Joe Fafard, "Bonnie Buchlyvie," 1999
Joe Fafard, "Bonnie Buchlyvie," 1999, bronze, 9'
Somewhere on a highway east of Saskatoon, under the low-hanging haze of the open-air smoking lounge that the Prairies downwind of Fort McMurray have become, an epiphany about Saskatchewan artist Joe Fafard wafted into consciousness.
Fafard’s representational animal sculptures have become ubiquitous markers of cultural space across Western Canada, and while endearing, the extent of their yoke to the stuff of rural life, the life that Fafard was born to, had somehow eluded me. But while driving from Winnipeg in a dust-devil tour of galleries large and small, these works took on new significance.
Animal sculptures on the Prairies are, in a sense, what the lone pine is to the Group of Seven: a single vertical assertion of presence. They are Saskatchewan’s collective challenge to New York art critic Clement Greenberg, he of Emma Lake fame, and his fervent belief in the primacy of picture plane. Or, to speak in more geographically relevant terms, the primacy of the plain. In the vast open spaces of this province one repeatedly sees evidence of this primal drive to assert presence, to grow it vertically even, a sentiment prairie poet Robert Kroetsch so eloquently evokes in his long poem, Seed Catalogue.
And so, as we drive, Galleries West publisher Tom Tait at the wheel, we note in passing every so often some larger-than-life animal: a steer spanning the gate to a cattle ranch, a shaggy moose posed by a scenic lake, even a super-sized model gopher and, yup, a teddy bear styled from cylindrical hay bales, all these creatures displaying homespun creativity as boundless as the distant horizon.
Under the skilled hands of Fafard, of course, this impulse takes on artistic sophistication, as, for instance, at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, where his cattle sit in formal repose on the grassy verge, a country nod to the specificity of place.
Collection of the artist.
Mary Longman, "Captivity Narratives," 2009
Mary Longman, "Captivity Narratives," 2009, lenticular print
Our tour cut a broad swath over eight days, not just to senior institutions like the Winnipeg Art Gallery and its high-minded neighbour, Plug In, but also to commercial galleries and frame shops as well as artist-run centres and studios in the low-rent district. One of the most interesting shows was at an aboriginal art collective, Sakwewak in Regina, where we saw Mary Longman’s fascinating use of lenticular prints to revision the representation of indigenous histories. Look at her Captivity Narratives one way and you find a potboiler cliché of the noble savage. Move a little and you’re confronted with a native man wielding an axe. That fractional shift speaks volumes about the power of images and ideologies.
We stopped for a time in the small community of Meacham, where a house with a storefront studio and a couple of vacant lots can be had for a mere hundred grand or so. (Pause here for a moment to picture a line of bedraggled artists snaking east, refugees from million dollar houses and the ravages of gentrification in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.) Meacham’s artist community, probably larger than Vancouver’s on a per capita basis, includes the lovely June Jacobs, and her rosebud of a shop, the Hand Wave Gallery.
James Korpan, "Paynton Poney"
James Korpan, "Paynton Poney" at Hand Wave Gallery in Meacham
From there we were directed down the road a spell to the home of the Karen Holden and Mel Bolen, he a potter of some note, she a landscape painter. It was open house time, and Mother’s Day to boot, so friends and neighbours had gathered in their refurbished church at a non-descript crossroad. It’s a striking red brick structure the couple have spent their lives lovingly reshaping into home and studio. They have sunk their roots deep on these few acres. The trees they planted 40 years ago have become a towering windbreak. Now getting to an age that steepens the stairs to the bedroom in the choir’s loft, they have decided to sell. They’re not in a hurry, mind you, and haven’t even settled on a price. But they are willing to entertain an offer from the right person. Putting their place up for sale, Mel says, was the hardest thing he’s ever done.
Mel Bolen and Karen Holden home
Somewhere on this road trip, I lost a chunk of my heart. The big city art scenes were robust and we met many friendly artists and gallerists in Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Regina. But I was beckoned by childhood memories – not of the “real” Prairies, but of an Alberta farm near a city that affixes a Grande to its Prairie. I felt those long ago days tug at me in the rough scrape of the old asphalt siding on June’s house and in the rich scent of the spring earth.
Karen Holden, "Muskox," 2011
Karen Holden, "Muskox," 2011
The Bolens’ yard is home to one of my favourite animal sculptures. It resembles a musk ox, though that seems odd, with horns and a shaggy coat built from rope on a wire frame. Less odd when you learn the Bolens brought a herd of ten muskoxen to their farm several years ago when the University of Saskatchewan was looking to place them. It sits in the grass, a contemplative presence if ever there was one, slowly disintegrating, as we all do, no matter how itinerant. I’ve had many lives, but as I stood there with this creature I found myself wishing for a few more. One, for sure, I’d spend somewhere like this.