On the eve of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, Maggie MacDonald travels across Canada to map out indie culture in our small towns
The Vancouver Winter Olympics are coming up. Canada is spending millions of dollars on it, showering athletes with money in a quest to win medals. Whether you agree with that or not, there’s no question that culture will be an afterthought (it always is at these mega-events) and that the kind of independent, community-minded culture that really gives us our identities won’t even be an afterthought-it’ll be nonexistent.
So, with the torch getting ready to travel extensively through the small towns of Canada while ski jumpers, curlers and figure skaters bask in its glow, I decided to take my own cross-country journey. My mission: to seek out independent culture in Canada’s nooks and crannies. My intention: to carry the torch of zine-dom to small towns and rural outposts, places we forget to look, places that too often get overlooked, especially in times of televised extravaganza.
This past summer, I took to the highways and the byways. I set out with a varying cast of friends via plane, bus, boat and automobile on the hunt for the little things in little places that chronicle lives lived and communities struggling, triumphing, starting and disappearing. From Longview, Alberta, to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland I went looking for the torch bearers of indie arts and culture, the people who keep the flame burning, no matter how few or how many are on hand to enjoy the glow.
I met great people and found some amazing places. Think back to them this winter when the commentators are chirping, the politicians are parading and the vendors are hawking made-in-China snow globes to tourists looking for the real thing.
Torrington, Alberta – Indie Diorama Museum
Northwest of Calgary, along a highway shared with horses and tractors, the tiny town of Torrington is the site of a one-of-a-kind diorama museum. The self-proclaimed “World Famous” Gopher Hole Museum and Gift Shop features scenes of town life, re-enacted by taxidermied gophers. The gophers are donated by local farmers and here they live on, frozen in time, forever engaged in scenes of love, camping and fire-fighting.
When my friend Jon and I arrived, the gift shop was being minded by an elderly lady with a big smile, who put down her knitting project to collect our $2 entry fee. “We have two rare albino gophers and a black gopher,” she said, pointing out a scene in which a gopher asks “Am I in the right town?” The speech bubbles are written out by hand on cardstock and suspended over the critters’ mouths. In one scene, a hippy gopher is engaged in a tug of war over the body of a speckled animal, protesting against stuffing animals. There are numerous news clippings on hand that chronicle the museum’s dialogue with human animal rights activists who can be credited with raising the profile of the Gopher Hole.
Apart from the museum, the annual jamboree (also re-enacted by the gophers), the gun show and a diner, Torrington features a series of gopher-themed fire hydrants. A free pamphlet from the Torrington Tourism Action Society provides the biographies of these members of the “GoFur clan,” such as Junior, “bachelor son of granny and gramps” and Tubby, “the comedian of the GoFur clan.” Canada is known for art collectives, but as a project that involves the whole town, and farmers from further afield, Torrington’s Gopher Hole Museum is one of the more inclusive examples of indie art-making you’ll find east of the Rockies.
Bruno, Saskatchewan – Art Zines Music
An hour east of Saskatoon, a grain elevator and train tracks mark the town of Bruno, population 465. On a strip full of classic Western storefronts like those from the fictional Archer, Texas in The Last Picture Show, beside a beige building marked “Senior Citizens,” you will find a building labeled “All Citizens.”
This intimate gallery/coffee shop/venue was established by Tyler Brett and Serena McCarroll in 2007, and a sign under the window advertises: “Art, zines, music.” McCarroll is currently in Toronto working on an MFA and Brett spends part of his week working on an MFA in Saskatoon, but he keeps the venue open on Saturdays, hosting bands and serving coffee to the locals.
“I come here on Saturdays to have my coffee and chat with this guy,” Alan, an area resident, told us. “Everybody’s got to take a break.” Brett lives at the back of the shop with his dog Terrence and cat BooBoo. He and McCarroll first moved to Saskatchewan in search of an “$800 house” after his cousin found one for that price in Dana. “We stayed at the house in Dana rent-free, and we drove all around Saskatoon looking for our own place. It took us four months to find this.”
Since All Citizens was established, Brett and McCarroll have come to know many of the artists in the area. “There’s a wood carver, there are some quilters, there’s a lady who is our own local cowboy poet, she self-publishes her own little books, she also does a traditional form of fine needlework that you can find here in the shop. Those are just a few of the people I know here, there’s a lot more people around we just haven’t met yet.”
Brett told us about a woman in her nineties from Middle Lake who is an artist, a taxidermist and archivist with a museum she runs out of her house. “Her name is Susanna Bauer, she is the coolest person we’ve ever met,” he says. “She’s turned her whole basement into a museum with a castle made of rock, dioramas and all sorts of things. She’ll take you on a tour of the house, and at the end of the tour they lay out these quilts, and the quilts tell the story of her life.”
One of our goals for the prairie portion of the torch run was to reach the town of Sinclair on the Manitoba border, where Saskatchewan artist Heather Benning has turned an abandoned farmhouse into a giant dollhouse, frozen in time with furniture and décor dating from the 1960s, when the house was last inhabited. We never did make it to Sinclair, but when I told Brett that I had hoped to see the Dollhouse by Heather Benning, he told me about a surprise encounter with one of her installations.
“I was driving from Annaheim to Dumas, and I came across this cool looking old abandoned farmhouse.” When he started looking around outside, he saw what he described as “a big white thing” and suddenly a wall of pigeons was flying at him. The pigeons were nesting in the torso of a giant papier mache woman that Benning had created whose arms, head and legs were sticking out of the house. “I showed Serena, and we started sending people out there. A customer came in later and told me it had fallen in. It was one of those great unexpected things that makes you wonder what else might be happening around here.”
Rosetown, Saskatchewan – Prairie Zine Museum
On the advice of musician Mark Hamilton I went looking for Laura, Saskatchewan. The town now only has 12 people, and on Canada Day, Hamilton and a friend had gone there to give away cookies. They stumbled on a Christian woman who, discovering they were also musicians, told them she knew God had sent them to collaborate with her husband on Christian adult contemporary pop.
Somehow, we missed the turn off for Laura. And, having heard no whispers about Rosetown, we didn’t plan to stop. But as we drove through we noticed a painted “museum” sign hung on the side of a building.
Inside there was a small art gallery, some historical objects and two large paintings of Western scenes by Frances McKay, a senior citizen who paints and writes in Rosetown. We met a girl, coincidentally named Laura, who was a high school student working there on summer break. Beside the counter where Laura stood minding the museum, there was a rack of prairie gold: independent publications issued by the “Rosetown Publishing Company, Ltd” and other local self-published gems. Poetry books such as Cyclone and Wheat and Chaff as well as issues of a now-defunct journal called Prairie Pens lined the homemade orange bookstand. The books were classic chapbook zines: 8.5″ x 11″ sheets, folded in half and bound with staples. I asked Laura if I could purchase the chapbooks and journals. “No, they’re not for sale. They’re pretty old,” she said. “Some of them are from the 1980s.”
A short drive along the highway by the “grain train” tracks, we stopped at the tourism centre, also staffed by teenage girls, to see if there might be some Rosetown publications available. Sure enough, copies of Frances McKay’s 11″ x 17″ technicolour wonderwork Memories of a Prairie Girl were on sale beside bottles of jam and postcards. The limited edition book of poems and paintings was published in July 2009 as a fundraiser by the Rosetown and the District Health Care Centre Foundation.
Down Main Street, in the shadow of the grain elevator, someone has taken the care to stencil red roses with a green stem along the sidewalk. At the “Music and Trinkets” store, which sells CDs and washing machines, a middle aged man greeted two young customers with bleached punky hairstyles. As they bought a CD he told them “I have that on vinyl.” If it wasn’t for the washing machines, it could have been a scene from any other smalltown record shop.
Port Hope, Ontario – The site of your next reading?
Heading East of Toronto, me and my friend Magali drove off one Sunday morning without much of a plan. On the way into Port Hope, Magali and I spotted a road sign for a series of artists’ studio tours. We followed the arrows into town, and pulled up at a white house where we were greeted by visual artist and teacher Fiona Crangle. “The work outside is by my students, and my own work is inside.” She explained that her family had built the indoor space themselves, when Crangle decided to quit working as a school teacher in order to home school her children.
In her own work, Fiona takes images from renaissance paintings and recontextualizes them in playful and critical ways, placing characters in forest scenes, or turning classic images such as “The Arnolfini Marriage” into an interactive piece with body parts that open as drawers which can be pulled by the viewer. She offered Magali and me some coffee and told us about the active arts community in Port Hope, the A.K. Collins gallery where some of her work was also showing, and print maker Liz Parkinson who lives around the corner.
Strolling around the town, Magali and I stumbled onto an independent shop called Furby House Books. Inside the shop, we met Joe Pignataro, who told us about local writers and artists. “Farley is very active,” he said, meaning Mr. Mowat, who lives in town and turns up at the shop. Writers Charles Patchett and Shane Peacock also live in the area. The shop was first opened in 1989; while it recently changed owners, it continues to be an independent shop. Pignataro took us up a newly installed spiral staircase to give us a sneak peak at the second floor event space that will open later this year. The space features hard wood floors, a small kitchen, a spot for a projection screen and broad windows overlooking Port Hope’s main drag. Pignataro is quite excited for the future of the space which will open to feature area musicians, authors and, no doubt, out-of-town artists as well. Indie writers and performers take note: you might want to call Furby House Books when planning your next tour.
Wakefield, Quebec – Juke joint on the Gatineau
A short drive into the hills North of Ottawa, Wakefield is a little town on the swift, black Gatineau River. A row of restaurants and shops clustered along the highway attract visitors from out of town, and offer young people from the area a place to go. Across the road from a homemade dock that gets burned down every fall and rebuilt every spring, The Black Sheep Inn has been a gathering place for lumberjacks, musicians, youths and Ottawa Valley day trippers since 1928.
I had the pleasure of visiting the venue while on tour with The Hidden Cameras. With an upright piano, checkered tiles and a well-stocked dressing room overlooking the river, it was easy to fall for the place. Plus, there’s something magical about following a sweaty midsummer gig with a jump into a cold black river.
I spoke with Paul, whose been working at the Black Sheep for a while. He mused about the little train that passes through, and the influence the rhythms of trains and horses have on Western music. While petting the bar’s resident dog Lucy, he described the place as a “Dive Bar juke joint cabaret.” In the daytime it’s a working man’s tavern with lumberjacks and truckers stopping in. At night, it’s a music venue with a fantastic reputation among Canadian singer-songwriters.
For every American writer who cultivates a mad genius/alcoholic persona, there is a Canadian painter who disappears into the woods to exercise survival skills while honing his or her craft. Wakefield is a place where the lumberjacks and artists meet, taking pause to the sounds of the same piano, spilling beer on the same checkered floor.
Heart’s Content, Newfoundland – No need to call it independence
Newfoundland is without a doubt a distinct culture within Canada. In folk singer Ron Hynes the province has its own bard, selling homemade CDs in the streets of St. John’s. When he performs, nobody asks, “Are you going to the Ron Hynes show?” They say, “Are you going down to see Ron?” The ghost stories and legendary shipwrecks of the rugged coast are immortalized in books by authors such as Jack Fitzgerald, and published by small presses like Creative Book Publishing. But “indie culture” doesn’t just mean a thriving arts and culture scene in Newfoundland. Here, many people also fill their tables and heat their homes with the fruit of the land and sea, skipping the trip to the grocery store and cutting out the electric bill.
We found the village of Heart’s Content, Newfoundland accidentally. It’s a few kilometers from Heart’s Desire on Trinity Bay. My friend Dave saw a highway sign for Dildo, Newfoundland on the Trans Canada and stopped to take a picture, when we were greeted by a friendly fisherman who was tending to his boat. “Everybody loves that sign, especially women. They find it hilarious. I can see why-it says Dildo right on it!”
The fisherman invited us over to his yard across the street, where he was in the process of making salt fish. The cod were opened and laid out on a table, drying out. The fisherman explained how to live off the land. “You see we go here, in the fall of the year, and you get a bit of the salt fish, and then you pick up your fresh fish, and later on in the fall you’ve got a moose to kill, right? So you end up with a moose, and then you get your own bit of wood-this don’t cost you nothing for heat. So it makes the price of living, you know, a lot different,” he laughs. “And then you get a bit of rabbit and grouse. It all works out.”
He makes living off the land sound easy. There’s no need to call it independent, when it’s just the way you’ve always lived.
Vulcan, Alberta – The other Final Frontier
Driving into Vulcan, this small city in the badlands shows few signs of being out of the ordinary. The road in is dotted by clean, well-kept homes and several churches. But look closely and there is Trekkie symbolism hidden all around, including signs for local parks.
My friend Jon and I thought we’d missed the tourist information centre when, through a crack between cars of a passing train, we caught a glimpse of a white spaceship glowing against an afternoon storm cloud. Once the train passed we pulled up under a welcoming sign which offered the blessing “Live Long and Prosper.”
Inside we were greeted by Tricia, who wasn’t always a Trekkie. “I actually got the job here to sell the province. I love to tell people fun places to go. Now that I have seen the new movie I am much more of a believer.”
Pointing to a photograph, Tricia told us about two people from Calgary who got married in Vulcan in 2004. “The whole service was in Klingon, not one word of it was in English. Sometimes on Canada Day we have a big contingent [of Klingons] from Red Deer, Edmonton and Calgary, who all come down fully dressed.” She then pointed to a window overlooking Highway 23. “There is our five-ton spaceship there, which is the landmark of our little town.”
Vulcan was named in 1912 by a CP Rail employee after the Roman god of fire. The town is now home to an annual Galaxyfest Weekend, and a Trekkie Times newsprint zine is published by the local Vulcan, Alberta newspaper.
Years ago, children in other counties would tease the Vulcan children at sporting events, saying, “Where’s your pointy ears?” Now, Tricia tells us with pride, it’s a different story. Recently 18 boys and some coaches came into the tourist centre for pointy ears to wear at the opening ceremonies of their hockey tournament. “They all wanted to be cool,” says Tricia. “That’s like coming 360.”
Craik, Saskatchewan – Eco village on the Louis Riel Trail
We found a place to stay in Regina, and in the morning at the randomly chosen Atlantis coffee shop, we opened up our maps and notebooks to plan a path to Saskatoon. We weren’t there long before we heard a familiar voice. “Hey guys, what are you up to?” It was filmmaker Eric Hill, not at all surprised to see us in Regina. Hill explained that Regina is sort of a psychic crossroads, and that it’s never a surprise to bump into friends from far flung places. He told us about an Eco-Village at Craik, halfway between Regina and Saskatoon on the Louis Riel Trail, Highway 11; so we hit the road on the lookout for solar panels and electric cars.
The first thing we spotted wasn’t a mud hut or a wind turbine, it was a large iron monument by artist Don Wilkinson of the nearby town of Girvin. The sculpture of a buffalo hunter looking at the empty horizon took Wilkinson 800 hours to make.
Craik is a small community which recently came into being when plots of land were offered for the price of $1to people who were interested in building ecologically-minded homes in what’s being called an “eco-village.” This is a community in construction. Who knows what kind of culture will one day emerge from its utopian vision? A number of houses stand in various stages of construction, and at the end of a short road, The Solar Café welcomes locals and visitors alike. Inside the Café, a quilt by the Craik-based Prairie Wool Weavers hangs over the cash, and metal figures ‘Adam and Margaret’ hang out by the compost toilet bathrooms. ‘Margaret’ is frozen in time reading a book by Germaine Greer.
When I asked staff member Mary Lynn if she was from Craik she replied, “we moved here from outside.” She laughed slightly when I asked her why. “For a few different reasons.”
According to Mary Lynn, all the plots of land have been sold off to people from BC and Alberta. They all want to be a part of what Craik might one day become.
There is a light that never goes out
For every artist I met as I carried the torch of independent culture across Canada, I learned about 10 more living around the corner or up the mountain; and with a bottomless tank, or unlimited Air-Miles, I would have knocked on many more doors. There are entire provinces I didn’t even make it to this time around. Heather Benning’s dollhouse in Sinclair, Manitoba, the official UFO landing pad at St. Paul, Alberta, and the Storyteller’s Gallery in Judique, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, are just a few of the brightly lit spots that a longer trip would have covered. In Bruno, SK (have they considered following in Vulcan’s lead and setting themselves up as the ultimate destination for fans of comedian Sasha Cohen?) we met musicians who told us about a café and silk-screening shop called Ampersand in Charlottetown, PEI. I heard that on Manitoulin Island, there is an aging zine-maker and conspiracy theorist I would have loved to drop in on.
While the world outside of Canada looks to Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver to measure Canadian art and music, it’s often in the smaller towns and nameless junctions in which the seeds of indie culture are sewn. In parts of the country where there are more trees than phone numbers, and more bears than billionaires, independence is often just a fact of life. We urbanites can learn a lot from the tenacity, generosity and utterly unpretentious do-it-yourself spirit I encountered in my travels. In the meantime, wherever we are, wherever we go, we can expect to find writers, filmmakers, crafters and musicians popping up like gophers. Make a torch and shine it in unexpected places. Tell us what you see.