Welland: Times Present Times Past

Slightly more than a decade ago, I curated an exhibition in Saskatoon, of selected works from the now defunct (as it merged with Video Vérité) The Photographers Gallery: titled Personal Geographies, it encompassed works that had been seen before, and others that had been in the archive since their creation. We also did a panel discussion, with individuals whose respective histories as artists or cultural workers had intersected with TPG (Doug Townsend, Sandra Semchuk and Patrick Close, which I moderated).

I mention this, in beginning this article reflecting on my role as curator for Sandy Fairbairn’s recent exhibition Welland: Times Present Times Past at AIH Studios in Welland, for a specific story relating to Personal Geographies. When installing the exhibition, and culling images and laying out the arrangement, there was a question regarding one of the images. Shot with the Midtown Mall in downtown Saskatoon behind the photographer, the Delta Bessborough hotel was clearly in the centre of the composition. However, the Senator – a bar and hotel that is a landmark of that city, which has experienced a cycle of being more ‘classy’ then less so, only to revive again in my last few years in that city – was to the right of the scene, but had a large dome atop it. At that time, I’d lived in Saskatoon for about a decade, and had never heard, nor (of course) seen this. I was mildly perplexed.

Then a young man who was finishing some electrical wiring in the gallery came over, and pointed out that his father often spoke of when the Senator had a dome. In fact, he pointed out a few other things in the image that were familiar to him, from his father’s reminisicences to him, of what the city had been like some time ago.

At the reception for Fairbairn’s sometimes historical, sometimes very personal, images of Welland (some as early as 1973, othes as recent as 2019), this kind of personal interaction between gallery visitors and the scenes Fairbairn presented was common. Many people who likely wouldn’t enter a gallery, or an art space, at the point of a gun were excited to seek out the buildings and street scapes that were personally important to them, or where they had lived or worked. Some of them shared stories (some pleasant, some more edged) about specific buildings and businesses, and other landmarks (whether official or more individual) of ‘their’ Welland.

The impetus for this exhibition goes back more than year before that opening reception, to another reception: at NOW HERE, a group show at AIH Studios of the works of Michael Bedard, Tony Calzetta and Gabrielle de Montmollin, Sandy Fairbairn and I had a conversation about the history of Welland. When he drove me back to St. Catharines, he took me past several sites of interest (many of which would appear in Welland: Times Present Times Past). Further, we had one of the Rodman Hall 5 x 2 Visual Conversations (normally in St. Catharines, downtown) at AIH Studios. I also took that opportunity to invite several Welland based artists to share work that evening. Two ideas – or arguments, if you will – emerged from that 5 x 2: one was that AIH ‘didn’t feel like Welland’ (this was said as praise). The other was whether the Rose City was a cultural wasteland, or that other dangerous thing, a site with potential, where a lack of institutions and spaces that other cities in Niagara have opens a door to possibilities, if you dare step up. I often said the genesis for Welland: Times Present Times Past came out of those conversations (I took no position in the one – which became somewhat heated – about whether Welland is / is not a cultural wasteland, but a city that is not given the respect it has earned….)

Perhaps I also agree with Fairbairn’s assertion due to personal experience, as well as research I did to help in selecting (collaboratively, for the most part, with the artist) works for the show. Frankly, it seemed more like editing, as Fairbairn has so many excellent and resonant scenes of the city that it was more prioritizing what MUST be included, and making sure nothing of significant importance was excluded. But to return to the research: several books were significant, and helped bring a vivacity to Welland that is too often ignored. These were Welland Workers Make History (1963) by Fern A. Sayles (lent to me by Fairbairn, and I must mention that Sayles’ church is present in the show, one of the older images from 1973 – 79) and Union Power: Solidarity and Struggles in Niagara (2012) by Carmela Patrias and Larry Savage. This is also, in some ways, a continuation of ‘conversations’ that predated even planning the exhibition: my conversations with cultural workers and producers last year, in Welland, as part of a previoius writer’s residency, also shaped my ideas for Fairbairn’s show. One sentiment that informed me – and thus intersected with Sayles, Savage and Patrias) was from James Takeo: that Welland is a city that has always been working, and defined itself by that, and now that there’s less, or no work, it doesn’t know what it is, anymore. This connects to my previous observation about how absence may be potential, or it may be a prophylactic.

James Takeo offers an insightful response to this show here, in a recent issue of The Sound. He got a sneak preview of the installation, and at that time his enthusiasm was uplifting to me, and when he expressed interest to write about the show, I reached out to him to do it for The Sound.

There’s other facts that came together, like a Venn diagram, in my role as curator for this show. I grew up in St. Catharines, and visited other cities in the Niagara Region (I distinctly remember visiting Grimsby, and NOTL or Niagara Falls are spaces that many of us who lived here have travelled to, both as educational and historical sites). But I don’t remember ever visiting Welland, and it was a place you simply didn’t go to (it’s reminiscent of how, in my time in Saskatchewan, it was always a place you left, not a place you came to visit, and surely not to live there). However, my great grandparents and great great grandparents are buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, and the house my great great grandfather built still stands on Grove. Last year, while doing my writer’s residenc here, I often walked (as I do in any city I’ve lived in, or visited) and seeing the structures that were now often decrepit, but still held elements of their former glory, made me ‘see’ Welland differently, or perhaps for the first time. When I returned to St. Catharines, this experience even made me more aware of my surroudings there, too.

In conversation with Fairbairn – especially around sites like Atlas Steels, or the his sculptural works in the exhibition at AIH that spoke to the Crowland Relief Workers’ Strike – I also found myself thinking of labour history in St. Catharines, and more of the similarities between spaces in the Niagara Region, and shared experiences of those of us who lived here, now or then. Amusing side note: while reading Patrias and Savage’s aforementioned book, I began to wonder about the union that was formed when I worked at the St. Catharines Golf & Country Club, as a teenager, as it shared some of the aspects of other stories in that book. So, in this way, even though this show was about Welland, it was also a show that expanded beyond that, to include Niagara, at the very least.

The exhibition is installed in a way that hints at narrative, but also fractures it: as you enter, the newer works line the hallway, and as you walk through, into the main room of the gallery, older works are on the left hand wall. Images are arranged in groups, sometimes of four, sometimes three, other times in more dense arrangments of greater numbers if smaller in size, and some are alone. The end wall in the hallway space features the singular image below, which also was used as the primary media image for Welland: Times Present Times Past.

Some sites repeat (consciously, as where different incarnations of spaces like The Blue Star Restaurant offer different ‘colourings’ of that mainstay of the Rose City, or some storefronts that are shown at respective intervals of transformation, or by pleasant accident, as the now defunct Welland Artspace appears in nearly half a dozen scenes), while others are alluded to, only. The bridge looms in the background of many a photo, and sometimes appears only as shadows on the street: Bridge 13 is here, even when only as a reflection in a storefront, ever present even when not fully ‘seen.’

Others are grouped together to offer a potential narrative to viewers: one wall – one of my favourites, in terms of my curatorial installation of the show – is a quartet that includes the Crowland War Memorial, Atlas Steels, the Ukranian Labour Temple, and an almost inappropriately colourful capture of a ‘Cash Money’ cheque cashing, money lending store. In some instances, I described this to visitors as a photo essay of Welland: what has been to what is now, both edifying and a bit edged in chronicling a history of labour and loss, from strength to desperation….

Returning to the panel that happened as part of Personal Geographies: an idea that I put out to the audience and fellow speakers was that when you live in a place that isn’t often thought about by others, or is not a place that seems ‘relevant’ to others, you make your own images, and tell your own stories, about that space. Communities often exist moreso in our heads, and in terms of our interactions, than as physical sites, anyway. Sandy Fairbairn’s selection of images that highlight both the history and present of Welland are as much social as they are historical. The scenes were at their most ‘alive’ when people recognized them, whether from last week or last decade, and spoke to the often ignored relevance of Welland, whether in terms of the Crowland Relief Workers’ Strike‘s legacy, or the Welland Art Space.

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Sandy Fairbairn‘s solo exhibition Welland: Times Present Times Past (curated by Bart Gazzola) was on display at AIH Studios (179 East Main, downtown Welland) from February 15th to March 15th, 2020. Sandy Fairbairn has been taking photographs of Niagara for over forty years, focusing on the people and places around him. His images of Niagara stretch back to the 1970s, and some of the scenes presented in Welland: Time Present Time Past were shown in the Rose City for the very first time. Many of these images recall the industrial history of the region, and others chronicle the ebb and flow of the downtown urban life of Welland. Fairbairn combines an historical awareness with a playful eye; evocative scenes and vibrant colour often meet in his visual histories. This exhibition is both artistic and historical, and its installation at AIH Studios on East Main Street in the downtown core of the city will offer visitors a very relevant space to consider these images of Welland, which span from nearly half a century to just last year.

I would like to thank AIH Studios for their amazing support for this exhibition, and the OAC (Ontario Arts Council) for their support through the Exhibition Assistance Program. All images are copyright of the artist, and any installation shots were taken by myself: all rights reserved.