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Scott Rogers at the Dawson City dump.
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Views along the Dempster Highway.
Views along the Dempster Highway.
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Outside Dawson, snow on the Tombstone Range.
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The Pit, day.
The Pit, day.
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A view of McCauley House from Nearly Every Building in Dawson.
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A view of the Westminster Hotel, home of The Pit, from Scott Rogers’ work Nearly Every Building in Dawson.
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"The Pit, night"
The Pit, night.
LIFE & ART UNDER THE MIDNIGHT SUN
Notes and photos from artist Scott Rogers' residency at the Klondike Institue of Art and Culture.
BY Scott Rogers
Sometime in May, I was standing in a dark bar, illuminated by Christmas lights and packed with a mob of people as diverse as the decor. A song came on the stereo: Baby Got Back by Sir Mix-a-Lot. Suddenly, across the room an elderly woman, likely over 70, shuffled out of her chair and climbed atop the wobbly Formica table. She gained a steady footing and proceeded to gyrate for the crowd, which started to cheer. Cameras and glasses were raised to document and toast the improvised go-go performance. As the song wrapped up, she got down, teetering to the exit, waving to the crowd as she passed into the 2 a.m. twilight.
Though it sounds like a music video gone awry, this ad hoc performance was just another one of those nights at the Westminster Hotel in Dawson City, Yukon. A small town on the cusp of the Arctic Circle, Dawson is the storied land of the midnight sun, ground zero of the Klondike gold rush, and home to one of the most surprising and vibrant artistic communities in Canada.
A quintessentially Canadian tavern, “The Pit” (as the Westminster’s watering hole is known) is the symbolic and geographic nexus of Dawson. At this bar countless bawdy tales are told and re-told, the house band (The Pointer Brothers) play covers and originals all weekend long, and the booze flows abundantly. Perhaps some of these qualities are what influenced Martin Kippenberger and his friend Reinald Nohal to install the famous METRO-Net subway station near Dawson’s Front Street back in 1995. The METRO-Net, like Kippenberger, is now gone, but the spirit of the artist and his work continue to linger amongst the eccentricities, over-indulgence, and independent spirit of Dawson.
The Dempster Highway and Tombstone Territorial Park are spectacular. Similarly, the Top-of-the-World Highway into Alaska is sublimely spooky. I visited museums and historic sites, the powerful Yukon River, the Dawson dump, the paddle wheeler graveyard, the cemetery, the Midnight Dome, and a cave inhabited year-round by local legend Caveman Bill.
LIFE IN DAWSON
My trip to Dawson was on a plane rather than a subway, but lacked no amount of lively adventures as the Artist-in-Residence at the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture. As part of the residency KIAC offered me a six-week stay in Dawson at the McCauley House, a two-story gold-rush-era building that’s also a national historic site. The house has all the amenities for life as a working artist: two studio spaces, a full kitchen, plentiful room to relax, and exceptional natural light. It’s great on paper, and in person, but for me the real benefits of the residency came from the intangible qualities of Dawson itself.
During my stay the sun barely set, producing a feeling of undivided endless days. In the dark winters, the arctic sky is illuminated by shimmering displays of Aurora Borealis. Any time of year there’s a bustling social scene, and I was hard-pressed not to attend a concert, exhibition, potluck, barbeque, fishing trip, going-away party, or table tennis tournament every night of the week. Around town and out in the wilderness I also had lots to stimulate — and distract me from — art making.
As a result of all the activity in Dawson, I found myself adapting my work to reflect and contribute to the unique community. While in the north I worked on a series of projects that engaged the local environment and examined some of the cultural and architectural histories of the town. I spent a lot of time wandering the dusty streets documenting all of the houses, bars, hotels, sheds, shacks, shantys, and outhouses for a photographic project titled Nearly Every Building in Dawson. The final result is an archive of approximately 1500 images recording the ephemeral and independent spirit of Dawson’s built environment.
I also blacked out my studio in the McCauley House, creating a space to reverse the effects of Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder, a condition partially produced by the overwhelming brightness of the northern summer. Far from isolated acts away from the art world, I found that these projects were constantly encouraged and supported by a community of diverse artists who call Dawson home.
Some of my regular contacts while in Dawson included writer, artist, and ODD Gallery director Lance Blomgren, writer and artist Meg Nolia, artist, writer, and professor Charles Stankievech, printmaker and politician John Steins, filmmaker Jessie Curell, and filmmaker Dan Sokolowski. Many of them also work for KIAC, the ODD Gallery, or the School of Visual Arts in Dawson, while Steins maintains a successful studio practice alongside his job as the town’s Mayor. Many of my best memories of Dawson involve these people — watching hockey games and eating wings with Dan and his partner Lori; arguing about Social Practice and zapping mosquitoes with Lance and Meg; discussing philosophy and site-specific art making on Charles’ front porch; sharing beers and chatting with John out on my lawn; guest DJing a hilarious radio show with Jes for CFYT 106.9. The list could go on and on.
Of course it’s not always easy to take time off for a trip up north. Artists with only a week or so to spare could apply for an exhibition at Dawson’s well-respected ODD Gallery. As one of Canada’s northernmost ‘parallel galleries’ the ODD serves its community through a range of activities including exhibitions by regional, national, and international artists, artist talks, and workshops. The gallery, in partnership with the KIAC Artist-in-Residence program, also co-organizes a yearly residency and exhibition project called The Natural and the Manufactured, exploring the ever-shifting relationships between humans and their environment. The ODD is a vibrant hub for the Dawson community, and a surprising novelty of artistic dedication. Notable recent exhibitors include Donald Lawrence, David Diviney, and Michael Belmore and Mary-Anne Barkhouse, so you’re guaranteed to be in good company if you do get a show in this unique A.R.C.
BACK AT THE PIT
As was to be expected, my last night in Dawson was spent at The Pit. It was quiet. We had some beers and I reminisced. I also vowed to return. It’s a nice sentiment, but many residency artists do come back, often for good. This is perhaps the most telling detail about Dawson’s power over creative people — that the town sustains a vibrant community and embraces new arrivals with openness, warmth, and Kippenbergerian spirit.
Scott Rogers is a Canadian visual artist working primarily in site-specific projects and experimental collaborations. His work has been presented widely in Canada and internationally in New York, Oakland, Minneapolis, Berlin, Ireland, and Iceland. For more information on Scott’s practice, see www.scottrogersprojects.com