Origin Stories is a new Uniter series that unearths the beginnings of an established artist’s career or the founding of a Winnipeg arts organization.
Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan have been creators and leaders in the arts community in Winnipeg and Toronto for over 30 years. They have written several books together and exhibited their performance and visual art at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, women’s centres in Sri Lanka and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Dempsey currently serves as the co-executive director of Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA) and continues to create new and innovative work with “art-ner” Lorri Millan.
Dempsey grew up in Scarborough and Millan in Etobicoke, two suburbs in the Toronto area. They were both working as theatre technicians in the burgeoning Toronto theatre scene in the mid ’80s.
When a rehearsal studio flooded, they went to help literally bail out the space, and that’s when they got to talking about performance art and their shared concerns of feminism and queerness. They started collaborating in 1988 and officially became “art-ners” in 1989.
Art “was core to our survival,” Dempsey says. “It was seriously not okay to be queer.” Queer people in Toronto were facing a lot of violence in the midst of the AIDS epidemic.
“It was central to our story, but it was also central to our social justice energy,” Milan says. “Our feminism and queer politics were all of the same piece.”
Dempsey had explored performance art in a course at York University, but Millan had not dabbled in that art form yet.
“I always considered myself an artist. I hadn’t really considered performance as a form I was particularly interested in, but it was where we met creatively,” Millan says. “Now, we do other creative forms as well, but (performance) is the backbone of our practice.”
They received national attention in 1990 with their music video “We’re Talking Vulva,” which featured a band led by Dempsey. She was wearing a large vulva costume and “talking vulva,” that is, talking about the anatomy of the vulva (including but not limited to the vagina), what each part does, and who people like to share their vulvas with.
They worked in partnership with each other, but also with a group called the Cllichettes before moving to Winnipeg in 1990 because of their appreciation for the arts scene, but also to escape the high cost of living in Toronto.
In 1997, they launched “One Gay City,” a title which references the old City of Winnipeg motto “One Great City.” They designed bus shelter ads with a cheerful woman posing with a catch of fish and the words “Winnipeg One Gay City.” This was a direct response to then-mayor Susan Thompson’s refusal to give Pride an official sanction. When the ad agency in charge of bus shelters homophobically refused to display the ads, Dempsey and Millan brought a challenge to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, which was settled out of court in 1999.
Their most famous work is the Lesbian National Parks and Services. They would patrol many different landscapes, including parks, universities and city festivals. Since its inception in 1997, the Lesbian National Parks and Services has spawned books, videos, brochures and postcards.
“The rangers have conducted tours of Frankfurt, Germany, Sydney and Brisbane in Australia and from Vancouver to Halifax,” Dempsey says. “They also performed at re-orientation week at the University of Winnipeg through Gallery 1C03 in 2005 and received death threats as a result.”
Since their move to Winnipeg, they have worked as curators at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and, in 2008, they joined Dana Kletke as the co-directors of MAWA. Dempsey and Kletke continue to serve as co-directors.
Dempsey and Millan have written numerous books, including Bedtime Stories for the Edge of the World. They continue to develop humourous and innovative work, which has won several awards, including the Manitoba Arts Council Award of Distinction in 2018.
Find their work at shawnadempseyandlorrimillan.net/.
Published in Volume 75, Number 07 of The Uniter (October 29, 2020)