Art, Arts & Life, City & Politics, Planning

Artist/former city planner Louis C. Bakó on nudes, soft drugs and the destruction of Winnipeg

If you look on aerial at downtown, it’s like a mouth with a bunch of teeth missing.” 

I’m meeting Louis C. Bakó at his studio/home in an old industrial warehouse on Higgins Ave., along that seemingly deserted stretch of South Point Douglas near the Red River. He is drinking rum and tea, wearing leather pants and living like a bona fide bohemian.

Born in Hungary in 1943, Bakó and his family fled to Canada after the Hungarian revolution. He graduated from the School of Art at the University of Manitoba in 1966, worked as a set designer for the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the National Film Board and eventually settled into a position as a city planner and urban designer where he spent 25 years – all while continuing to work as a visual artist.

Nudes and other passions dot his cluttered space – nude Polaroids, nude paintings, erotic sculptures, old lovers, various eras, photos of so many old friends. These are the remnants of Bakó’s rather remarkable life. At 69 years old, he is as cool today as the sunglasses-clad, spliff-smoking longhair he was 30, 40 and 50 years ago.

The Lake by Louis C. Bakó

Note: This interview has been edited for length and flow.

Spectator Tribune: How long have you lived in this building?

At least 15 years.

Spectator Tribune: It’s amazing in here.

You’ll have to excuse me; it’s a bit of a mess. I’ve got to clean this table. I keep neglecting it and it will be chaos.

Spectator Tribune: You live so close to the river. Is that important?

Well, I like to have visual contact with it. When I was younger, I used to water ski on the Red River and even a few years ago we used to go swim in it. Nothing ever happened to me. No carbuncles. Nothing.

Spectator Tribune: So, you like nudes?

I don’t like nudes. I love nudes. All of my work through most of my history, which is well over 50 years, is always interwoven with the body. Nudes – males or females.

Spectator Tribune: Who are the models in your work?

Models? Those are all lovers.

Spectator Tribune: All of them?

All of them.

Spectator Tribune: Were you making nudes before going to art school?

Oh yeah, I started very early drawing nudes. I drew everything, everywhere, all the time – even before I went to art school. To me, the human body is just a groovy, groovy unit. It’s fabulous.

Spectator Tribune: You were good friends with the King of the City, Walter Lewyc (revered arts scene denizen and curio shop/gallery owner, who died of cancer in 2006). Tell me about him.

Everybody wanted to know Walter. He was a self-educated intellectual and also a collector. He had the greatest junk and he had a beautiful shop – Golden City in Chinatown. He also had a place named…what is that drug you take for depression?

Spectator Tribune: Uh, Lithium?

Yes, the Lithium Café.

Spectator Tribune: I just read an article about an illustrator named Kevin Mutch and he mentions the Lithium Café and the Plug In as part of this collision between punk rock and the arts scene in the early ‘80s.

Oh yeah, the Lithium was the place. Everybody went there. There were the artists. There were the hookers. At one time, the hookers were very high class. They all wore beautiful long furs and they would stop in at Walter’s. Walter welcomed everybody. It was a salon almost. Just like his shop. It didn’t matter what your sexual preference was – you were welcome. Everyone was welcome.

In the ‘80s, there were all kinds of crazy things going on. If you went to the Plug In, you walked in and always, always with a bottle of wine and some nice soft drugs. You know, it was totally open, very professional.

Mondo Trasho, house band of the Plug In, then known as The Arthur Street Gallery

Spectator Tribune: You got to show your work as part of the My Winnipeg exhibit at La Maison Rouge in Paris.

Yeah, I’m in that show.

Spectator Tribune: So being in that show and seeing all of the various artists together, did you notice any common characteristics of Winnipeg art?

There is a show called Winnipeg Now. You should take that in. That will give you some of the good and some of the garbage that’s being done – that’s always the way it has been.

Spectator Tribune: That’s a different exhibit though.


Spectator Tribune: So, you don’t like that exhibit?

No, I like it. It’s the garbage and the good stuff. By garbage, I don’t mean garbage. I just wouldn’t…I don’t know. Winnipeg Now, I don’t know, what does that mean exactly? Half of the people in that show are not even living in Winnipeg anymore.

Spectator Tribune: In your opinion, when was Winnipeg the most interesting?

They say Winnipeg: ‘One Great City.’ Well I say, no. It looks like a bombed out Beirut or something… I remember Portage Avenue when there were nightclubs and the streets were packed with people.

Spectator Tribune: When was that?

I’m talking about the ‘60s and the ‘70s. Then they tore everything down and put up those big ugly shopping malls. The nail in the heart of the city was when they tore down Eaton’s…Eaton was the first guy where you could bring your stuff back – and retailers never did that – and if you worked for him you were looked after for a lifetime. He was one of the first true socialists in business.

Spectator Tribune: Do you think this city is poorly planned?

There is nothing downtown after the people are gone home from the offices. Who wants to go there? I go to the Downtown Y every day to swim – and I know there’s no people sitting around in their nice Armani suits drinking their cafes. You go to eat that sloppy food and then you get out.

Spectator Tribune: If you were still working as a planner, what would you do differently?

I would stop the craziness of tearing everything down that formed our history. They tore down another building in Chinatown that used to be our first City Hall – the old Shanghai. It’s under the wrecking ball.

Architecturally, the city is on the bottom. There is no planning whatsoever and that’s what you get when the planning department – and please put this in – is run by developers. It’s all business-oriented. It’s all money-making. Major, important buildings are being torn down without any thought.

If you look on aerial at downtown, it’s like a mouth with a bunch of teeth missing. It’s all these surfing parking lots. The city is being destroyed. It’s not for the people.


Julijana Capone is a writer for the Spectator Tribune.  Follow her on Twitter at@JulijanaCapone

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