparently being a well-read and distributed artist in the comic world still doesn’t pay enough to live and work in Toronto.

Toronto – Eric Kostiuk Williams’ subject matter and the plot locations in his work are real places he often goes to in Toronto. I was eager to see some of these important locals to his work, so he showed me. The Beaver is one of the bars you often find in his work and it now has a mural he just recently finished.

Rochester, NY- The studio visit with David Lane started with the amazing smell of leather. He has a great setup where he works on fine leathers for accessories such as watch bands and wallets among other items. During the day he’s an art teacher at the local public school but when he is not in the classroom he is a world-class leather worker. You can find some of his work in Esquire as well as in high-end watch publications. I was wondering why he still taught if sales were good, but he is always worried about his client base drying up and leaving such a reliable supportive job like education. Believe it or not, the artisanal leather world is rather competitive.

Rochester, NY – As you’d imagine, a leather worker also has an interest in other traditional products such as pipe tobacco, bourbon and scotch. We ended up spending a good deal of my interview discussing liquor infusions. We spoke the same language.

Toronto – I made a visit to the Tiff Bell Lightbox Film Reference Library. There I spoke to the Senior Manager of the Film Reference Library, Michelle Lovegrove Thomson, about their archive which is full of film, slides, media and assorted historical promotional materials. All of which is open to the public. She said mostly academics utilize the records for their research and I was wondering why more video artists and filmmakers didn’t spend more time with this amazing archive.

Toronto – I was hearing more and more in Toronto on how difficult for artists it is to find studio space in a rapidly developing city. I met with Erin Candela who works for Akin Collective. They work hard to find unused commercial spaces in the city that are in limbo which could be used as art studios. They have hundreds of spaces throughout the city. We had a long discussion that seemed so familiar to other cities. Local governments loves to tout how they want to support the local arts and allow “creatives” to stay in their city, though they take away funding for programs that would do exactly that and would encourage new construction in the only places that artists can afford. I think it’s pretty safe to say that artists don’t believe in any of the lip service they hear from their politicians.

Sackets Harbor, NY – Frank Shattuck is a tailor. And I mean classic bench tailor who trained under southern Italian masters. His suits and hunting jackets are legendary and he now has his workshop up in Sackets Harbor. Want a suit? Get in line. He has clients from all over the world.

Sackets Harbor, NY – Frank Shattuck moved up to the small town of Sackets Harbor awhile back for a girl and decided to stay after the break up. He loves it up there and enjoys the authenticity of the surrounding community. People love to work around here, he told me.

Sackets Harbor, NY – While he maybe a master tailor, Frank Shattuck is also a boxer and sometimes actor. I found that he likes to fill his days with a variety of tasks. The man isn’t idle too often.

Sackets Harbor, NY – With the heavy rains from spring and summer, the water levels are very high. This heavily affects the local businesses, as most of the towns that surround the Great Lakes rely on tourism and aquatic related activities.

Sackets Harbor, NY – My last night on Lake Ontario was a dark and brooding one.

I hadn’t been to Toronto since the late nineties and I totally missed how big and international Toronto has become. After visiting museums, galleries and stopping into gallery openings, I learned it is a rather competitive city to be an artist in. After speaking with a few curators and artists, I also learned that this would be one of the most expensive cities on my trip to be an artist. Studio space is a big subject of concern all over the city. When crossing over to the U.S. side of Lake Ontario, studio spaces are no longer of serious concern. In fact, much of northern New York reminded me of central Kentucky. Lots of talented craftsman working in small communities in oversized workshops who happily moved there from larger metropolises. It was a point of pride for many of the people I’d meet. When many of the folks in Sackets Harbor heard I was there for this project, I was immediately pulled into a dozen or so conversations and introductions to other locals of interest. The civic pride I kept finding was endearing.


Eric Kostiuk Williams – http://www.kostiukwilliams.com/
David Lane – https://davidlane-design.com/

Michelle Lovegrove Thomson at Tiff Bell Lightbox Film Reference Library – https://tiff.net/library

Erin Candela – http://www.erincandela.ca/
Frank Shattuck – http://www.northcountryartists.com/frank-shattuck/

This project couldn’t have happened without the support of the Great Meadows Foundation.

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Great Lakes Tour, Part 3: Lake Huron

Photographer and University of Kentucky Educator James R Southard was sent on assignment to circle the Great Lakes and document artists, their lives, work habits, social networking and their environments.


To me, Lake Huron was the most mysterious of them all. It is one of the least populated areas, as a map shows only undeveloped shoreline and small towns dotting the coast. It also has a long history of rough weather and shipwrecks, so I came to Lake Huron feeling it would be the most haunted as well. Being it has so few cities surrounding it, I was expecting to find few artists and more vacationers. Still, I arrived to the lake looking for craftsmen and preservationists working on historic sites and boating in a variety of ways. 

Thessalon – I drove out to the small town of Thessalon, to visit Miranda Bouchard, Acting Artistic Director of Thinking Rock Community Arts. They are working with the North Shore communities to build collaborative projects that respond to local issues. They also provide training and consulting services to the community. I kept finding people that moved up from southern Ontario to live and work in the hopes of being more connected to the region.

Big Basswood Lake – I was planning on swimming in each great lake, but due to the temperature and algae blooms, that opportunity never happened. It wasn’t until I reached Basswood Lake on the north side of Lake Huron, that I found got the opportunity. The lake was spring fed, so I could see straight to the bottom no matter how deep it got.

Big Basswood Lake – While interviewing the Sault Ste Marie Artist, Andrea Pinheiro, she asked about my accommodations in the city. Her response, “Nonsense, you are coming up to Basswood Lake and staying in a cabin.” The generosity of northern Ontario folk is staggering. Not once did they ask for money from me for the housing and meal. Great cabin, lake, meal and conversations that went late into the evening.

Manitoulin Island – It was a gray chilly day when I took a long ferry ride from Manitoulin Island to the Bruce Peninsula. I was sad to be leaving Northern Ontario.

Southampton – The Chantry Island Marine Heritage Society took me out to their lighthouse, which they’ve been working on for years. Without government funding they’ve done the labor and craftsmanship required to repair this lighthouse themselves. All the volunteers are retired citizens of Southampton. Rob Campbell, in the photograph, is a retired dentist.

Southampton – While touring Chantry Island I met a local historian, Mike Sterling. This retired award-winning mathematician has been coming out to the island to help fix up the cottage and lighthouse for years.

Chantry Island –The island is a migratory bird sanctuary. The local heritage society has been visiting for years, restoring it to its original state. The work features traditional carpentry.

Chantry Island – The island has been getting smaller as the lake’s water levels reach record highs. Many of the marinas and infrastructure surrounding the Great Lakes are out of commission with the waters as high as they are. This is greatly affecting summer tourism, which most of the small communities surrounding the lakes rely upon.

Southampton – While on the tour of Chantry Island I hooked up with the local historian, Mike Sterling.  After retiring, he started building instruments that rely on geometry and mathematics at the core of their design. Mike built this Bernoulli Involute years ago and has created his own type of script music to accompany the instrument.

Southampton – Since retiring, Mike Sterling has been working in his studio above his family.

My last evening on Lake Huron was spent wandering the streets where I came across the war memorial. A cross fashioned from metallic oil on canvas, the memorial faces the waterfront and the US. It inspired thoughts about the shared history and sacrifices of America and Canada.


Lake Huron was where I got to see both northern and southern Ontario. People around the lake were just as friendly as Lake Superior and were just as interested in my project. I also kept finding people who moved up there from the more populated southern Ontario. The slower pace of the towns reminded me very much of home. You didn’t need more than one job to make ends meet in many of these small towns; one job pays the bills. While on Lake Huron, I also had the chance to get out on the water and visit a few islands. The water was just as choppy as I imagined, though the locals seemed quite comfortable in the waves. For the first time, a camera was turned on me while I was in Southampton. A local newspaper shadowed me for one of my photo shoots with the heritage society. I didn’t realize my project would draw this much interest from anyone outside of my crew of fellow photographers. The project started to feel more meaningful. Not only is this project a collection of images I photographed from my interactions with creatives in these communities, but I was bringing their story to a broader audience back home. To many people I was speaking with, this became important.  


List of Contacts:
Miranda Bouchard – http://www.mirandabouchard.com/
Thinking Rock Community Arts – https://www.thinkingrock.ca/
Chantry Island Heritage Society – https://www.chantryisland.com/
Saugeen Times –  https://saugeentimes.com/chantry-island-attracts-visitors-world-wide/?fbclid=IwAR2uej3_PWrZBU0A8rFcelRkhhnAw1zQQbwulRL3qiivEA3XY_f5K5goU9E

See related content:

Great Lakes Tour: Part I: Lake Michigan

Great Lakes Tour: Part II: Lake Superior 


This project couldn’t have happened without the support of the Great Meadows Foundation.

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Great Lakes Tour: Part 1 – Lake Michigan

Photographer and University of Kentucky Educator James R Southard was sent on assignment to circle the Great Lakes – Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario – and document artists, their lives, work habits, social networking and physical environments. This begins a series of five installments, one for each lake. 



I came to Lake Michigan with only a vague understanding of the area. I had heard that Chicago was a college city that emptied out during the summer and I knew little to nothing about Milwaukee. Being that Chicago was the largest city of this trip, I felt I’d spend much of my time in art studios and museums combing over artwork I had studied in art school while spending my evenings at restaurants I had read about in foodie publications. Its reputation of being the Second City, I imagined that artists were being priced out all over the city which would make the art community more spread out and reduce the amount of evening art programming. I couldn’t have been more wrong. 



Chicago – First night of my trip, I stopped into Chicago Cultural Center to see a new commissioned performance by national and international artists that were to reference the Goat Island Performance Archive. Apparently, the center is constantly running programing, even in the summer. Happy to hear that Chicago wasn’t simply a college town where it got quiet in the summer. I knew this was a great start to this trip.
Steve Scott-Bottoms and Aram Atamian


Chicago – I met up with Joseph Ravens (director of DFBRL8R) after a performance at the Chicago Cultural Center. Little did I know I’d be spending much of my evenings in Chicago with their performance festival, Bubbly Creek Performance Art Assembly.
Angeliki Chaido Tsoli, Diana Soria and Joseph Ravens

Chicago – Giulia Mattera’s piece at the Bubbly Creek Performance Assembly. She laid in the tub of cold water for hours only accompanied by her pet salamander. Soon after she started, people began to approach to hold her hand and comfort her.

Chicago – Ieke Trinks’ performance for the festival where she swept trash down the sidewalk from the Halsted Metro stop all the way to 35th street. It took her the entire evening and I had the constant urge to pick up trash ahead of her to throw in the trash bins.

Chicago – Santina Amato’s bread dough performance at festival was a reference to the connections between the fermentation of bread rising and the fertilization when the sperm meets an embryo. The smell of the rising dough reminded me so much of my teenage years working at a pizzeria. The final result was so.. organic and bodily looking.

Chicago – Diana Guerrero-Maciá brought me into her amazing home and studio space. She and her husband carved out a great home and work space for both of them. I asked her how many artists in Chicago can afford home studios and she suggested it was more common than you’d think. With studios getting more expensive and available spaces being further and further from the city center, it was just easier to build under their feet.

Chicago – Joe Adamik has built out a work space for him to record his music and to continue his involvement in the Chicago music scene. After his years in the band, Califone, he started playing with bands like Iron and Wine. He schooled me on how musicians get by in Chicago either from small paid gigs and or with other jobs to subsidize their music careers.

Chicago – I visited Paul Catanese in his spacious studio while he was working hard to finish up his opera. His work comes in a variety of forms, performance, sound, sculpture and so on. I would think this would make it harder for him to find a community in Chicago, though it seems this was a very good place for artists working in this fashion.

Chicago – Tanya Gills’ studio practice requires a strong link to India via hand made materials and the unique housing construction she witnessed while on Fulbright in New Delhi. She still continues this long relationship with the textile workers in India’s caste system. She told me that if she didn’t have her studio supported by the Hyde Park Art Center, it would be difficult to find an affordable space in the city.

Chicago – I visited Laura Wetter in her studio in northern Chicago above a beautiful historic church. Aside from her studio practice, she’s a social worker and is extremely engaged with local politics. I hadn’t met someone so knowledgeable about the goings on in the city and it made me eager to attend more city council meetings when I got back home.

Chicago – I read about Calumet Fisheries and was eager to visit this rare spot. This on site smoke house has been here since the 1920s where they still use Oak to smoke all kinds of fish. I stopped by and spoke with Ray Campos about their smokehouse and how rare it was to find people keeping this tradition alive. I have to say, the shrimp were enough to make me want to quit my job and build my own smokehouse for seafood in Kentucky.



Milwaukee is rather passionate about their lake. When reaching out to the local artists, a few told me to meet them at an international commission on the status of the Great Lakes. It was rather inspiring to see the good attendance and how many people were willing to volunteer to make the lakes and waterways clean for drinking, recreation, and for aquatic life.

Milwaukee – Joseph P Mougel showed me his unique photo practice, where he was exposing Ambrotypes to Google Maps via iPads. Interesting way to play with both digital and analog imaging. I must bring up that he showed up and hosted me, even though his baby was just born the day before. He still had the hospital wristband on, so I felt honored that he gave me his time and was eager to help me in my journey.

Milwaukee – I had heard about Nathaniel E. Stern from my colleagues who, like him, taught interactive art. Nathaniel has found a way for the university and state institutions to support up to four studio assistants. The man has a squad of students working directly with him on his projects and learning professional practices in the process. This has made his studio much more productive. I took a good deal of notes on of how he manages his teaching load, family life and studio practice with this available pool of willing assistants and how I could utilize such a workforce back at my own university. I dub him, Dr. Grantwriter.
Nathaniel Stern/ Mary Widener, Sammy Yahiaoui, Josh Passon, Samantha Tan.


When leaving Lake Michigan, I realized how little I knew and how wrong my preconceptions were about the area. Chicago wasn’t emptied out for summer break at all. There wasn’t a single night I was there where there wasn’t a reception or performance scheduled and I had my days booked from dawn to dusk with artists who hadn’t left the city. I also found that getting around the city was much easier than I expected. If one doesn’t need to go downtown, you could easily drive around the city with your materials to your studio. I did find rents going up in areas near the subway lines. Instead of spending the majority of my time in northern Chicago near the blue line, I was in the south end which I felt was much more lively with art events. I was a little surprised to find no artists living solely off their studio practice. In a city such as Chicago, even the most successful artists needed a job to support their studio practice in a city with rising real estate prices. Meanwhile in Milwaukee, I found the city green and alive. Being a smaller city, I expected even more of the population to be gone for summer break though everyone was in their studio or engaged at civic events. When not meeting with people, I spread out into the city to see what the city was like to eat, drink and live. I found a good number of very welcoming people eager to bring an outsider into the fold and exhibit the blindly fast-paced dice game they play at seemingly every bar. 


Contact Links:

Angeliki Chaido Tsoli – http://cargocollective.com/AngelikiChaidoTsoli

Diana Soria – http://dianasoria.net/

Joseph Ravens – https://josephravens.com/ & DFBRL8R – https://dfbrl8r.org/

Giulia Mattera – https://www.giuliamattera.com/

Ieke Trinks – http://ieketrinks.nl/

Santina Amato – https://santinaamato.com/

Diana Guerrero-Maciá – http://www.guerrero-macia.com/

Joe Adamik – http://joeadamik.com/

Paul Catanese –  http://www.paulcatanese.com/

Tanya Gill – https://www.tanyagill.com/

Laura Wetter – https://laurawetter.com/home.html

Joseph P Mougel – http://www.josephmougel.com/

Dr. Nathaniel Stern – http://nathanielstern.com

Trevor Martin – http://www.saic.edu/profofiles/faculty/trevor-martin


This project couldn’t have happened without the support of UnderMain and the Great Meadows Foundation.

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Great Lakes Tour Part 2: Lake Superior

Photographer and University of Kentucky educator, James R. Southard, was sent on assignment to circle the Great Lakes and document artists, their lives, work habits, social networking and their physical environments.


I came to Lake Superior knowing so little. I had never been near the region and I knew it was the farthest north of all the lakes. The only thing I knew was CBC radio reports that spoke about the high crime rate in Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie. On top of that I read about the conflicts between police and the First Nation population of the region. I couldn’t imagine it could be any worse than many of the U.S. cities I’ve lived in. Not to neglect the social issues of the region, but I was thinking about how this could affect the arts community. More affordable living makes living and finding art space easier. And a strong civic community that responds to these issues makes for an interesting and more engaged creative community. Still, it was a mystery and I rolled to the lake with a great deal of excitement. 


Grand Marais, MN – My last stop before leaving the U.S. for awhile was the North House Folk School, in Grand Marais, MN.  I got a tip in Duluth to visit this amazing little art school where they teach over 350 workshops a year like pottery, smithing, baking wooden boat carpentry and more. I have always had an interest in the regional pastime of making wooden boats and when I saw these scattered throughout the property, I had to stop and investigate.

Grand Marais, MN – While in Grand Marais, I stopped into the North House Folk School to catch Trond Oalann (Norway) teaching a workshop on traditional Skjelter Store construction. Everyone was in a rush to complete the construction of this store before the evening’s festivities, the Wooden Boat Show & Summer Solstice Festival. After investigating the school, I was invited to stay and join the pizza baking party around the wood fired pizza oven. This hospitality would continue throughout the rest of my trip around the lakes.


Thunder Bay – I arrived in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in time for Andrea Pinheiro’s exhibition and lecture at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. I knew of her work and was eager to see her speak about her clay and video installation that plays with the history of nuclear testing and the forgotten fallout landscapes around Canada and the US. She is actually a Sault Ste. Marie artist who came to Thunder Bay to exhibit her work. She showed me around and we spoke about how Northern Ontario is a wide spread arts community. Artists need to travel great distances to exhibit and network. Public financial support of the arts up in Ontario has also become much more sparse with the latest premier cutting funding for the arts. Though Andrea has gallery representation, teaching is still the best way to support your studio practice.

Thunder Bay – I had attended many powwows while in Montana and Wyoming though I had never witnessed such a communal event as I had in Thunder Bay during the Canadian National Indigenous Peoples Day Festivities. There, not only did invited first nation members lead the dancing, but the public, both white and Ojibwe, were welcome to dance and celebrate. It was rather endearing and gave an air of communal welcome to the powwow. I love these traditional events that gather different performers together.

Thunder Bay – Cree Stevens is an Anishinabekwe (Ojibwe) and Cree First Nation artist who also has European heritage. Living in Thunder Bay, she has been working with painting, sculpture and metal. I spent a morning talking to her about her work history as well as the increasing problems with racism and the employment of First Nation people who are migrating to the city. With the rise of right wing politics and rhetoric in Ontario there has been a rejuvenating breath in the progressive movement and to address and achieve progress on some of these issues.

Thunder Bay – I was thinking back to what I was hearing from First Nation artists and even on the national radio I was hearing about police investigations of native people’s abuse. I remembered back to the National Indigenous Peoples Day celebration and a guy I shot a portrait of.

Sault Ste. Marie – I visited Noni Boyle’s studio in an old hanger down at the waterfront where she is surrounded by the materials that inspire her paintings. Rustic hulks of barges surrounded her along with boat motors and machinery. She lives in a world of rust and it bleeds into her work. Apparently finding alternative work spaces in Sault Ste. Marie is common in that post-industrial steel city.

Sault Ste. Marie – Noni proudly took me to the studio of a recent alumnus, Isabelle Michaud, who showed me work where she’d been collaborating with her autistic son. It was fun to watch Noni slip back into critique mode with one of her students. I’m guilty of the same thing all the time when I run into my own alumni. Always want to keep helping long after graduation. It was then that I noticed the city was rather tight knit and most of the artists knew each other from the few openings and the school.

Sault Ste. Marie – I stopped into Dyer Fire to meet Allan Bjornaa, one-half of the collaborative team that run a space of the same name. We spoke over a cup of coffee about the small arts community that can be rather quiet at times. So he and his partner started up Dyer Fire which is a gallery space, music venue, vintage and record shop. They found that creating a multipurpose space opened them up to a wider variety of events and now find they are running events multiple times a week with good turnouts. It seems a gallery space alone doesn’t draw out the locals. For the time being.

Sault Ste. Marie – Nicole Dyble is the second half of Dryer Fire and after a spell of good crowds showing up to their shows, they are considering expanding their business to include an affordable diner. They are seeking to build a community that would support creatives one space at a time.


One of the first things that I noticed about the Lake Superior region was its raw and rugged landscape. It is still rather forested and the lake is not as developed as I thought it would be. It felt like it was a few towns scattered throughout a national preserve. Also, I was surprised to find that most of the people who lived and worked up in Northern Ontario felt a little neglected by the rest of Canada. It had the same feeling of being a rust belt, blue collar American state although they have the big difference of having a First Nation community which makes it a rather diverse community. The artwork reflects this in the region, as I found so much contemporary native art and art history in the galleries and museums. That said, I could tell that artists were eager to see their art funding and community expand. Sault Ste. Marie’s industry has slowed over the years and much of the town has emptied out. There’s a good opportunity for art institutions to expand into these spaces, though you still need to battle developers who would rather sell the property to commercial buyers. Most Americans can understand this story, though as a Southerner I appreciated and was incredibly impressed with the hospitality of the people in the region. Every artist, business owner and stranger was eager to help and this was something I also ran into on Lake Huron. Something special about those Northern Ontarians.  

List of Contacts:

North House Folk School – https://northhouse.org/

Andrea Pinheiro – http://www.andreapinheiro.ca/
Cree Stevens – https://www.creestevens.com/
Noni Boyle – https://noniboyle.ca/home.html
Isabelle Michaud – http://www.isamichaud.com/
Allan Bjornaa – https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/oosikrecords/
Nicole Dyble – https://www.facebook.com/dryerfiressm/

This project couldn’t have happened without the support of UnderMain, Inc. and the Great Meadows Foundation.

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