Making Art in Winnipeg

To practice art in this particular town is risky. Like all particular towns, this one has its perils. Some say it’s the wind. Some say it’s the moment the summer sky’s split white by lightning. It’s the shadow of the peregrine falcon that haunts the high glass towers. It’s the black ice, the burning stubble, the reckless drivers. It’s the sign that appeared on the marquee of the United Army Surplus store at Portage and Memorial, just when it was slated for demolition, a sign that said, simply, in seven letters: “Warning.” It remained there for weeks, with no explanation. Some say it’s the treacherous undertow of those two deep rivers that meet in secret, the way we used to meet in secret, when — ah, but there’s no privacy in this town. I saw you at Main and Cathedral. I saw you at Broadway and Young. I saw you at the airport — are you trying to go somewhere? Get back here. Who do you think you are?

Someday I want to make a film called “Things you can’t get away with in Winnipeg.” Pretensions, for example. Delusions of grandeur. Ambition. Sometimes, even simple confidence is hard to come by. While some artists might leave town in search of privacy, or a little self respect, most leave home to discover the world. Bored with the familiar, they crave new experiences, change, a wider perspective. And it’s wonderful to see what they do out there, those escapees, when they bring their Winnipeg vision into the larger world, and we’re all proud of them. But those who stay behind are engaged in a different kind of practice. To practice art in your own hometown is a slow revelation, a deepening perspective, an unearthing so gradual it may be years before you realize the truth you’re searching for has already been revised while you’ve been searching. Where do you think here is? If you stay here long enough, it shifts beneath your feet, like those great slabs of river ice in spring.

Yes, it’s perilous, and yes, at every moment, someone who knows you, or knew you once — your brother’s next-door-neighbour, your ex-mailman, an old school friend, or all three of them at once — are moving toward you, checking up on you. And they too are changing. They’re older now. They’re paler. Many of them are completely transparent, nothing but voices wandering the streets, or the traces of voices, telling you things you wished you’d listened to when they were still alive. You can never write the city, because just as you’re about to grasp the essence of the thing, it slips away. Sometimes you wonder if it’s you. Maybe, through the act of searching, you’ve transformed your city. After all, to make art is to take what is familiar and to make it strange. In any case, to grow older in one place is to understand the city as optical illusion. The longer you look at it the less substantial it becomes. The streets begin to shimmer like mirages, the buildings become luminous, translucent, and then one day, as I was looking at the Army Surplus store, I realized that I could see right through it. I can’t say they didn’t warn me.

Catherine Hunter’s books include the crime novel Queen of Diamonds (Turnstone Press) and the award-winning poetry collection Latent Heat (Signature Editions). She teaches at the University of Winnipeg.