A Sad Sort of Clean

Matthew Sawatzky & Ellen Cook, Gerald Kuehl, and Robert Spence 

Show runs until Jan. 23 

Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery (600 Shaftesbury Blvd.)


It’s easy for many southern Manitobans to spend their entire lives living with Manitoba Hydro electricity while knowing little about the Crown corporation itself. But despite the relatively low cost of electricity and the positioning of hydroelectricity as a clean and sustainable energy source, Manitoba Hydro is responsible for a sad reality that few of us south of Lake Winnipeg ever see. 

Such is the subject of A Sad Sort of Clean, a multi-artist show which examines the destruction caused by Hydro’s waterway diversions to the environment and, more specifically, to the many First Nations communities in the affected areas. 

The flooding and subsequent destruction of northern land meant an end to self-sufficiency for many First Nations, while promises of free electricity and running water were never delivered. 

The exhibit is a tactful, effortless meeting of visual art, photojournalism and activism. The show’s photo pieces, created by photographer Matthew Sawatzky and Cree elder Ellen Cook, examine the environmental toll of Hydro-created flooding. 

The photos show a frightening contrast wherein typically beautiful Canadian wilderness is overtaken by a post-industrial wasteland. The accompanying text presents shocking statistics, such as the fact that the areas flooded by Hydro total 260,000 hectares. It’s a figure 1.5 times greater than 1997’s Flood of the Century, but this flood has lasted for decades. 

In addition to the overabundance of water, the photos show other areas entirely destitute. We see ramshackle homes without power or water, despite the fact that Hydro produces $4 million of energy daily. Another photo shows a set of rapids, the namesake of the Misipawistik (Grand Rapids) Cree Nation, dried up from diverted water. 

If Sawatzky and Cook’s photos show Hydro’s damning environmental legacy, the illustrations by Gerald Kuehl examine the human toll. His pencil drawings of elders from First Nations living in Hydro-affected areas are truly the highlight of the show. The work is stunningly realistic, bringing to mind the early airbrush portraits of Chuck Close. 

However, where Close’s portraits were often cold and detached, Kuehl’s work humanizes his subjects with genuine love and warmth. His emphasis on facial wrinkles tells a different story in the face of every elder. Despite all the monochromatic drawings being identically formatted, every image feels unique. 

By focusing on details like wrinkles, clothing or hair rather than eyes, Kuehl makes the experience feel less like viewing a portrait and more like meeting a person. It’s reminiscent of those first meetings where staring into a person’s eyes might be too forward, so you look at the hand you’re shaking or the mouth that’s speaking. That such a human presence can be conveyed in these drawings is a testament to Kuehl’s talent. 

That feeling of being too forward continues in the painting of Robert Spence, a Cree hunter and fisherman who has lived in Hydro-affected areas his entire life. His surrealistic painting is accompanied by a confessional writing that spells out in stark terms the pain associated with Hydro’s devastation. 

There’s a sense that Spence has shared too much, that we’re privy to more than we should be. But this is a case where too much is just enough. In fact, too much is entirely necessary.

Published in Volume 70, Number 14 of The Uniter (January 7, 2016)

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