(Stories) Art on a Flood Threatened House

Okay, it wasn’t perfect. But it wasn’t a bad name, we first called ourselves “The riverbank loan and savings company”. There we were, four artists : Rhian Brynjolson, painter, storyteller; Sam Baardman, songsmith, photographer; Debbie Schnitzer, poet, novelist; and Bob Haverluck, who draws pictures, then writes stories,poems or something on the bottom of them. We all live on the banks of the Red river, or nearby. Together we understand the river, lakes, earth, air to be not property, not a possession, but on loan. We want to help save the river and all, for our grandchildren or yours. So we first called ourselves, The Riverbank Loan and Savings Company. Now one of us kept saying, ”When people hear that name, none of them seem to know what the hell its supposed to mean. We need a different name.”

Now don’t be thinking we spend all our time on what to name the artists’ collective. We spent time figuring out how our art might lead people to the water, if not make them drink, deeply. As well, we mused together over the delight at each of us finding inspiration in one another’s work. “All art is theft”, declared the poet Eliot and we freely stole bits and pieces from one another. It helped that we all agreed that rivers, wetlands and lakes were something to celebrate big time. Together we also saw these beauties again and again abused, endangered, needing protests on their behalf. Celebration and protest of endangered waters. Maybe that helped us agree on the name we finally settled on: River on the Run.

“River on the run” is part of a closing line from words written on one of Haverluck’s drawings. The picture is of this character, presumably an artist, looks slightly demented to me. Pointing away from himself, the artist is holding up a duck who looks outraged,alarmed or both. Perhaps petitioning the heavens. The caption reads:

Against the arguments
of the stock exchange and
the end of a gun, the
artist aims
a loaded duck. And
a handful of cranberries,
black spruce in an Algonquin
bush. A general strike .
A locomotive and a horse.
Some woman named Suzanne.
A poet planting seed catalogues.
And a river
and on the run

Against the Argument

Against the Argument

The artist, it seems is toe to toe with the ruling order, armed with a circus clown’s toy box of cultural icons and sister mother nature’s offspring? Included, are a handful of cranberries, a forest and an endangered river on the run north. On the run from her attackers . Do the assailants include Manitoba Hydro Corporation who for decades has engineered our great rivers and lakes, turning them into sad reservoirs for the convenience of ever more hydro-electric generation? Is the wounded water on the run from farm field herbicides, pesticides and industrial fertilizers, the sewage of hundreds of thousands of factory farmed pigs invading by way of field drainage ditches? Is it also mayor Sam’s and council’s willfully inadequate sewage treatment plant that harries and haunts the river? Who endangers her and all her relations and who joins in the attempts to give her more voice? Maybe artists joining together can do a little towards rivers well being. Maybe calling the artists “River on the Run” isn’t a bad idea.

Whatever little we were to do, we knew the the wisdom of doing our homework. So we read and sought out conversations with and about the different forces at work in waters endangerment and waters well being. All of us are readers and all of us relished our conversations with water biologists , researchers , activists… and as well, spokesman for factory farming of animals, for engineering rivers and lakes and for defending the dumping half treated human excrement into the rivers. It all fed the use of poetry, drawing, painting, storytelling , photography, song in the keys of celebration and protest, delight and lament.

These became the stuff of several joint exhibitions , coupled with performances in small town and city, halls and house concerts .(Susan Israel often helped us with these.) In 2010 we began teaming with other artists out of the Arts of Water Artist’s Symposia, Jamie Olievero, Scot Douglas, Ellen Peterson, Gerry Wolfram, Derek Eides and others . River on the Run’s Venues included galleries, church halls, the West End Cultural centre and hotels, hotels where we were invited to be part of three international science based conferences on the well being of the waters.

There is some readiness among scientists, ecology educators and activists to invite artist to bring their right brained angles of vision. You, as well as I, know art can offer ways of seeing, thinking, feeling , knowing the world different from empirical sciences necessarily reductionist approach. Matters of seeming fact presuppose narrative frameworks, need conversations about values and visions such as artworks can provoke. Art can articulate a deep sense of the world that helps disturb the false peace of a science in the service of “nature as a mere resource” , as a “system to be developed for human exploitation.”

Art must, to our way of thinking show forth sister mother nature in ways different from this. Different from the iconic scientist Francis Bacon, who championed learning from nature mainly in order to master her. Francis Bacon, tragically one winter afternoon, spent too long in his back yard, enthusiastically stuffing snow and ice up the ass end of chickens, caught pneumonia and died. There is nothing on record to confirm the rumour that several chickens were seen at his funeral. Who of us wants chickens, caribou and rivers showing up at our funeral just to be sure that were finally dead?
During the 2009 spring flood, we noticed a derelict house on the riverside of Scotia Street, where most of our group live. Could the house become an art piece about the river waters, that now were all the news. Sam talked to the owners. Got us permission to have a go at it. We began on a side of the house facing up the street printing out large one of Debbie’s poems

Dear human …
Thank you for the dike
it is true that
sometimes I am more full of myself
than I ought to be…
in my eagerness to river after ice …
you make shore of me. So tender when you stack..
You dike me
you really
dike me …
( remember that I do not carry
your refuse lightly)

Along the lengthy wall with the poem were numerous prints of sam’s photograph’s. Intriguing and unsettling images, near parables of river and lakes relations with humans.When folks followed the bread crumbs along that wall they found a poem by Rhian and more of Sam’s alluring photos. At the back of the house they were four feet from the dike. On the nearby sandbags making up the dike, we wrote out phrases and lines of poetry and made a few simple drawings.

Had folks first approached the house from the north they were faced with a couple of mural sized line and wash drawings. One was of a man being attacked by ducks. One duck was attached to his lip. Another duck was fixed to his nose, another to his ear. Below this piece of Haverluck’s was the writing: The ducks gently savaged the old man from asleep to awake.He thinks , “The canards have gone beserk. Gone nutso at humans turning their lake into a toilet.” Then the old man whispers, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

One sunny afternoon Sam arrived at the front of the house to hear melodious voices from the side. He listened. It was the voice of two teenage girls. They were reading aloud to one another, every word written on the walls of the derelict house.They were mending the necessarily broken circuit between the artwork and the listener, onlooker. They were accepting and opening the package the house was trying to deliver.

The abundance of walkers, going up and down Scotia on those spring days found the art house waiting for them in ambush. TV cameras and a newspaper reporter soon appeared, giving publicity to the event. After about twelve days, a real estate dealers complaints meant we whitewashed the place as earlier agreed. However, the art house had done its job, intriguing hundreds of viewer , leaving them musing more deeply about what might better make for the well being of our relation to the rivers and waters.

Some of the work of the above artists are found elsewhere on this site. As well, the riverontherun.com website offers more related pieces and background.

Talking Water Project|Bob Haverluck (2013)

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