Emerging artists have the odds stacked against them, but that hasn’t stopped a surge of initiatives by and for new Winnipeg artists from being created in recent years.
Shawna Dempsey has been navigating the art world for over 30 years. Together with local artist Lorrie Millan, she creates performance art works, films and books. She is also the co-director of MAWA (Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art).
As an artist and an educator, Dempsey knows all too well the challenges facing those just getting started.
“If we are fortunate enough, potentially, depending on when we exist in time, there is the possibility of funding through granting bodies or organizations or commercial sales – and that depends on so many things,” she says.
“It depends on the work itself, it depends on the interests of the zeitgeist at the time, it depends on the political moment and whether there is public funding or private funding available.”
Here are three local emerging artist organizations – the Laundry Room Theatre, Blinkers and Flux Gallery – whose founders are exploring what artistic community and success means to them as they confront the challenges and joys of figuring out how to begin.
The Laundry Room Theatre: subverting success
Local filmmaker Ryan Steel and University of Waterloo environmental studies student Matt Schneider are friends who love movies – both making them and sharing them with others. But in the late summer of 2018, they were having trouble doing either.
Their work was being rejected by film festivals. Local theatres were too expensive to rent for screenings. They were tired of watching movies in the sometimes-impersonal environments of cineplexes or art galleries. Finally, in August, they decided to take matters into their own hands and founded the Laundry Room Theatre, a 10-day, pop-up cinema in the basement of Forth.
“We wanted to create a really comfortable atmosphere to show local films, or just films we like. That was a big thing. We found that a lot of DIY spaces to show films were very cold, so we decked out the basement of Forth to look like a ’70s living room,” Steel says.
“We got a bunch of couches from grandmas’ basements off Kijiji and then transported them to Forth. We had a bunch of lamps, and everyone had to turn lamps off before every screening. We had art by a young art collective, Actually Milk. We had some of our own personal kitsch up as well.
“We were just trying to create a really comfortable and fun, safe place for people to show movies.”
Steel and Schneider programmed shorts by local filmmakers followed by mystery feature length films. The Laundry Room emphasized films by women and included expanded cinema practices like overhead projector performances and live soundtracks played by members of young local bands.
For Schneider, the Laundry Room was an opportunity to explore ways of being an artist and sharing work that existed outside of traditional narratives.
“When you’re an independent artist or filmmaker, I think the most valuable resource you can have is people that support you and a network within your community,” he says.
“You don’t have resources, you’re scraping by by the skin of your teeth almost all the time, so to bring that community together into a space, and bring people together and really celebrate them, I think there’s a lot of value in that.”
This is a framework that, for Shawna Dempsey, has resonated throughout her career.
“I think ultimately artists make work for ourselves and for each other. And by each other I mean our community, however we define that,” she says.
“When Lorrie (Millan) and I make a piece, I’m not thinking about strangers in Toronto enjoying the piece. It’s like, are we inspired by this work? Do we bring each other joy through this work? ... Can I show it to my roommate, and what will she think? Because those are real relationships as opposed to the ‘the public’ or fame which is so amorphous.”
“To me, the Laundry Room was trying to subvert the idea of success in the arts,” he says.
“It was trying to create our own image of success. And that was trying to showcase our work in a comfortable space with people I like.”
BLINKERS: Bursting the emerging artist bubble
Success and community are abstractions. Creating a space where they might happen is anything but abstract, as the founders of Blinkers know all too well.
Artist, art educator and organizer Hannah Doucet co-founded Blinkers in 2018, along with local artists Kristina Banera, Rachel Thorleifson and John Patterson.
“We call ourselves a project space,” she says.
“We’re essentially like an art gallery, arts space, but (we) also want to be fluid within that, like lots of art spaces where there’s room for performance and for talks and for screenings ... We frame ourselves as a project space for exhibition and conversation and critical discourse around contemporary art, specifically (for) emerging artists, writers and thinkers.”
The four co-directors of Blinkers met at the University of Manitoba in art school and would organize their own shows.
“Throughout art school, we ended up showing a lot together,” Doucet says.
“We did have spaces that showed us, but also we realized that you can’t expect anyone to do anything for you. If you want to have a show, you pretty much have to make it happen, so we were all pretty active and independent in the way we just said we wanted to have a show with our friends, because that seemed really fun and exciting to us.”
Their desire to create a space for local emerging artists to gather, show and discuss work was in part inspired by travelling around Canada and seeing how other young artists were grappling with issues of space, funding and community.
“It felt like when we went to other cities, specifically Vancouver, there were spaces that were run by emerging artists where that was their project,” Doucet says.
“It felt like Winnipeg could use more of that energy. Even if there are other spaces, it doesn’t have to be like, ‘there’s one emerging arts space, we’re good to go.’ More spaces to collaborate and support each other (are) great.”
As a building, Blinkers tells a story of collaboration, community support and DIY ingenuity. The baseboards were being thrown out of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The track lights were salvaged when the American Apparel at Polo Park closed down. Other, more established local arts organizations like Video Pool Media Arts Centre, PLATFORM and Plug In Institute for Contemporary Art have lent Blinkers sound and video equipment.
For Dempsey, there is something quintessentially Winnipeg about artistic communities gathering behind emerging artists in this way.
“I moved here in my 20s, and nobody in Winnipeg has ever said, ‘who do you think you are, what gives you the right to do that?’” she says.
“When I’ve tried to make things happen, almost always people say, ‘how can I help?’ which is a fantastic community ethic, and it really reflects an idea of plenty.”
For Blinkers, however, community, collaboration and inspiration aren’t limited to Winnipeg. The gallery regularly features work and talks from national emerging artists.
“Winnipeg can be an island, but (all) emerging art communities can be insular and not really realize that there’s communities like that in every city,” Doucet says.
“With Blinkers, we want to show local artists and we want to create a community locally, but we also want to be expansive from that and create more dialogue with emerging art communities in other cities across Canada.”
Flux Gallery: starting at the beginning
Kelsey Smith is an artist and Flux Gallery committee member. Exhibiting in an auxiliary gallery space at aceartinc., Flux operates without a single director or curator.
Flux “was developed seeing that ... emerging artist galleries would take in new shows, but they (were by artists) that still needed a lot of backlog,” Smith says.
Many emerging artist galleries require that artists have had at least one previous solo show. This creates a barrier that is often difficult for young artists to overcome.
“The main focus of Flux is to make sure that part of the resumé isn’t important at all, so it’s purely the work,” Smith says.
Upcoming exhibits will feature a mix of local and international emerging artists. Indian multimedia artist Abhishek Chaudhary will have work in the gallery Jan. 27 to Feb. 9 and local lens-based artist Meganelizabeth Diamond will be exhibited March 10 to 24. Exhibits will be engaged with through critical responses by Manitoba-based writers.
Smith’s interest in Flux stems from her own experience of being an emerging artist fresh from a complicated art school experience.
“There were ... some professors that were like, ‘this degree is worthless,’ and it’s like, what do you do with that?” she says.
“Me, I was like, I don’t really care that much. I really enjoy the program. But I didn’t notice until third year, I wouldn’t make art during the summer. I would only make art when I was in school, and I told my boyfriend I’m so excited to go back and he was like, ‘but why? You could make art during the summer. You don’t have to make art only when you’re there.’"
What we’ve got
Emerging artists in Winnipeg are creating opportunities to create and share their work for themselves and their peers without waiting for someone’s permission or approval. They are finding ways to make art in the summer.
“It’s not an individualist culture in Winnipeg,” Dempsey says.
“We’ve got that long socialist history behind us, and I think that echoes of it continue to this day – that we know we’re dependent on each other because there’s nobody else around, and we make things happen, and we help each other make things happen, and we create the things we need at any given time.”
The Laundry Room, Blinkers and Flux are doing it themselves in Winnipeg, but they aren’t the only ones.
Local initiatives like Tiny Gallery, The Sunroom Artspace, artist book library and publisher Also As Well Too and online community art journal PUBLIC PARKING are here, too, arranging narratives of success around stories of community.
“We’re a poor city,” Dempsey says, “but we’ve got time, we’ve got space, and we’ve got each other.”
Published in Volume 73, Number 13 of The Uniter (January 10, 2019)