Winnipeg rising

By Curtis Gillespie   Canadian Tourism Commission

Whenever we are asked to think about the Serious Artist, we think of the artist's studio: the airy open concept, brick walls and varnished concrete floor, paints, brushes, works of art randomly stacked and displayed everywhere signifying both freedom of movement and thought. This artist travels worldwide for openings of her work, but, of course, works ferociously through the night when in studio. She wears funky glasses and Euro-fashion clothes, but isn't afraid to get her hands dirty. This artist has been represented time after time in movies and books and articles, and her natural habitat is always New York or London, or maybe Berlin if the glasses are aggressively stylish.

We could be talking about Wanda Koop. She’s one of the world’s finest artists, a painter of original talent and fearless investigation whose work has been featured at the Venice Biennale, and who, when I visited her, had just returned from a solo exhibition in Rotterdam. She took me through her studio to look at this new cycle, Green Zone: paintings that animate her understanding of world events and, perhaps more importantly, her sense of how we obtain and filter information about world events. Many of the landscapes, for instance, are streaked with what looks like digital breakup or electrical interference to mimic, and therefore remind us, that we effectively consume our news on TV and the Internet. It’s intoxicating. A visit to her studio can be close to life-changing. But here’s the thing: Koop doesn’t live in New York or London (or even Berlin, despite her chunky black-rimmed glasses). She lives in Winnipeg. Her studio sits on the perimeter of the gorgeous 1900-era warehouse neighborhood known as the Exchange District. A huge, bright air hangar of a space, her studio is jammed to its very rafters with canvases, paints, brushes, tin, photos, drawings and a pile of yellow sticky notes incandescent with ideas.

Koop smiles when her location is raised as… surprising. “Yes,” she admits, offering a giggle that seems more girlish than that of a Serious Artist for whom the National Gallery of Canada is already preparing a major career retrospective in 2009. “Sometimes it feels like we’re just this little dab in the middle of Canada.”

Despite Koop’s civic self-deprecation, Winnipeg is hot when it comes to arts and culture. For a city of 600,000 souls, it produces an astonishing amount of cultural activity. More amazing than the volume is the quality: Winnipeggers are at the forefront of just about any artistic activity you’d care to name, and the city is accumulating the sort of vibe no marketing slogan could ever hope to engender. If you’re in the know, you know Winnipeg has it. Any passage through the city’s intricate cultural delta will be enough to leave you with the impression that city council grants artist’s licenses only to those who can prove they are charming, funny as hell, generous with their time and pleased as punch to find that anyone actually cares about what they do. Oh, and they’re gifted and hard-working, too.

From award-winning writers like David Bergen and Miriam Toews, to art critics like the Border Crossings editorial team of Meeka Walsh and Robert Enright, to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, to visual artists such as Koop and the youthful and gifted team at the Royal Art Lodge, to musician/publishers such as John K. Samson of The Weakerthans, to filmmakers like Guy Maddin, Winnipeg appears, upon close analysis, to be suffering from an embarrassment of artistic riches.

Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club is a small, funky hall at the corner of Main and St. Mary, the kind of place where, halfway through the night, one of the bartenders will pop out and return 20 minutes later with a dozen boxes of pizza, which he will then proceed to sell table to table piece by piece. They go fast. The room radiates a sort of shabby authenticity, and the live shows you’ll find there will put your finger on the pulse of the Winnipeg music scene. The bands set up in an alcove near the front window. There are maybe 100 seats, and when the music comes, it comes loud. “Best bar in the city,” says John K. Samson, the aforementioned singer/songwriter of The Weakerthans, one of the country’s finest pop groups (Samson also runs Arbeiter Ring Publishing, an independent press). Times Change is the bar where The Weakerthans and Samson’s first group, Propaghandi, honed their hooks and smart lyrics. “There’s so much in Winnipeg for a place its size,” Samson told me over a drink near his Osborne Village office. “And there’s a lot of sampling. People step over boundaries like they’re not there. You have the idea here that if you want to do something, you can. You just do it.”

Meeka Walsh and Robert Enright agree. Their influential art magazine, Border Crossings, regularly features the world’s finest visual artists, regardless of nationality, alongside the best of the local art scene. These pairings are enlightening for the reader and galvanizing for the emerging artist.

Enright and Walsh are life and working partners, though Enright, the magazine’s former editor, now operates primarily as a freelancer. I met with them in the bar of the Fort Garry Hotel, the elegant 1913 CPR-heritage building that served as a set for the filming of the Philip Seymour Hoffman Oscar winner Capote. Both assert that Border Crossings could not work anywhere but Winnipeg. “It’s such a made culture here,” says Enright. “There is so much inherently peripheral culture, and the best part of the arts scene here is what’s peripheral.”

“But one key factor about Winnipeg and why the arts scene here is so vibrant,” adds Walsh, “is that you can be a human being here. You can own a house. You can afford a studio. There are good restaurants. A lot of Winnipeg artists seem to go away at first to set up their careers, but then they always come back. You have everything you need here. And we stay for each other.”

There is without question an unassuming air to the Winnipeg cultural scene, such that you’ll visit the Plug In ICA gallery in the Exchange District and be met with easygoing staff who will be happy to show you stunning modern work and yet because of the low-key nature of the experience, you may not realize that the rest of the art world pays attention to what goes on in this very gallery (among many others in Winnipeg). That same laissez-faire matter-of-factness might also permeate a reading by the award-winning author David Bergen, for instance, wherein his quiet, softly modulated voice and the directness of the prose may lure you into forgetting that his work is internationally celebrated (in The New York Times Book Review, for instance). Or, in conversation, the fine principal ballerina for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Tara Birtwhistle, might lull you into similar feelings of comfort towards Winnipeg. “The city is like an old blanket,” she told me as we sat in the busy dancers’ lounge of the RWB, one of the country’s oldest dance companies. “It’s kind of worn, but with new bits mending it where it needs it. It’s like that blanket you find in your cottage and everybody wants to be under it. It has a history, a comfort.”

If there is a must in the Winnipeg restaurant scene, it might be Rae and Jerry’s Steakhouse, a place, the writer and professor Warren Cariou told me, “so retro it doesn’t even know it’s retro.” With its pristine red leather banquettes, dark wood paneling and aproned female serving staff, it’s a unique dining experience, a cross between New York’s ‘21’ Club and the set of a David Lynch movie. It doesn’t hurt, either, that the steaks are fantastic. I met Cariou and his partner, the poet and academic Alison Calder, at Rae and Jerry’s. “Winnipeg is a one-of-a-kind city,” said Cariou.

“There’s just something emblematically Canadian about it, too,” added Calder. “It all adds up to a unique artistic environment here.”

Unique and artistic are words frequently applied to Guy Maddin and his films. His work is so drenched in idiosyncratic melancholy that one can only imagine there is a parallel universe operating according to his vision, a vision that has inspired adoration around the globe. His films are a hybrid of the nostalgic and hypnotic. Women who fill prosthetic legs with beer, surreal hospitals... the catalog of Maddin’s oddities, and oddly humanistic vision, is stunning and impossible to shorten or encapsulate. He’s a genius in the true sense of the word – there is no one else like him. His latest film, Brand Upon the Brain!, was a hit at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival and made the Best of ’06 lists of many international critics. It is a “silent” film, but was narrated in person by Isabella Rossellini at the festival, accompanied by a small live orchestra.

I asked Maddin how it is that Winnipeg produces a volume and quality of art so disproportionate to its unassuming size. Most artists, says Maddin, talk their best ideas out into the café night air. Not in Winnipeg, he says, where the artistic work ethic is high. The artistically profitable union of austerity and talent is given direct illustration by the Exchange District office of David Bergen. There are three blank walls and one wall with a window in it. He sees nothing and everything. Perhaps that’s as good a metaphor as any for the city itself a place that, because it doesn’t impose itself, allows its inhabitants to be anything they want, do anything they want. In Winnipeg, it’s about what you bring to the table, which goes a long way towards explaining how visitors can feel so comfortable taking in the city’s cultural scene. It’s cutting-edge, but feels like that comfy blanket you’ve got all the creativity and none of the attitude. Not that it’s endless halcyon days. “That’s the thing about Winnipeg,” says Bergen, laughing, a little ruefully. “It’s a way of seeing the world, and it’s a big part of what makes this such a fertile place.”

Winnipeg Features

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