Winnipeg, Manitoba: Prairie Renaissance

 On July 20, 2002, the front page of both of Winnipeg’s daily newspapers bore news of Homer Simpson. An off-the-cuff remark by Simpsons creator Matt Groening had placed the cartoon patriarch’s birthplace in Winnipeg–and the city immediately adopted the yellow-skinned Everyman as its own.

That’s Winnipeg for you. We’ve got such an inferiority complex that we even trumpet the successes of make-believe native sons. But the fact is, we don’t have to grasp at straws. Our chilly, remote city of 680,000, best known for the annual Winnipeg Folk Festival, is gaining a reputation in other artistic realms too.

Start with Marcel Dzama, a 28-year-old Winnipeg artist whose wryly funny, macabre drawings of cowboys, ingenues, and strange animals, often rendered in root beer extract, have won him an international reputation. At Dzama’s first L.A. show, his works were snapped up by Hollywood types such as Nicolas Cage, Drew Carey, and Jim Carrey (no word yet from Mariah Carey), and he’s had exhibitions in New York and Madrid too. A book of drawings, paintings, and sketches is scheduled to be published by McSweeney’s, writer Dave Eggers’ hip New York publishing house.

Dzama admits that the success he and other young artists from the University of Manitoba’s fine arts program have experienced has taken him by surprise. “When we were in art school, there were no stories like that,” he says, and his compatriot Michael Dumontier agrees. “I wasn’t going to be able to survive [here] as an artist, or that’s what I thought,” says Dumontier as he sews dolls for an upcoming exhibit at The Drawing Center in New York. Dumontier and Dzama make up one-third of the Royal Art Lodge, a collective of artists who work in a variety of media from dolls to kinetic sculpture. The core group of six artists gets together every Wednesday to collaborate on drawings.

If there is a Winnipeg renaissance in the works, the Weakerthans, political punk poets whose punchy, melodic tunes are fueled by powerful lyrics full of ‘Peg references, are certainly at the forefront along with Dzama and company. The band’s front man, John K. Samson, helped found Arbeiter Ring, a worker-run publishing collective that puts out books as diverse as Michael Albert’s Thinking Forward: Learning to Conceptualize Economic Vision (1997) and transplanted Winnipegger Alissa York’s prize-winning collection of short stories, Any Given Power. Samson also recently produced and starred as an 82-year-old baseball player in a short film, Spring Chickens. At the other end of the musical spectrum lies Steve Bates, artistic director of send+receive, an annual October festival that explores the frontiers of sound art through performances, installations, and collaborative radio and Web broadcasts. Past festivals have featured such innovators as Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and digital manipulator Oval, as well as many of the city’s ever-increasing stable of audio artists.

Somewhere in between are the anarchist punk band Propagandhi, deliciously vitriolic orchestral-pop artist Christine Fellows, deceptively sweet folk-popsters Nathan, and singer-songwriter Greg MacPherson, whose sturdy songs bear the delicate but indelible stamp of prairie life and whose albums are put out by G7 Welcoming Committee, a collectively run local label that also boasts spoken-word releases from Noam Chomsky and Native critic and historian Ward Churchill.

A self-described army brat who lived all over Canada before settling in Winnipeg, MacPherson believes that the city’s history of conflict–from the original battles between Natives and European settlers right up to the 20th-century labor movement, in which the legendary General Strike of 1919 played a large part–creates a friction that results in art, like sand irritating an oyster into producing a pearl. “The city encapsulates the 20th century in a lot of ways, a lot of the struggles and conflicts between people in North America,” he says. (The struggles go on, given the city’s skyrocketing child-poverty rate and a largely disenfranchised Native population.)

The line between the haves and the have-nots, between beauty and decay, seems to result in art that juxtaposes irreconcilable qualities: the gritty and the dreamy, the bizarre and the all-too-real. The guileless catchiness of the Weakerthans’ tunes meets the desperate sadness of Samson’s lyrics: “My city’s still breathing (but barely, it’s true) through buildings gone missing like teeth.” Dzama’s little drawings capture innocence and depravity simultaneously. Director Noam Gonick’s 1996 film 1919 explores the General Strike–from the point of view of the patrons of a (totally anachronistic) gay bathhouse.

Winnipeg’s tree-lined residential avenues–lovingly sketched in Carol Shields’ 1992 novel The Republic of Love (Viking), a veritable mash note to the city–contrast with a deserted downtown in which there are too many boarded-up windows. But right in the heart of downtown lies the vibrant Exchange District, too. An area increasingly beloved of film crews (on certain corners, a 360-degree pan won’t reveal a single building constructed after the First World War), it’s jammed with artists’ studios, lofts, practice spaces, and galleries.

The area also houses the Winnipeg Film Group, the cooperative where most ‘Peg filmmakers cut their teeth. The presence of Guy Maddin looms large here. The director of such acclaimed films as Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988) and Careful (1992), Maddin has a stunning visual style that recalls the silent film era. His strange and beautiful black-and-white feature Archangel was named best experimental film by the U.S. National Society of Film critics in 1991, and he’s been lauded at festivals from Telluride to Toronto. Maddin’s example has clearly influenced deco dawson (a.k.a. Darryl Kinaschuck), who served as Maddin’s co-cinematographer and co-editor on The Heart of the World, a recent short film. Dawson’s FILM(dzama) is a fanciful, surreal portrait of Marcel Dzama as an old man at the mercy of his own creations. It took the prize for best Canadian short at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival.

What’s the source of this plethora of artistic activity? Something in the water, perhaps? More like the chill in the air–when the wind wails and the mercury drops, what’s left to do but turn to the diversions of the mind? And then there’s the distance from everywhere: eight hours by car from Minneapolis, 24 from Toronto. Ask Winnipeg artists why they stay here, and you’ll hear about incredibly cheap rent, the slower pace of life, and a deeply intertwined and supportive arts community that doesn’t seem to have a back-stabbing bone in its body. On a less tangible level, Winnipeg gets in your blood. It can be tough to love, but it inspires a rugged loyalty. A dedication Samson includes in the liner notes of the Weakerthans’ album Left and Leaving sums it up: Winnipeg is “for those who belong to one place too much to belong to anywhere else.”

Jill Wilson is a staff writer for Winnipeg’s Uptown magazine.

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