Welcome to the Rust Belt Wonderland. (James Takeo)
For nearly an entire month this Winter / Spring, your intrepid #artcriticfromhell did an informal residency at AIH Studios, right on East Main in Welland. During that time, I connected with and listened to a number of artists and cultural instigators: individuals with large dreams about what Welland might be in five years time, and others whom offered histories of the Rose City as encapsulated by the Welland Murals Project we walked by, while talking on past / present / future, or by the Canoes (more on both of those endeavours and their remnants, literal and psychological, on the streets of Welland, in a moment). I also responded and considered Bas de Groot’s Welland Workers Memorial, where the figures alternately sit or labour in Merritt Park, or the tubular Modernism of Rod Dowling (more and more, over my time there, the latter came to resemble the inner workings of the city, as a house has ‘veins’ and ‘limbs.’ Dowling’s pieces seemed to be the symbolic history ‘bursting up’ while de Groot’s were more static and ‘resting’, both formed how I thought about the Rose City).
The genesis for this consideration began with the Rodman Hall 5 x 2 Visual Conversations in St. Catharines (a monthly endeavour where people share images and we chat in a friendly and fun environment about what’s presented, and the ideas intersecting therein). Last October, in conjunction with an exhibition at AIH studios, the ‘5 x 2’ as I call it, relocated there, and we were lucky enough to see works in the flesh and in projection from a number of Welland based artists (de Montmollin, Calzetta, Bedard, Takeo and others). During that evening, a debate – with an edge of the best kind – formed that I – as 5 x 2 host, facilitator, MC, edit as you will, ahem – took no part in, as it was something very specific to that geography and the people involved.
Is Welland an undervalued cultural space of untapped potential, or was it like a corpse giving one last spasm? My time in Welland, where I walked and roamed on foot often, was nostalgic to my misspent youth in St. Catharines. In the 1980s and 1990s, when STC was post manufacturing base and yet to chart a course out, when it was perhaps narcoleptic, perhaps waiting to be put out of its misery….much I’ve seen here in Welland reminds me of St. Paul before I left for Windsor – another rust belt wonderland. This is (quoting James Takeo) a working class city that’s no longer working, and doesn’t know what anything means, anymore…but Takeo also is a loud advocate here, with the Welland Art Space, and he’s (with my joy) ‘owned’ my off the cuff term of “cultural instigator.” Keep an eye out for what he’s doing in Welland, with his interventions and actions.
Takeo also put out another point. Welland wants to support culture, but has no idea how to do it. This is where the legacy of the Canoe Project or the Murals is less positive. That informed my dialogue with Michael Bedard, an artist who’s relocated to Welland from larger places and spaces. He asked why Welland has NEVER had an Art Gallery, when smaller sites have and support them, and this led to conversations about the ‘profound negativity’ that may be at play here. Consider the John Deere closure in 2009 (I spent some time in the local history section of the fine Welland Public Library, partly tracking down family history but also reading Notes from Union Power: Solidarity and Struggle in Niagara, written by Carmelita Patrias and Larry Savage). This was a classic NAFTA result of a productive space shuttered to relocate somewhere cheaper, and the workers and community be damned. When a blow is unexpected, or undeserved, it is always worse, and one might argue that the wound never heals, as betrayal is more permeating (a side note: this occurred in 2009, as I said, and the Harper Cabal, of whom #ScheerHypocrite was a good and willing lackey, was literally SILENT on the closure. But, yeah, sure, Postmedia, he’s “moral”, collecting that salary of 125 K plus since his mid twenties, with golden handshakes coming out of his ass….).
If you visit the murals that are left, you’ll see many in a poor state, and they were installed and ‘secured’ in such a manner to make their removal impossible. I’d add that public artworks MUST be portable, as this demonstrates well. Perhaps this is also formed by how Welland has had to change to serve canals, or how cities are growing, organic and amorphic entities. In conversation, it was suggested – with an edge, again, as many conversations there were enjoyably pugilistic, unsurprising for a city that is too often the butt of jokes by ‘siblings’ that are no worse, nor any better, in many ways – that it might be better to simply cover several of the murals, along Main or on Division. This would prevent further degradation, and that perhaps depriving the wider community of these pieces might spur a respect and consideration (for future projects if not past ones). I’m reminded of these artists, whom brought attention to things too often ignored…
Here, Takeo’s comments take on a different flavour. The sour taste left in many mouths over how the murals and canoes have not been cared for has made some unwilling to support cultural endeavours – and I don’t just mean the usual suspects, but artists whom felt ill used and disrespected.
At the reception for Now Here at AIH, I chatted briefly with Mayor Frank Campion outside the AIH space on Main. From where we stood we could see one of the canoes of the Welland Canoe project, by Marion Forget, that needs care and maintenance. Another aspect that was brought to my attention was that its installation was ill considered (the work, Star Constellations, used fluorescent paint with the intent it would be vibrant in the evenings, but the stark florescent from the bus terminal make that impossible). This is reminiscent of the avoidable issue around Found Compressions that could have been ameliorated if more community consultation was employed regarding placement.
In conversation with a number of civic activists , community and cultural stakeholders and politicians, when I still produced and hosted Niagara Voices and Views on CFBU (cfbu.ca), the idea of ‘culture’ as an ‘economic driver’ came up repeatedly. But would that be economically beneficial to all, or were cultural workers to be the new – ongoing, same old same old – exploited labour to drive the cancerous behemoth of capitalism?
I must add a moment of snark. I recently unsuscribed from an online magazine I’ve enjoyed for its contrarian and considered views when it published a piece of partisan trash by an astrologer – oh, I’m sorry, I mean economist, no offense to astrologers – who derided Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for being economically ignorant. Yet the writer had a large erection for Ronald Reagan during the entire diatribe. In his opinion or ignorance, ahem, trickle down economics works, of course, and ‘merica didn’t go from the greatest creditor in the world to the greatest debtor on Reagan’s watch, ahem, ahem. For the record, I’m not sure about Ocasio-Cortez, but she is not relevant to the lies and ignorance and incompetence and greed being ‘replayed’ for the last thirty odd years which has directely led to the closure of a financially viable and productive John Deere plant to benefit ‘shareholders’…..
Short term versus long term is a dialogue that must be held, and must have speakers whom know of what they speak, both experientially and regionally. Otherwise, a community already in crisis (‘not working’) sees murals and images about itself, designed to edity, erode and degrade and cannot help but see itself reflected in that same horrid manner.
During that conversation at the 5 x 2, a comment was made that AIH didn’t “feel like Welland.” What that meant depends on where you stand, or where you live; whether that’s in one of the less ‘rusted’ areas of Welland, or one of the cities in Niagara that seem to make Welland a regular butt of jokes. An amusing aside: a good friend, a very talented musician, whom (like myself) is based in St. Catharines but often visits other cities in the Niagara region, shares my affection for Welland, and we both consider Niagara Falls to be a cadaver with a thin sheen of make up, like how fake beauty spots originally came about as imitations of syphillitic marks among the upper class….
So, to answer a dangerous question, what IS the state of the arts in Welland, as gleaned from my brief stay (hmm, mistyped ‘stray’ initially, presume what you will) in the community of Rose City?
Its hopeful, but wary, and perhaps hopeful but despairing. That old phrase of ‘hoping for the best but expecting the worst’ echoes, but I might say that the worst has already been. This might be in the long disused docks along the Canal, if you walk past King Street, or the aforementioned numerous closures of manufacturing plants. One of the aspects of my residency there was, of course, my walking: so passing the late Ross Beard’s contribution to the Welland Murals, on Niagara Street, was a regular path. The work took on a darker tone at times (especially at night, and not for the obvious reason. East Main Street was often as quiet as the grave after 10 PM, which made my walks ideal for allowing ideas to fester and foment in my head. But – like many things in Welland – when you consider more deeply (like seeing Dowling’s public works along Colony as unintended grave markers for the industries long closed and long gone from the Canal….) it takes on a role as a harbinger, a signpost, a warning.
Beard passed away not long before I visited Welland, but his presence, influence and contributions are still felt by many. Will his mural survive better than the others (a rhetorical question, as all were installed and treated the same way)? As I write this, Brock University is making another attempt to convert Rodman Hall Art Centre into quick cash (I’d compare them to a payday loan lender, but there are clear government regulations and oversight in those spaces, and they are known for rapacious business practices on the vulnerable. Brock will tell you that they’re doing this ‘for the students’ as they raise tuition and eliminate options or offer degraded courses that will limp along, perhaps, without Rodman…). That same greed of the few is what ended John Deere, and although Welland might benefit from Toronto ‘flight’ and some form of gentrification (there are spaces in St. Catharines that have negotiated that high wire well, and other spaces that have not), it might not.
When I’d wake up in the morning, weather permitting, I’d sit on the steps of AIH on East Main and have my coffee, or tea, and my cigarette, while looking across at the bus station. This was more interesting than you’d imagine. Not only could I see Bas de Groot’s Beavers, just barely, from where I was, but also Forget’s canoe. I could peer left to Bridge 13, or right towards Atlas, far past the massage parlours and pawn shops.
In these quiet – usually, as I often engaged with people passing by – moments, you could see both spaces that were surviving, even prospering, and others that were not. I’ve said how Welland reminded me of St. Catharines when I was in high school, and I can distinctly remember coming down St. Paul, and it was as quiet, as boarded up and destitute, as King Street was when I walked it my last week there, late at night. Boards and closures and bars on windows in both places.
Further, though, the bus station made me think of Saskatoon, which had a ‘boom’ and then it went ‘bust.’ ‘Developers’ snatched up chunks of real estate in the downtown, from 1st to 3rd Avenue, demolished older buildings, some with character and history, but now are just empty lots, sometimes parking, sometimes juts abandoned, with no money to do anything to them.
It was pointed out to me that the City of Welland owns many of the empty lots around the city. In Saskatoon, the city began to pressure – and then tax, to be more effective – the owners of said lots, to force action or at least a sale to someone who might allay this urban blight. The bus station made me think of how many I knew whom abandoned, dusting their feet, Saskatoon around the same time I did. I was also thinking of how Niagara is still poor in terms of transit; so if Welland has no art gallery, if things are not happening culturally there, it is impossible to visit St. Catharines or Niagara Falls past 6 or 7 or 8 PM – or at all, on some days. Then the sense of isolation gives way to a sense of despair, that not only does ‘nothing happen here’ but you’re unable to go elsewhere where ‘things’ do ‘happen.’
I’ll be returning to Welland for several events and exhibitions: one is the previously mentioned exhibition of Atlas Steels at the Welland Museum, as it is being programmed extensively (according to the call) through individuals’ memories, photographs and other personal and public reminisences. This is looking backwards. Looking forwards, the Visual Artists of Welland are a recently formed group (I met several of their members when I visited the Welland ArtSpace) that has already begun to push expectations and foster change in the Rose City. In partnership with civic leadership (whom do want to support culture, and perhaps in not knowing ‘how’ to do that, present an opportunity for those whom do, and have – a dangerous word, I know – vision), they’ll be presenting three exhibitions over the rest of 2019 (one in April, coming up quickly, and two in June).
There’s an idea that things ending can offer opportunity to grow new endeavours in the rich soil of what’s passed: that’s hopeful, but there is still that perfidious, persisting, negativity, that Bedard talked about, and that Takeo warns about as not just a prophylactic to creativity but as something that can cut projects off at the knees or disable them so that they don’t fulfill their promise, and taint expectations and curdle hopes.
Frankly, I see Welland as having great potential (but perhaps I’m seeing it through the lens of Guerilla Park, and I mention that not just because when I visit Welland again, it’ll be on my list, but also because that site happened because of community initiative and energy, and the city fell into line and supports what they, ahem, should have been doing all along). When I think of places to visit when I venture beyond St. Catharines, Welland is a place that was both welcoming and eager to do things differently, to look forward as much as be aware of the past. I only visit Niagara Falls for the historic sites, being a nerd of that stripe, and when I’ve walked and driven there, the wasteland seems to outweigh the wonderland…..but that’s unfair. That is a space that’s been ill used and exploited, to the god of tourism, and I saw what THAT did to the downtown of Windsor, with the casino there…
Visit Welland. Don’t assume, but explore. When I grew up here, I can’t remember ever visiting the city (despite my maternal family history being there, and a house my great grandfather built still standing, and graves in Holy Cross across from Seaway Mall marking further family roots). I regret this: and there are spaces like these ones, that offer a hopeful view of the city. Perhaps a more selfish, and more specfic idea, is that a friend who’s a fine artist visited Atlas Steels with me, and both of us with our cameras and research have used that derelict space to do more, to create more, and to make more, and in doing so are making Welland a vibrant place to many who dismiss, or deny, what it could be now, or could be with a bit of work (like the Guerilla Park clean up).
The title of this piece is taken from a song by Doves, which I listend to as I walked the streets and bridges of Welland: purely coincidentally, it is playing when the intrepid band of survivors reach their destination of the devastated city of Los Angeles in the movie Zombieland. I relied heavily on Venture Niagara’s Art in the Open web site, which has extensive information for visiting public art, and work in the public sphere, in Welland, and I suggest it to anyone in Niagara, whether in Welland or elsewhere in the region.
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I’ll be returning to Welland, both for more cultural specific events but also for more urban exploring; and this is, like many of my pieces about Welland, a mixture of fact and opinion, and thus feedback is welcome. Many thanks to AIH Studios for hosting me during this month long residency, and to the many artists and spaces that made me welcome and continued a conversation about arts and culture in Welland, Niagara and beyond. You can read my past missives from the rust belt wonderland that are more tangential here and here: and I talk about two artists whose work I encountered / talked with while in Welland here and here. It would be remiss to not include this piece, my long overdue response to Lawren Harris: Where the Universe Sings, as my residency in Welland helped me to come to some definitive conclusions around Harris’ work and the film in question.