| Robert Enright
They Don't Make Horseshoe Nails Like They Used To
An Interview with Don Proch
BorderCrossings, Vol. 9 #2, April 1990.
[ 5,472 words ]
All cultures have events that in retrospect can be seen as extraordinary, and in this regard Manitoba culture is no exception. John Hirsch's production of Mother Courage at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in 1964 changed Winnipeg theatre utterly; the publication of Robert Kroetsch's Seed Catalogue in 1977 was a poetic germination that continues to produce a hardy, pushy yield of language; Evelyn Hart's Juliet remains a lyric of tangible loss in our remembering imagination nine years after she first performed it in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's 1981 version of Romeo and Juliet. No less seminal was an exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 1972 by a 28-year-old teacher and soon to be full-time artist named Don Proch.
The exhibition, called The Legend of Asessippi, was named after a modern ghost town. It was comprised of a collection of 'space drawings' made by the Ophthalmia Company of Inglis, Manitoba. It included 23 pieces of art — pencil, ink and silver point drawings, silkscreen prints, assemblages and an environmental sculpture called Chicken Block, composed of birch wood, neon and chromed steel, graphite drawing and a culvert section. It was art unlike anything anyone had made in Manitoba before and, for that matter, unlike anything anyone (other than Proch himself) would make in this province again.
Proch's show was entirely original. I think of it as being as unique and unexpected for its time and place as Henri Rousseau's art must have been for the Paris of Picasso and Apollinaire in the first decade of this waning century. Le Douanier populated his exotic paintings with snake-charmers, sleeping gypsies, fanciful biplanes, terrifying warriors and sturdy nudes who dreamt themselves an Africa of the mind. Proch matched him curiosity for curiosity; his legendary world brought forth tortured victims, German bombers, chrome-plated farm implements, hands growing out of craggy landscapes and a somnambulant, warm nude dissolving in her own captivating winter dream. But Proch, who describes himself as 'a primitive realist,' was one step closer to the tangible world than was Rousseau, the unrepentant dreamer. Proch's visual world was one he not only made, but also one he and fellow artists actually lived in. Proch inhabits the prairie landscape and the 'characters' out of which he constructed his personal language were not merely imagined. As he himself encourages us, he is best seen as a realist.
Proch took the name of his company from an inflammation of the eye and the naming was a clue to the kind of art he was making and the kind of reaction he expected to it. His pedigree of hard seeing was flawless: his grandfather had lost an eye in a farm accident and Proch himself wore glasses from the age of eight on. 'I guess I wanted to make people aware of the harshness of living on the land,' is the way Proch recalls his motivation. But he wasn't only a pair of bad eyes intent on hurting us into perception.
The Legend of Asessippi was as conceptually brilliant as it was visually taxing. There was something Olympian about the show, as if a prairie Jove had sprung it full-blown out of his flatland forehead; the art was simultaneously beautiful and ugly, enchanting and grotesque; it was landscape and figure, drawing and sculpture; its character was illusory and realistic, crude and obsessively refined, spectrally old and aggressively 'Pop'; it co-existed in two and three dimensions; it was astonishing in all directions.
It was legendary. Less than three years later he would do it again in an exhibition called Don Proch's Asessippi Clouds, this time adding the masks that would earn him the role of prairie shaman in a culture hungry for aesthetic transformation. The Pincushion Man (Wearing Brushcut Listening-for-Buffalo Mask) is one of those works of art that remain as inexplicable as a miracle. And in the landscape of Asessippi Proch would consolidate his romantic sense of 'the whole cycle of life and growing.' Summer Fall, a silkscreen print in which a woman's mouth becomes the landscape, eroticized prairie space, making it a topography of desire. The entire exhibition was ripe with icons, objects that fooled the eyes, but only after first seducing and then mesmerizing them. Proch took the old philosophical saw to heart and cultivated his own garden. What he planted and dug up and then seeded again was a visual world of irreducible richness and complexity, a world that grows more fecund and more astonishing with each successive year.
The following interview was conducted in Don Proch's studio in late February  by Robert Enright.
BorderCrossings: When did you start the Ophthalmia Company?
Don Proch: Around 1970 I started doing some small pieces and I realized I didn't have the expertise to do the whole piece. I'd have to get something welded and I didn't know anything about welding. I knew it would take a long time to become a good welder, so why not find someone who'd spent a lifetime doing welding and get them involved? Then I wanted to give them credit for working on the piece so I used their names and listed them in any publication that included our work.
BC: The organization came before the official naming of it.
DP: Yeah. The work wasn't very pretty, so I figured I'd call it the Ophthalmia Company, which refers to an inflammation of the eye. I knew about such things because I'd been wearing glasses since I was eight years old. I also knew a lot of the people in the art community would be upset by the work and I thought that if I was going to upset them anyway I might as well really rub it in.
BC: What do you mean when you say the work wasn't very pretty?
DP: Well, it was rugged and stark and it wasn't the kind of imagery that art critics or people at the Art Gallery were used to. I really didn't care. That's the way the work came out. The concepts came from a rural, environmental situation that most people in Winnipeg weren't familiar with. Then when I got involved with curators — not only at the Winnipeg Art Gallery but at other places as well — they had a hard time dealing with the fact that there wasn't one artist. They were always looking for the hero who'd made this stuff. No one does that today because there's all sorts of collaborations going on. But it was absolutely necessary for me to credit everybody who helped me put the work together.
BC: What gave you the confidence to make pieces that were as elaborate and ambitious as, say, Motria's Hair and Pincushion Man?
DP: Working in the context of the Ophthalmia Company. The camaraderie made it a support group. For the show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 1972 the entire company worked with a remarkable kind of intensity.
BC: Was the Ophthalmia Company ever legally constituted?
DP: No. Actually, at one point I was going to legalize it, but when I filled out my application I was told I couldn't use the name because my product had nothing to do with eye care.
BC: There's a nice irony there. It did have a lot to do with care for the eyes. How long did it run?
DP: In a sense it still does, because Doug Hamil does all my welding and my brother helps me do certain things as well.
BC: Your father was also an active member of the company for years, wasn't he?
DP: Yes. He kept things organized. He did a lot of work, sanding and helping me build things. He was a good carpenter. He died in 1979 and it sort of set me back. I guess you never get over something like that. It still bothers me at times. He was 67. He worked at the studio with me every day for four years.
BC: Your output for the four years beginning in 1972 was extraordinary. How would you measure how your career has gone?
DP: I think after a time you lose energy. There was an extraordinary energy around the Ophthalmia Company and it was always more fun — for me anyway — to work with a group of people than to work by myself.
BC: Let's talk about some specific works, like Motria's Hair for example.
DP: To me the female figure is the embodiment of the whole cycle of life and growing. I was trying to feminize prairie space. I think one word that I always associated with the piece — not when I was doing the drawings for it but when I saw the structure — was fragility. That's how the front of the piece developed with the little wheel and the bird sitting on it. Motria was the name of a girl whom I met at a Ukrainian Arts Conference in Thunder Bay and when I started doing the drawings I had this memory of riding the hayrake on my grandfather's lap, sort of in between his legs. He was driving the horses with his arms around me. It was one of those beautiful fall days with a bluish haze in the air and we were just rolling up bunches of hay.
BC: You used a hummingbird in a later piece as well. Did one of the Ophthalmia Company make them?
DP: Yes. Bertie Duncan. He was in his 70s. He lived in Inglis on a farm and he carved these little hummingbirds out of carragana bushes. I really liked birds and I liked him and he gave me birds to use in my pieces.
BC: The fragility you talk about in the female figure is evident in the carved bird as well. Is it a quality you feel is in a lot of your work?
DP: I hope so. A lot of the pieces, like Pincushion Man, have jagged elements. Some people might read them as violent. But I think they all have fragility. In Pincushion Man it occurs where the steel points meet the mirror, where the reflection and the real object come together. I think people who work the land probably understand that fragility more than anybody. More than I do. They live with it every day. What I know about it I probably learned living on a very small, poor farm where almost every move that my parents and grandparents made was a survival thing. Everything was considered, nothing wasted.
BC: What about Pincushion Man? It's one of the most beautiful objects you've ever made, yet there's something frightening about it, something disquieting.
DP: It's meant to be disquieting. It's the same reason I decided to call the company Ophthalmia. I wanted to make people aware of the harshness of living on the land.
BC: Are your pieces also a lament for something lost? Here's a man listening for buffalo, for aural evidence of a way of living that has been destroyed. Is the work about the ongoing and destructive dialogue that white culture has had with native culture?
DP: Yes. Part of the image in the pieces I'm working on now includes horses' hooves floating across the sky. A lot of people might consider it silly nostalgia, but to me the pieces are about a cyclical pattern, like the notion of growing organic crops. Some people think this approach is absolutely necessary, otherwise we're all gone. I want to constantly bring that kind of awareness to mind, and I think I've been consistent in doing that through the pieces.
BC: How does your use of high-tech elements fit in with the more benign side of what you're doing in the work?
DP: I use a lot of high-tech stuff in my work because I want people to think about rural imagery fitting together with high-tech elements. In some of the block pieces I'm working on now I use a stereotypical prairie cloud shape, but it's coated in nickel oxide. We look out at a pretty cloud and we don't really know what it's carrying. So the recent pieces have an environmental concern.
BC: The high-tech side is what makes the pieces elegant and beautiful. Are you pushing the high-tech more and more?
DP: I try to balance the two.
BC: When did you first use neon? Was it in the Rainbow Mask?
DP: The first time I used neon was in Pincushion Man. It was because of an Elton John song. I can't remember the name but it contained a line that had something to do with mohair suits and electric boots.
BC: A piece like Mud Puddle Crossroads and some of your early prints included a lot of signing. Were you literally interested in visual language? Were these things about a kind of sign language?
DP: In a lot of pieces the hands do spell out certain things. In a print called River, the hands are growing out of the ground and one side says 'war' and the other says 'peace'. In Inglis there was a fellow who couldn't hear and so most of the town could sign. That's why I used it.
BC: So a lot of references in the work come out of a very specific local concern. They're rooted in your own life?
DP: Yeah, it all stems from some personal situation, no matter how small.
BC: I've seen drawings for two pieces, one called Incline and the other called Tandem Video Mask. When were they done and why haven't those pieces ever been made?
DP: The drawings were made in the early 80s. Incline would be a major piece because of the time involved in making it. It would also be a large piece and I suppose after a while you can only store so many. I have a garage full of crates. Tandem Video Mask is a piece I'd still like to make. The idea of the piece is two people walking in tandem wearing a mask that envelopes both heads. On the side of the lead person is a built-in video camera. So the mask has one eye. The person behind views whatever situation they're in and reads the way they should operate. You'd have videotapes of their interaction and discussion as they negotiate their way through space. In a way, it's a performance piece.
BC. You've wanted to do or have done pieces in almost every aspect of contemporary art practice: installation, conceptual art, performance. People tend to think of you as a specific kind of artist, but it occurs to me that you've actually been more ambitious in your art project than that.
DP: I'm not easily categorized. Some of the pieces I've done drawings for could only be done over a long period of time. It would be a matter of starting them while already working on other pieces. It's like restoring a 1920s car. It would be nice if I could realize all the pieces that I have blueprints for.
BC: Have you always done preparatory drawings? Is your normal practice to work out the piece in two dimensions before you realize it in three?
DP: When you make a commitment to do an intensive piece, you can't allow for many mistakes. You can't find yourself three-quarters of the way through and then have to tear it down and basically start from scratch.
BC: Have you always thought of your work as drawing in three dimensions? When did you become aware that what you were dealing with was the relationship between two- and three-dimensional space?
DP: When I started trying to teach myself how to draw better. I did a small hanging piece where part of it was the shadow of a bottle and part of it was a bottle sticking out perpendicular to the wall. The shadow was built so that it would have several light sources. So there would be real shadows cast along with the drawn shadows. The bottle was drawn like you would draw it in a still life.
BC: What was the first piece where you used the prairie as subject?
DP: I guess the Asessippi Tread piece. The idea came from riding a bike down the Asessippi hill. It was a three-and-a-half mile trip from the top to the bottom on the old hill, just winding along a gravel road. You got up quite a speed.
BC: It was recommended for purchase by Brydon Smith, the juror from The National Gallery out of the Eleventh Winnipeg Biennial. Did you know it was a special piece when you made it?
DP: Well, it didn't look like a drawing and it didn't look like a sculpture. It wasn't really three-dimensional and it wasn't really two-dimensional. It was just floating out there somewhere.
BC: And of course it had silver point drawing as well.
DP: Silver point was in all those early drawings. In the mid-60s I went to New York and saw a Picasso show at the Museum of Modern Art. Included in the exhibition was a bunch of drawings for Guernica, studies done with sterling silver wire on plaster-of-paris panels. They were beautiful pieces. Because the silver oxidizes with age, it turns a sort of sepia colour. I thought it was beautiful. So when I came back to Winnipeg I got some sterling silver wire.
BC: It suited this sense you have of a remembrance of things past?
DP: Yes. And I just loved the quality and the tone of it. It seemed that the oxidation made it so much more sensitive.
BC: And when did you first use fibreglass as your canvas, your stone?
DP: In the early pieces some parts were fibreglass and some were just gesso on an object. But gesso doesn't adhere to surfaces as well as fibreglass and it wasn't as easy to work with. So I eventually eliminated it. Now I draw directly on fibreglass.
BC: You've also been getting subtle colours out of the lamination of the wood that you're using in the landscape blocks. Are you able to exploit that more? Are you recognizing there's a way to play with those pale, subtle shades?
DP: The reason I started doing those pieces six years ago was because I wanted to mix the natural grain of the wood with the kind of marks I made. The wood does influence the drawing. When you're drawing on it, you react to the way a particular grain goes.
BC: They're often about your perception of the space you find yourself in. Are you using them conceptually?
DP: I still think of them as fast, idea sketches.
BC: But they don't function that way in your working life. They take a fairly long time to make.
DP: I'll work on a piece for about a month, but I'm working on other pieces at the same time. That's the nature of the materials I use. If I worked on just one piece, I'd waste a lot of time because I'd be waiting for things to cure.
BC: What was the idea behind The Great Plains Mask?
DP: I started thinking about it while looking at the northern lights, seeing them as a sort of halo of electricity around me. The piece has chicken bones arranged around it with little steel pins that come out. It's almost like there's an energy given off — hundreds of little silver points going out into the atmosphere.
BC: Where did the idea come from for the bone shards in black fibreglass? It looks like demonic mother-of-pearl as it forms a halo and actually the cameo of an Indian face.
DP: It comes out of my genuine compassion for aboriginal people. Blue Canoe Mask is one of my favourite masks. It deals with Jackson Beardy. After the Beardy tribute at the Legislative Building we all went to the Aberdeen Hotel for drinks. Then I went home and did the drawings for the piece and the next day I came to the studio and started working on it. I finished the piece on Friday, crated it on Saturday and put it on a plane on Sunday. I haven't seen it since. Now it lives in New York.
BC: How does it work?
DP: It's in the shape of about a three-foot long, upside-down canoe. The crown of the head rises above the bottom and around it there is a northern Manitoba spruce tree landscape. Smoke comes out of the spruce forest, which goes around the head and around the face and back of the head. Then it goes back up into the canoe. The canoe has chicken bones falling down all around like rain. It's quite a dark piece. On each side there's a moon and a cloud on the prow of the canoe and there's a blue halo around the moon. The rest is all greys.
BC: So it's a tribute to Jackson Beardy. Were you close to him?
DP: Yep, he was a nice man.
BC: You're loyal to your friends, aren't you? You've stuck to a way of living. You haven't left Winnipeg. You've even been in the same studio for 15 years now.
DP: Well, I love the community. It was so sad in the late 70s and early 80s to see artists leaving. Now, it's wonderful. There's a lot of young people staying and doing exciting things. I just decided that I wouldn't go. It would have been very easy to move to Toronto, but what would have been the point?
BC: There are people who basically see your work as being too much the same, who say that you've stuck too much to your guns, that your day has passed as a serious artist. How do you react to that?
DP: Maybe they're right. My concern is to do what I think I can do best. It's a tough question and I don't have much of an answer. I find it hard to believe that you can be a hero one day and an ass the next. People expect you to pump out stuff, to change every year. And you may try like crazy to get a new style, but you're going to see basically the same kind of thing throughout an artist's life. I think there is a continuum. I don't think of my making things as a year-to-year project. I'm into it too far. This is my life. Whatever you get out of me, that's me. I'm not about to make any radical changes for the sake of change or to try to satisfy people who say that my time has passed.
BC: Part of that perception comes from the idea that you're a member of the old boy network, the hard-drinking, womanizing, town artists who live in a tidy, exclusive world. That's the source of the unease feminists have with your work and your lifestyle. Does the accusation that you're a member of the downtown boys bother you at all?
DP: No, that's just the way I am. And that whole myth is bullshit anyway. I don't drink any harder than anybody else. If I did I certainly wouldn't have made as many pieces in my life as I have. I drank a hell of a lot harder when I did the work for that show in 1972 than I do now.
BC: Part of the irony of your career is that we're not seeing the work now. You make it, it gets bought and shipped out almost immediately. It's been a long time since you've had a one person show. I miss the opportunity of seeing the work brought together.
DP: Well, first of all it's hard to get pieces back from people who've bought them. Secondly, putting a show together means dealing with galleries and you end up doing all the work. I don't want to do that anymore. So I guess it's my fault. Some people can accuse me of being lazy but I decided I'd rather spend my time working in the studio than working in a gallery.
BC: I would say that coming out of the show in 1972 you were one of the hottest properties in Canadian art. Those were pretty heady times for you. You had permission to do anything you wanted. It may not be that you're doing less work now and it may not be that the work is less interesting. It's just that there is no way for the public or for critics to respond to your continuing output.
DP: Well, that happens all the time. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next two or three years. In this country, which I think is quite different from the United States, curators and critics seem to be on a feeding frenzy of discovery. They love discovering people. That seems to be the game to play. And once you've been discovered by one or two of them, the rest aren't looking at you. They're out there searching.
BC: Is part of the problem that Canada suffers from a kind of cultural amnesia? You're only as good as your next show rather than your last one?
DP: Yes, and unfortunately as time goes by that seems to be getting more extreme. I'm amazed that I've lasted as long as I have.
BC: You find yourself in this strange position as a successful artist in Canada. It certainly isn't like being a successful artist in the U.S. Claes Oldenburg does the projects he wants; if Julian Schnabel wants to do paintings on massive tarpaulins, he does them. Somebody buys them.
DP: It's not that somebody buys them; it's that somebody's interested in what they're doing and they say, 'Hey, I'll buy you some time.' It doesn't happen here. Personally I prefer to see my work in group shows rather than one-man shows. In the last little while I think I've lost the brashness I had. I find one-man shows too centering.
BC: One of the standard attacks in this art community was on anyone who aspired to be an 'art star'. It often came from people who didn't have the talent to assume that role, but clearly you could have. Did you deliberately and consciously work against that notion?
DP: I still do. For me art isn't anything extraordinary, it's just the same as the guy who does a good welding job. Nobody puts him up on a pedestal. I want it to be like an ordinary job. I don't want it to be anything different or anything more valued. It just happens to be something I do.
BC: When you come into the studio do you actually think of it as coming into work? You come to work every day, six days a week?
DP: Usually seven. If I miss a day I feel real guilty about it. First of all, I love being here and making art. I have a sense of wanting to be here more than any other place.
BC: Do you run risks in your art?
DP: Yeah, I think I do. I've always run risks. Maybe more politically than aesthetically because I probably sometimes don't do things that people want me to do. Sometimes I say I'm not ready for exhibitions. Sometimes I regret that and sometimes I don't. Just after Carol Phillips first came to the gallery as Director I got a letter from one of the gallery curators inviting me to have a one-man show. I didn't do it. Now they hate my work.
BC: I've always been intrigued by the Manitoba Mining Mask. It's less agrarian than many of your other masks.
DP: In 1973 my brother Doug was in grade 12 and his best friend was mining in Thompson. His last shift was ending at midnight and at 11:30 the ceiling fell in and killed him. Doug was just devastated. A couple of months after that Bill Lobchuk and Len Anthony and Ted Howorth and I were leaving for Paris for the Trajectoires exhibition. Luckily enough I was able to get Doug out of school. I phoned the superintendent and said, 'The kid has a chance to go to France for a month. He's an "A" student and it's just a matter of going through the motions for him to pass the exams. Can you let him go?' Doug was 18. He got on a Greyhound bus in Inglis and got into Winnipeg at four in the morning. At seven o'clock we were on the plane to Paris. So it was Inglis to Paris in 24 hours.
BC: The Mining Mask was a tribute to your younger brother's sense of loss, then?
DP: Yes. I also knew David very well, well enough to be a pallbearer at his funeral. Also my Uncle Paul lived in Sudbury and worked in a mine. Now he has breathing problems so the piece has an old smokestack with bones coming out the top.
BC: I want to talk a little bit about They Don't Make Horseshoe Nails Like They Used To. Is that an ongoing series of work?
DP: I've got half a dozen ideas that I'm working on. The idea came from simply having the nails around. I got one chrome plated and put it on this stainless steel wire and suddenly it changed. Just that little bit of applied technology made it into something totally different. But underneath it's still a horseshoe nail. When people ask me where I get an idea they expect something like, 'I woke up in the middle of the night with this flash.' But that's not the way it is. It's all these little things around you that add up to something.
BC: Describe what you've done to make They Don't Make Horseshoe Nails Like They Used To. I'm interested in the process of construction.
DP: Well, I started with a horseshoe nail that I thought was elegant. At the same time I recognize it's sort of a violent thing because they're so long and somebody actually pounds them into the bottom of a live animal. Then you chrome them and all of a sudden they become something different again. I like working with that range of interpretations.
BC: You used the idea of the crucifixion earlier in graphic pieces, didn't you? This is an animal version of that terrifying act.
DP: Yes. Of course, I didn't use a real horseshoe. I made the shape of a horseshoe using a wire. It's open on the top and I have a cloud formation — a rain storm — which pours into the openness of the horseshoe.
BC: Isn't that part of folk mythology?
DP: Yeah. In their machine sheds and granaries farmers always hang a horseshoe just above the doorway and they always point the open end up. Now to me it would be much easier to hang it the other way. But they nail it in open side up because there is a superstition that the rain is going to come and it will catch the rain.
BC: Why didn't you use a real horseshoe?
DP: I thought it would be too obvious. It's also not so delicate. I wanted to give the appearance of an elegant piece of jewelery. More of my urbanizing.
BC: You've been involved in reclaiming a lot of ordinary, functional objects and turning them into objects of perceived beauty, haven't you?
DP: Yes, and all of them seem to have pointed ends on them. When I transform them I try to take away that end of it.
BC: But there's always this pointed dialogue between the space above the horizon and the earth itself. The horizon is invariably the point of demarcation for that conflict.
DP: In the pieces I have done so far I have this open horseshoe and this rain cloud imagery which have the shape and fragility of an exquisite water tumbler. Then the open horseshoe becomes a point where the water drains out. Below the horseshoe nail are chrome droplets that flow down into another landscape and the water droplets form the stem of the glass, and the horizon and the landscape underneath become the base of the glass that holds the whole thing up. It's a balancing act and a very delicate environmental metaphor. We would all be better off the way we were before all this chemical, anti-environmental crap. The only way we are going to survive is to get back to respecting the land. We don't need the horses. We're beyond them, but we do have to get back to that kind of idea.
BorderCrossings, Vol. 9 #2, April 1990.
Text: © Robert Enright. All rights reserved.
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