State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

My life has generally been a Nightmare Before Christmas…*

There are really no advantages to being brought up in suburbia except for Halloween. Suburban kids can really rock the candy take on that night or at least we could in my day. I used to use a pillow cover and have to empty it at least once. And then there was the year my brother and I dressed as Luke and Leia from Star Wars, before Return of the Jedi – weren’t we prescient! Pictures taken and extra candy amounts poured into our pillowed bounty. Beyond that Halloween plunder my memories of living on the outskirts of Toronto are one vast episodic dystopia of strip malls, ravines full of shopping carts, being pointedly ostracized, having to hide my Echo & the Bunnymen records from those Journey zealots, and generally being bored beyond recognition. Saying I hated my early adolescence doesn’t begin to address my real disdain for it.

I did however have one thing going for me; I was destined to be an artist. Many years later I realized that in fact those stultifying days were good for my burgeoning creativity. Perhaps I was fueled by anger a little bit or maybe I was just someone who didn’t fit in anywhere else. Suburbia is in fact a perfect laboratory for pushing young people into self invention because it offers nothing but car and shopping conveniences. I guess there is church… oy, but that is a much bigger conversation that I won’t get into here. I moved effortlessly into the creative field without any wits about whether it was a sound idea.

This mammoth canyon is  right in downtown Cobalt (100' down). Like an ancient temple with a lake running beneath it - there is a strange sensation while visiting that you actually might be dead.
This mammoth canyon is right in downtown Cobalt (100′ down). Like an ancient temple with a lake running beneath it – there is a strange sensation while visiting that you actually might be dead.

Halloween today always makes me think about my life as an artist; possibly because it is a night of invention, creativity and imagination. I kind of like Guy Fawkes day better or even Mexico’s Day of the Dead but there seems to be a universal dead thing going on this time of year. Unlike other holidays that pay homage to something Halloween shines a (dayglo or black) light on the primordial side of ourselves. This year I spent the lead up to All Hallows Eve in Cobalt, Ontario. Cobalt is a town that was once the silver mining capital of the world. In the 1920’s it was bigger than Toronto. Close to the shore of Lake Temiskaming and surrounded by hills that are now carved out in dramatic ways, making the landscape one huge public sculpture, Cobalt is now a much less version of its former self. Like any historic place whose heyday has since past, Cobalt has a poignant ambiance. It is also very Goth due to the vast array of abandoned mine shafts right in town and the near death experiences you can have exploring them. Lake Temiskaming itself is a huge, deep austere lake that also serves as the source of the Ottawa River. Its own historic anti-glory comes in the form of a massive fire in 1922 that razed every town within spitting distance right down to the shore of my grandmother’s birthplace Haileybury.

I was there for an exhibition culminating in the several years of trips I have taken there, sketching, painting and writing about its landscape. Cobalt fascinates me in a peculiar way that I find impossible to verbalize. While roaming around a deep, cavernous shaft, our guide and friend Perry described the environment as being something you feel not something you can know or intellectually ascertain. In this age of virtual reality and academic incantations about everything, I love the fact that someone would mention how an actual experience is what is needed to understand place. It is true for many experiences but very important for these places that were once carved up by human beings, polluted with tailings and mountains of slag only to be reborn in many ways through nature pushing back.

Cobalt’s destroyed-ness and its vanishing remains from that era make it ghostly indeed. Not just because it is a community that has seen its day and wherever you look there are markers for its past glory but mostly because there is a duel between what happened there and the natural world’s relentless strive to take it back. Some areas will remain dead, but many are being reclaimed. This tension makes Cobalt a very unique place.

I didn’t think that as I brought my exhibition to Cobalt I would want to do anything else creatively with it but… the area draws me in for reasons that remain mysterious. Or are they? When I think about where I wanted to live as a young girl it was always a storm circled castle on a cliff, or a magical cave – anywhere but Burlington, Ontario. Perhaps this is how you find these places, by pushing your creative self throughout your life toward that mercurial inspiration that makes art.

* this of course refers the wonderful film A Nightmare Before Christmas by Tim Burton who also seemed to turn his suburban upbringing into a creative career.

What remains of the silver mines at the Temiskaming Art Gallery
until November 23rd.


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