I get to travel a little as part of my life as an artist, and that is fantastic. I don’t do exorbitant bragging rights kind of travel; I’ve never been to the Venice Biennale, nor I have secured the six-month Norwegian residency that I often fantasize about but to which I never apply. I haven’t done Big Travel. I might one day, but I until then I will savour my moments of Small Travel. I did a three week retreat at the Banff Centre a few years back. I get to New York every now and then to look at things, but I go to Buffalo to work on things. This past spring I spent two nights in Ottawa for an art reception and artist talk; this fall there is talk of Saskatoon.
Earlier this July I spent a week in Winnipeg at Art City, a community arts drop in center founded over fifteen years ago by famed Canadian painter Wanda Koop. It offers free art programs for kids, but uses contemporary artists from across Canada to deliver them. It is distinguished by the ambitiousness of the art projects, the spirit of its employees and volunteers, and by the fact that there is no target audience. Kids and adults from any circumstance are welcome to participate. It’s a pretty special place.
I had pitched Art City a week-long project to make floor to ceiling shadow screens, and then develop with participants theatrical and puppet based performances to inhabit them—a clear extension of my own art practice. I got flown in, put up, paid, and they even leant me a bike to toot around on.
I had thought that the week would be structured like a summer camp. I would have a dozen kids from a specific age range who would be committed for the entire week. Instead, Art City functioned as an open ended drop in; the first day I had maybe 8 kids hovering around the age of 7, and four adults likely in their fifties. The next day, the adults came back, but the majority of the kids were different.
Initially, it seemed like madness, there was to be no way to create continuity or build up ideas ( the project was to culminate with a formal performance). And in my first moments I was overtaken by the feeling that the week was going to be a train wreck. But then something happened. First it was the overarching feeling of calm that came from the Art City staff and volunteers, that was like ‘dude, this happens here everyday, calm down, it’s going to be fine’.
Second, we ate together. I helmed a session that began at 3:30 pm and ran till 7:30. Right in the middle, a bell was rung, everyone stopped, and everyone, the instructors, the kids, sat down and ate snack. In an arts educational setting, I have this notion of ‘snack’ as a thing that adult instructors give children publically, and then adults eat furtively moments later. This moment of snack opened my eyes to the true philosophy of the center.
Eating food together, the same food, was such an effortless yet beautifully engineered way of establishing a community, a team of people of various ages and origins, who, because they share food, have been in many ways equalized. It was only after snack that I started to grasp that ArtCity didn’t want me to teach, they wanted me to collaborate, to stand with and work alongside the creatively engaged community already in place.
During my off time I made great use of the bike, such a handy tool to investigate a city, and I found that I could just ride in arbitrary lines through Winnipeg’s commercial centers, hipster boroughs, residential areas, industrial parks, greenspaces and get a kind of weird portrait of the city’s soul. My snap impression of the city was only too familiar: a place that was both pretty and scrappy, very little pretense yet very comfortable in its own skin. Very similar to here.
It was only later during the flight home I started to really think upon and embrace the pleasures of Small Travel. Working in a place that is relatively the same size as Hamilton provides all these fruitful moments of comparison. Moreover the things you learn or experience are at a scale that makes you believe can be easily replicated back in your home city.
One day I’m sure I will be a tourist in Venice. Another day I’m sure I’ll return to Winnipeg to work.