By Madonna Hamel
The chapel at the John Paul II Centre, has tall stained glass windows that run in strips of gold and red. At certain times of the day the sun pours through, leaving subtle pools of coloured light on the white floor. To perform in the afternoon in such a space is to bask in their glow. I’ve had the good fortune of spending two weeks in this space, under the muted light while clutching old letters and scraps of stories, awaiting the voices of my steadily emerging characters to reveal themselves.
I am always amazed at what we do, as artists, with our hours and our days. While others work at jobs providing basic services and expertise, who would notice if an artist did or did not hang a painting or put on a play?
It’s an important question to ask if an artist creates beyond narcissistic or purely escapist ends. I spent some time wandering about Regina, dipping into libraries and cafes, attending readings and panels, but also talking to the locals, watching people at work, trying to get a sense of place. I have to say, Regina is a city that feels both burgeoning and bereft. And so I carried that sensation into my work.
The women in my Apron Archive stories arrived here expecting one life and getting a whole other reality. That, in itself, is nothing new; few of us can predict what the future will hold. But, add to their disappointment the fact that they arrived after days and days of travel by boat and then by train and finally on a bald and windy prairie, to marry a man, sight unseen. Or worse, be jilted, left standing on a platform, having no idea of where to go. Sitting beneath a sign that read: “Women travelling alone must carry a permit at all times. Or travel in a conducted party.”
My first day in Regina was mostly spent helping Robin, the principal dancer and director of new Dance Horizons, to convert a spa into the site of their fundraiser, The Barefoot Party. It’s a brilliant concept: guest buy a ticket and with it get a free glass of wine while somebody washes your feet, then another massages them, and finally you get a pedicure. Other options for 15 minutes are available. The therapists and pedicurists offer their time and we feed them. There was also a room with hoola-hoops and live jazz and snacks. Feet are the foundation for all dancers, and this is a chance to honour their existence and pamper them.
The wine we used for the fundraiser was from the Barefoot winery and they asked we display their brand in the form of a huge inflatable foot. I offered to take the foot to a gas station to get blown up. I spent a good half-hour just locating a place with an air pump and when I finally found one it took me a great deal of wrestling with the purple plastic to get any amount of air to flow through the plug. Finally the attendant came over to lend me a hand. While we both struggled with the foot, plugging loonie after loonie into the machine and still only getting as far as the little toe and the Achilles heel, two guys in a truck pull up and start pumping gas, then make to leave. The attendant spots them and makes a run for the truck. There goes the toe. Both guys jump out of the truck and start arguing with the attendant, as if they might actually have a case for why they had every right to leave without paying.
Standing there, foot in hand, I marvelled at the complete lack of reason, at the boldness with which they stated their indignation at being accused of anything. In fact, if anything, they looked like they really wanted a fight.
At that moment a guy walks out of the gas station, munching from a bag of tortilla chips. He looks at the guys, looks at me holding the sagging giant purple foot, points across the street with the tip of a tortilla triangle and says:
“I can get that sucker pumped for you at my garage across the street. And you don’t need to pay me no loonie.”
By this time three guys had come to the rescue of the attendant and I decided it was best to take buddy up on his offer. He hooked the foot up to a compressor and within four seconds it came to life, revealing its full proportions, which were far bigger than what the back seat of my little car could hold. But I was thankful and the two of us managed to maneuver the beast into the car in a manner that would have broken a human foot, and which blocked my rear view completely. My rescuer waved me off with a chuckle and cigarette between his lips. It was 5 p.m. on a Friday, and he was cracking open a Pilsner. His work week was over. And mine had just begun. Driving back to the spa I wondered if I hadn’t just witnessed the worst and best of Regina, in a nutshell.
Over the week I did my best to learn about the territory, a habit I started back in 1991, at Emily Carr, the art school I attended in my 30s. We had a prof who started every foundation-level student off with an assignment that involved a stone, a map and a mission.
He put a map of our town on the floor and then sent us out to find a small stone, a pebble that we would use like a player in a board game. Returning to the room we then tossed the pebble onto the map and where it landed became our territory.
For a week we were to go the spot and observe the inhabitants of the territory, explore whatever stood there, as well as the territories flanking either side, whether it be a park with trees, or, in my case a comic book shop with an indigenous art gallery and a graffitied alley for neighbours.
We were to witness the territory in all times of day and night, keep meticulous notes, then make a piece of art and install it discreetly in the territory.
I made a plaster hand with a Haida-style eye encased in the palm and then I stuck the hand into a hole of the brick wall of the comic book shop that faced the alley. I had always considered myself to be an acute observer, knowing that artists, if they are to be of any service at all, above all else, are obliged to observe. But the territory game of our professor launched me into a whole other realm of consideration I apply to this day. Sometimes, we get into ruts when we arrive somewhere new, we look for the familiar, the franchise with its dependable coffee and service or the guided tour. But a whole other thing happens, possibilities reveal themselves, when we just explore.
However, eventually, we do need to process what exactly it is we’ve seen. The greatest gift my various professions have given me is permission to wander, to gather, to collect. As a journalist I enjoyed being the researcher, even though the job title marked you as an entry-level serf. I enjoyed finding all the unusual angles and insights and anecdotes about a particular subject or guest. I was expected to fashion my information into a script with questions and ready-made answers, and have it ready to go on-air by 4 p.m. the same afternoon.
But as an artist I can gather and sift and hunt and peck for days, even months. The trick, then, becomes when to know when to stop and start disseminating, begin turning all that material into some kind of creation with contours and boundaries, a beginning and an end. (Kind of like what I’m trying to do now, with this article.)
Last Thursday I went to a panel discussion of writers hosted by Trevor Herriot. I was relieved to learn that I am not the only one who lingers in the research zone. In their pursuit of one subject, many writers come across a story so deeply moving it launches them into a whole new territory they never even knew existed. For me that happened when, at Robin’s suggestion, I look into the lives of women serving in World War II. Jane, her name may change, followed her husband from her comfortable home in Hershel, “from falling stars to falling bombs, to be near her husband who was serving in the army. She was part of the Women’s Land Army.” Based on a memoir I found in the SPCA bookstore, her story is an inspiration for me to occasionally move out of my comfort zone to find new aspects of myself, mirrored in the stories of the people I meet.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.