By: Caleb Hamm
An audience of silent machinery witnessed two excited artists launch into an adventure that would forever change their perspective of their art’s potential.
The blank canvas stretched 230 feet along the cabinet assembly line, looming 25 feet over sawdust-coated machinery and a maze of conveyor rollers. Ralph Fehr wanted the factory to have colourful walls, a request fellow artist John Wiebe and I ran with, transforming a time-card work environment into a source of inspiration.
It may be wrought of a desire for more, a yearning, a clawing to escape, or it may just course through the veins –it doesn’t much matter–there are many possible explanations for the intense artistic talent that bubbles beneath the skin of Mennonite communities in Manitoba.
There is art in the Mennonite archives. But you have to look for it. Some denominations, groups, schools, etc., have championed music, painting, writing as a significant part of their Mennonite history. This approach, often politicized, and wrongly so, as liberal, is mostly found in urban areas. The creatives moved to the cities in search of culture; the function-over-form Mennonites remained in their communities, many opposed, on religious grounds (and fear), to the influences of the outside world. This attitude remains in many existing settlements, though largely unexpressed as such.
Having lived in several other Canadian cities like Vancouver and Halifax, where street and galleried art is prevalent, it’s hard not to invite the comparison. Garden Valley Collegiate, Winkler’s high school, has always housed a wellspring of artists who either leave town to find further success or cave-in to the lures of limited employment. Fine art is often seen and disparaged as being impractical and unprofitable, two big no-nos in many smaller Mennonite communities.
Art defines, welcomes and reminds its viewers to acknowledge their home and their history. It is essential for the growth and preservation of a community’s identity and culture.
Winkler’s creative voice is a whisper, but it is slowly getting louder.
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As people explore the menus of ethnic cuisine we challenge our palettes with new dishes and in the process we become familiar with it and fond of exploring different tastes. Go for a walk through Winnipeg’s multicultural West End and take in a handful of murals. Just like the restaurants they are painted on, they offer a window into a cultural minority. They are relevant and valid to the community they represent.
When fellow Winkler artist, John Wiebe, informed me of a mural proposal he’d been offered we began collaborating. Ideas flowed. Early sketches mustered up a handful of possibilities, but it was a new challenge to conceptualize something of this magnitude. Ralph Fehr, the manager of Elias Woodwork, had the simple idea of putting some colour on the walls, but little did we know how much colour: 230 feet of blank canvas is a daunting sight, to be sure. As dialogue progressed John and I pinned down some stronger main themes. Having both worked in a factory we wanted to create something that would transform the environment and inspire the workers.
Inspiration is one of the fundamental vehicles to which artists can attach their medium. Art can’t help but influence the environment it’s in. It affects people’s moods, their awareness and their creativity. Initially, the idea was to create separate murals for each of the 10 sections, but after sketching out several possibilities, it seemed best to utilize the entire space as one flowing piece. A diverse fusion of abstract and recognizable subjects seemed an appropriate way to keep it interesting over the years. We settled on a landscape, cityscape and a figurative element along with several thematic words, which were stylized into the colourful tide of visual jazz.
Having no experience working with spray paint nor working on a scale this size, the learning curve throughout this project has been a fast and steep one. The excitement throughout the project remained strong and enthusiastic. The beauty of collaborating with another artist is that you are able to bring your skills to the table and discover how much more is possible when you share them.
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Venturing beyond the perimeter of Winnipeg’s small, reputable art scene, one is forced to comb through the prairie towns a little more attentively, but there certainly are some studio gems to be found in the Pembina Valley Artists Studio Tour. Art in the workplace isn’t an everyday discussion in industrial Prairie towns south of the ‘Peg, though the phrase definitely raises some interesting questions about our culture here in southern Manitoba and the region’s absent arena for the arts. Much like street art, art in the workplace is for the people, not just the art collector or avid gallery visitor. It is about improving the environment for those that work in the least aesthetically pleasing spaces. Art does far more than merely evoke emotion. It challenges, enlightens and encourages innovation and discussion through the voices of possibility and vision.
The upkeep and beautification of our homes is valuable to us. So valuable that we devout much of our free time to it. With the majority of our weekdays spent in the workplace, one might stop to ask how important is beauty in our workplace? Should it be given as much value as our homes considering we spend an average of 1700 hours a year at work?
Art is the workplace is quite beneficial, researchers say. In 2003, the Business Committee for the Arts and the International Association for Professional Art Advisors completed a survey involving 800 employees from 32 different American companies. The stats revealed that workplace art reduces stress (78 per cent agreed) and enhances the work environment (94 per cent agreed); 84 per cent of employees agreed that it demonstrated their employer’s interest in improving the quality of life in and outside the workplace; 73 per cent claimed that it helped them feel more motivated and inspired, and 77 per cent agreed that art in the workplace inspired a new appreciation for diversity and encouraged discussions and expression of opinions.
With a massive immigration boom through the last decade, Winkler now boasts a population exceeding 11,000 people, representing over 50 different countries. Many of the immigrants settling into Winkler seek employment in the factories. Given the statistics demonstrated in the mentioned survey, one may begin to wonder how many more factories would benefit by putting colour on the walls. Winkler’s canvas remains relatively blank, save for a slowly growing blotch of colour that will hopefully cover more factories, start more galleries, encourage creative youth to stay and inspire an entire community and others like it.