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.
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