In: Niagara Region

Sandy Fairbairn | ART, Road Closed | Welland, April 5 2014
January 19, 2024

Sandy Fairbairn | ART, Road Closed | Welland, April 5 2014

Four years ago, just as Covid – 19 was beginning to move across the world, an exhibition of Sandy Fairbain‘s artworks that I curated at AIH Studios in Welland opened. These selections from the photographer’s extensive archive were focused upon the city of Welland and were collectively titled Welland : Times Present Times Past. Originally planned to run from February 15th to March 15th 2020, lockdowns and access became an issue, but I take joy in a local writer describing it as one of the most important exhibitions in that city, of the decade. There were also works that acknowledged the major role that Welland played in the history of labour rights in Canada, that were more sculptural, but that’s a story for another time (or seek out the book Union Power : Struggle and Solidarity in Niagara that is a fine history of the space, before we acquiesced to the ‘dogma’ of ‘trickle down economics’ and the liars Mulroney, Thatcher and Reagan, ahem).

This image was one of the more unique ones in that show, differing formally from Fairbairn’s usual straight on shots of buildings and edifices, reminiscent of ‘mug shot architecture’, if you will. But perhaps it might be better described as ‘morgue’ photos, as when we hung the show there were many captures of the same space, from decade to decade, and many times the sites were now demolished and empty….

I must add that as COVID took hold, I was in Welland for a longer time than I had planned to be there, with Fairbairn’s exhibition, and with the vagaries of lockdown I got to know the city late at night or early in the morning, a sense of itself that is not the ‘official’ kind.

Conceptually, this image offers both amusement and cynicism simultaneously. As someone who is soon to mark a decade of being part of the cultural community of Niagara, I could also add that it has resonance in terms of endeavours both planned and aborted, envisioned and stuttered, that have defined [and deformed] the cultural landscape of not just the city of Welland, but the larger Niagara Region.

So like any fine artwork, my interpretation of it changes depending upon when I see it, and the experiences I bring to it, and thus it shifts just as I do (perhaps in tandem, perhaps in opposition). To flip back to a more literal meaning from a conceptual one, my own attitudes about art initiatives within the space of Niagara have also changed, and spurred my decision to feature this work.

One hopes and works to foster artistic and cultural initiatives but finds the road closed, if you will. There are a variety of talks about ‘cultural revitalization plans’ in Niagara, but as this is the space that let a nationally recognized public art gallery go, with barely a whimper and now ignorant celebration of the ’boutique hotel’ that has taken it’s place, I shall reserve my enthusiasm…..but, to offer a positive point as we end, the push to have an Art Gallery of Welland is also moving forward, slowly but surely, and that effort is not without reward. As Sandy Fairbairn grew up in Welland (oh, the stories he’s shared with me, that I enjoy and enlivened some of his images from the aforementioned AIH exhibition), that is a space that might, soon, host more of his photographs like this one.

Not all roads are closed forever.

More of Sandy Fairbairn’s work can be seen here and here.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Julianna D’Intino | Connecting Rods: A Survey of Industry in the Niagara Region, 2015 – 2022
September 22, 2022

Julianna D’Intino | Connecting Rods: A Survey of Industry in the Niagara Region, 2015 – 2022

To talk of the legacy of GM when you live in the city of St. Catharines is akin to how your tongue will always go to the gap in your teeth, seeking something that was there and now is not, leaving nothing behind but a perceptible absence you are unable to ignore.

Julianna D’Intino’s images, both moving and still – and I’ve been lucky enough to see several bodies of work she’s produced – often have a local focus, and in some ways she steps into that role of photographer as social historian. Often this involves her adjacent community in Niagara, exploring her own immediate heritage and circle. One such series can be seen here.

Connecting Rods: A Survey of Industry in the Niagara Region is a family story, as well as a local one. The ‘connection’ in the title of this series is not just a nod to an industrial interpretation, but also the families, communities and city that is part of a network that once had its epicenter in the abandoned wastelands D’Intino presents us with….and in her fine words about this series, D’Intino also draws connections to other areas with similar experience, such as with Atlas Steels or John Deere in Welland.

That potential for ‘nostalgia’ doesn’t mean what D’Intino is telling us is through rose – coloured glasses, nor does it gloss over the reality: her words about this work are as unflinching and honest – and engaging – as her photographs.

“This is but one personal case study in the myriad of lost industry of the Niagara Region. Would the return of the Niagara Region as a manufacturing hub provide a sustainable solution to the region’s economic woes? No, it would not. What is missing in the region is sufficient work at wages high enough to sustain a well-balanced life at the Niagara Region’s new inflated cost of living. The last time that such security was widespread was when manufacturing was a leading industry.”

The legacy of GM in St. Catharines is surely a contested narrative, with ground fertile for those from here – like D’Intino, or myself – to mine. It’s as rife as the industrial damage left behind at the site (an ongoing issue in civic politics here which has led to some grotesque and unsettling bedfellows), and there are differing opinions in play. Anna Szaflarski, for example, offers another perspective on this history here.

D’Intino’s site is here, and more images and D’Intino’s considered words about Connecting Rods can be found here.

~ Bart Gazzola

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War Map Dress Trilogy | Carolyn Wren, 2003-2004
June 30, 2022

Carolyn Wren | War Map Dress Trilogy, 2003-2004
(lino blocks, hand-printed on Dupont silk, thread, zippers, mannequins, model airplanes, black paint)

I encountered these towering figures during Wren’s retrospective exhibition Task At Hand at the now shuttered Rodman Hall Art Centre several years ago. Standing in the large back gallery space, the three female figures dominated the room, with the flow of their dresses spilling out from them, pooling around them on the gallery floor. 

Visiting this show numerous times, I found that different ideas came to the fore with different interactions, from initial wonder to later, more critical consideration. When an artist / writer friend, Anna Szaflarski, visiting Niagara, came with me on one occasion, she saw the works in a very different light than I had, initially. Unsurprising, really, as when Szaflarski and I first met, it was around her exhibition at NAC about the historical detritus – or lack thereof – of General Motors’ legacy in St. Catharines, and I believe we connected over an irreverent honesty about history, the region, and the intersecting if conflicting stories of the place we both grew up in….

My reading had been informed by Wren’s own words, which are as follows: The ingenuity of Christopher Clayton Hutton’s invention of silk maps for the British Royal Air Force during World War II enabled pilots to use lightweight and durable maps to help them reach safety in times of crisis, and inspired women to make dresses out of the silk maps as their men returned home. The maps used by Wren in the dresses were made in Europe by the Canadian government and shipped to Canada for families to follow the movements of their loved ones fighting in the war.  Alluding to multiple layers of symbolism of the landscape in relation to the body, and reflecting on war and the politics of Feminism (viewpoint, memory, and identity), The War Map Dress Trilogy is more about history, location, distances, than it is about terrain.

I talk a lot about ‘contested narratives’: but this story, this Curator’s Pick is very much about that. Szaflarski – a former student of Wren’s, as Caroline taught in Niagara for some time, and helped shape a few generations of artists and art appreciators – upon seeing the exhibition, and these ‘women’, spoke more in a manner reminiscent of Barbara Kruger’s famous – and still relevant – artwork that declares that YOUR BODY IS A BATTLEGROUND. These battlefield maps, on dresses hanging on mannequins without heads or hands, look more like spaces to be attacked, or acted upon, utterly passive and just victims…. (“Afterwards she could not walk for a week, her feet would not fit into her shoes, they were too swollen. It was the feet they’d do, for a first offence. They used steel cables, frayed at the ends. After that the hands. They didn’t care what they did to your feet and hands, even if it was permanent. Remember, said Aunt Lydia. For our purposes your feet and your hands are not essential.” Margaret Atwood, A Handmaid’s Tale).

More of Carolyn Wren’s work can be seen here. A recent curatorial project of mine, based upon the Rodman Hall Collection, and which included Wren’s work, can be seen here

Photographs are by Sandy Fairbairn and the author.

~ Bart Gazzola

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