The Canadian Art Database


The Winnipeg Effect: Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

The Winnipeg Art Gallery, November 3-5, 2016


The Winnipeg Effect (those who came and stayed)


Kristin Nelson: A Winnipeg Effect

Winnipeg is a place where if your girlfriend is stolen by someone else, you don't hold a grudge, cause you will probably see them together next weekend at Gio's anyway, or at least that's how it used to be. Winnipeg is to get along, it is a Community with a capital C. Winnipeg, in the way that I have experienced it, is a place where life and death seem bound, closer together, than elsewhere. I recognize that the stance that I take on this feeling of community and harmony is one of racial and economic privilege, despite being an 'artist', where the average income is below the poverty line. There are many things to attend to here and a sense of belonging does not come easily to everyone, but here today, I can only speak to my own and thank the space to do so.

I first visited Winnipeg at age 19, riding the greyhound from Toronto and looking for love in all the wrong places, but it was really then that my thoughts about this place were most deeply formed and that my love for it ultimately grew!

These initial visits taught me early on about the tenacity and the precarity of this place. My experiences involved death, bars, snowplows and amateur stripper nights.

My first tale takes place at Die Machine Cabaret. If you're unfamiliar, Die Maschine was a dance bar that is now an American Apparel store in Osborne Village. My first time at Die machine was in the winter, February maybe, we had danced in that cage all night on the second floor and were just leaving when someone from the bar came frolicking out of its front doors, but at breakneck speed. A young man was yelling… but in a sign–song kind of way, perhaps signing the lyrics to Parklife by Blur, which we could only hear, now muted coming from inside the bar! I can't exactly remember, this is all kind of fuzzy now. It is what the snow and the silence does to you here. I saw him as we made our way down Osborne Street and saw him still as we turned a corner, heading down River Ave towards the car, we looked back… the young man had just mounted onto the side of an oncoming snow plow… and then… he was gone and we were gone… we heard a muffled sound and the cold and the tired continued to hurry us away.

It was in the newspaper the next day; the young man had died. I learned that this was called bumper–shining.

My story of this city's tenacity is recounted in my experience at another bar at an early age. The Zoo, which you all must be familiar with, is now gone but we went to swoon over the Harlots and lead singer Robin Black, we also went for amateur stripper night because… well, Goth music played there, after the stripping, and before the heavy metal, and during the rounds of pool played by the regulars. I was always in awe of the many different people who came to this place, those who came to play pool, those who danced, those who simply banged their heads and those who had no fear of performing in all kinds of dress and undress; all of us seemed held together, for a time, by the flow of cheap booze, or perhaps the sticky floors and by the sweet smell of a Smirnoff Ice. This at the time, was in contrast to my experience of Toronto and Vancouver's bars, which were dedicated to specificity, to a legitimacy via distinctness and separation…, The Zoo, at this time, was to me, a kind of microcosm of what Winnipeg must be: a harmony of a necessary dedication to one's own personal identity and the tenacious need for belonging. This feeling was palpable for me here and at the time there were many signs that I might move here.

Like this one.

I took this very bad photograph in 1996, 7 or 8, I can't quite remember, but according to folks, it was a billboard project administered through Plug In. However, I am unsure of the artist, perhaps someone here knows? The image shows a security guard, the words 'insecurity' in yellow lettering on his back. It pointed to a humbleness that this city knows.

These were 2 other signs, photographed in bus shelters, advertisements located in the neighbourhood of St Vital, also circa 1996. These showed me that political activism was alive and well in the city of Winnipeg.

And another sign, a beacon in the prairies, although a little absurd, and yes, the back of it, made me drive all the way to Altona just to see it, — the largest reproduction of Vincent Van Gogh's Sunflowers, painted by Cameron Cross.

I was born in Ajax Ontario, moved to Montreal, Toronto and then Kingston until moving back to the Durham Region, the only child of a single mother, where I graduated from high school. I moved to Toronto again and then traveled abroad, finally settling on studying in Vancouver where I graduated from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. At my time of graduation, I could not see my place, either in Vancouver's art community nor in its queer community.

The work that I was doing in my early artistic life in Vancouver, were the products of my discomfort with the economic divides in Vancouver's queer community, those between men and women that were present in the geopolitical separation of its east and west end districts. My undergrad work involved making paintings and multiples using printmaking and digital media, mainly displayed through means of public intervention. My grad project, completed in 2003, was a series of portraits of proud 'butch' women within Vancouver's queer community who had been deeply involved in the feminist movement of the 1970's and 80's.

I moved to Winnipeg on January 1st, 2005, and it was not until I came to this city, that I felt a real sense of belonging. Not just in the art community, but in the queer community as well. I did not move to Winnipeg at this time for love nor for money! I solidified my desire to move here because of an advertisement on the back of a magazine cover and the friendliness of 2 world–renowned artists and self–proclaimed lesbians. I emailed them from Vancouver, to buy a patch, the kind you sew onto your clothes, the ones advertised on the back of the magazine cover. I was set to become a lesbian ranger. They invited me to a performance, I bought the patch, and I decided this must be the place for me. Winnipeg is a place where people can be both amazed by the many telephone booths, seemingly at every corner — as well as for the LACK of telephone booths.

Where people will continually discuss the lack of parking, in a city where 1/3 of it, is made up of parking lots.

I have found warmth here, amidst this cold climate. I have been mentored here, in so many ways, beginning more formally through MAWA and a mentorship with Lorri Millan, and continuing on, in my career in arts administration, at Martha Street Studio, under the fearless direction of a certain Sheila Spence, who taught me as well, to be fearless. Whether I can live up to that only time will tell. I owe this sense of belonging and my successes to the artists here, who took me in as one of theirs. I am grateful to those who have helped me succeed, to Lisa Kehler through the former Actual Gallery and now Lisa Kehler Art + Projects.

I feel that I have the ability and the responsibility, to pay it forward and I intend to do so.

Winnipeg is a place where anything is possible, where riding your bike in the back–lane is the same thing as riding your bike with Pamela Anderson.

Winnipeg was my subject, for a time.

I remember thinking, during one of our MAWA meetings, mentors and mentees, all sitting around a dining room table, talking and eating — and looking in awe at all of the mentors, how at ease they were with one another, how deep their connection seemed to be, and I thought to myself, I can't wait to be part of a community here, like that. And I am.