Jan. 12, 2011 - Issue #795 : Great Indoors
Edmonton's artists fight through the din of chattering teeth
Edmonton is a city of extremes; from the stifling dry heat of the summer months to the cabin fever-inducing, solitary cold of the winter and all the rain and bluster in between, the weather in this northern burg can feel relentless. Instead of declaring a city emergency when 20 centimetres of snow drops over the weekend, however, this city plods along in its workman-like way: if the car won't run then it's time to take the bus or walk, and if the jacket won't cut the cold then it's time for another sweater.
As the cold seeps through our clothes and into our bones, so too does it seep into the consciousness of the people of Edmonton, reflected back at us by our artists. Whereas art from other countries reflects the truth of other peoples' experiences, local art is important for the way it reflects and makes sense of the dark wasteland that surrounds us for nearly half the year.
"It takes a certain kind of person to live here. There's a certain kind of grit you have to have to go through your daily life," explains Amy van Keeken, a member of the Secretaries and a collaborator on last summer's That's Edmonton For You, a show about the city for which she penned the blues riff-driven "Northern City." "I wanted to make a tough rock song because that's one way I feel tough, is being able to live here, thrive here and create here."
For Alice Major—Edmonton's first poet laureate and a founding member of the city's Stroll of Poets, whose work often reflects the reality, the history and the geology of life in Edmonton—it would be unthinkable to live in this city and not have its personal rhythms reflected back to its citizens. Consuming the myriad of art from places like America gives a view of the world far different from our own, and that can leave a person feeling unrooted.
"I think that would be a very serious problem if there were no artists here expressing our reality," Major explains. "I often think of what kind of a brain disconnect it must be if you live in a remote Arctic community and you're fed television shows from California; that's the kind of disconnect you can get on a lesser scale here in Edmonton, so you need poets and painters and storytellers and musicians who are making our reality for us and for the rest of the world too."
There is a charm to winter that people from other parts of the world don't get to experience. There's a simplicity in being forced inside, a resigned familiarity each time the mercury drops low enough to turn the furnace on and the warm air starts flowing out of heat registers. There's a stark beauty in the way frost applies itself in patterned layers to house windows, and a sense of accomplishment when it is removed from car windshields.
These experiences seep into the collective unconscious of the city, creating solidarity between Edmontonians and with the place itself. For artist and musician Nickelas Johnson—whose work celebrates a romanticized northwestern Canada through images of lumberjacks, explorers, fur traders and animals—that solidarity is inspiring. For him, the fury of nature is an exciting time, a moment that binds together the people of this city.
"When the weather gets extreme there's something of a freedom I find in that," he says. "It's like everyone is fighting against the same thing all of a sudden and it's great—traffic laws stop mattering and everyone's just trying to not die."
The winter can even serve as a jumping-off point for creativity: when you're stuck at home on the third day of a blizzard, it's hard not to start looking within yourself for inspiration.
"Winter is beautiful, so it's inspiring; the cold can be beautiful, even the wind, the sun on the snow, that's inspiring to me," says van Keeken. "It can affect your mood so you might write certain kinds of songs in the winter. Winter's kind of introspective, I guess, for me. It feels different than in the summer, it's a different feeling and a different energy."
Introspection is a necessary process for art and Edmonton provides plenty opportunities for it. The nights that stretch on from well before dinner into the mid-morning, the constant need to escape the cold, the isolation that develops from being housebound for days on end, all of these things mix up to make a specific way that Edmonton's artists create.
"My most recent book was written over the winter, and it was a book about the death of my parents," reflects Major. "I was very fortunate to get a grant from the Edmonton Arts Council and I had several months in which I could actually stay home and write that book and there was something about being able to do that through the winter months that was enormously productive. [It was] reflective, something about the light, and the quiet—that muffled quality to our winter days."
For Johnson, it sometimes seems like the winter is the only time of year he ever gets any work done.
"Having such a limited amount of summertime, I don't wanna sit in the house and make shit. I wanna go outside and enjoy the warmth," he says. "As much as I honestly do enjoy the winter, you can't sit outside all day and read a book. You've gotta do something to keep yourself from going nuts, so I find it's much more productive for me. I do very little in the way of painting in the summertime."
For van Keeken, the experience is similar: with winter being such a perilous time to attempt a tour through Canada's icy and remote geography, the season becomes one of creation instead of performance.
"I definitely feel more like staying inside and creating than I do going out and performing," she says. "My bands don't tour very much in the winter because it's treacherous, so it makes it easier to stay at home and record. Lots of people record in the winter and then tour in the summer."
But for all of its loneliness-inducing cold and snow, winter does have a way of accentuating the feeling of community in Edmonton, not only in its camaraderie-inducing, shared experiences of trying to survive, but also in its "Oh, get on with it" attitude.
"The Secretaries last year played the Olympic torch relay in January outside, which was crazy; it was so cold that my guitar wouldn't stay in tune, the horns couldn't even play because they got stuck because they were frozen—it was really cold," recounts van Keeken. "The organizers didn't even think twice about having us play outside; anywhere else in the world this would be a full-on countrywide emergency because it's -20, but here we were just playing outside."
"We are a very intrepid bunch," says Major, of Edmontonians' willingness to brave the elements to hear from the city's artists. "I remember when the Stroll of Poets had their 12 nights of poetry smack in the middle of winter and the places would be jammed, people turned out to events. They may turn out late and take up a lot of room in our parkas and make the place feel more jammed, but we get out."
"I think there's a sense of pride in our ability to withstand it; you meet people who live in warmer climes and they come up and they go, 'Oh it's so cold, I can't fucking stand it,' and I just go, 'Yeah, it's cold, but I can stand it, and we're all just a bunch of wussy artists too,'" laughs Johnson. "I do think there's a solidarity, a sense of pride, that comes out of that."
This dark place we call home may have its disadvantages, but within its furious weather and isolating location is a certain strength that this city's artists can draw on. Without them, our reality would never be reflected back to us and we would find ourselves untethered from our reality when things don't happen at the same time they do on American television: when the leaves change in September instead of October; when we're playing hockey outside in November instead of touch football. But its effects are also what builds a strange camaraderie. Being snow bound doesn't necessarily mean you're alone—it can also mean you're bound together by snow. V
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