By Graham Wiebe
I’m sitting outside what used to be my studio drinking a terribly sweet, one dollar iced coffee. I’m trying to comprehend that all the artwork I’ve ever made is gone; burnt and lost in the fire. As the ice cubes disappear into the milky, shit water, I imagine myself standing inside my third story studio as the fire is happening. I watch as a decade’s worth of work and the objects I cherished most become a collaborative pile of ash with the twenty-five other artists who also had studios within the space. I see the black and white prints I had made a week prior shrivel and melt into the pleather portfolio they were protected by. In the center of the studio a copy of Wolfgang Tillmans’ Truth Study Center burns right beside a copy of The Holy Bible. The two books merge into one and then dissolve. On the wooden desk to the right of my bookshelf sits the Incredible Hulk pipe I got as a gift for my twenty-second birthday. The Hulk’s head is the bowl and when you put the weed into the pipe, it made up the Hulk’s hair. An animatronic dog with a motion sensor butthole sits on the floor near the door of the studio next to a Bruce Nauman poster. His rubber skin shrinks and molds around his metal body in the extreme heat. I named him “Killer”.
The studio I occupied at 274 Jarvis Avenue was a place for me to go, sit on my broken couch, and think about art. A quiet, productive and safe work space where I was surrounded by the books, objects and people that inspired me most. Twenty-six of us lost our spaces the morning of the fire. Our artwork, our collections, our supplies, our tools and our livelihoods, all destroyed in an inferno that no one knows the cause of, and probably never will. The objects and memories in the space which all belonged and worked cohesively to inspire our respective practices are now a pile of embers—still smoking, it starts to burn my eyes. It doesn’t seem real that all our work and belongings could just be “gone”. I’m starting to feel slightly sick. I remember waking up on that Monday morning and checking my email with one new message from the landlord Keith. I don’t think I’ve ever read an email so many times.
What the hell am I going to do now? I’m an “emerging” artist with nowhere to make art, no past work to show, no equipment, nothing. Most of the pieces I was making prior to the fire now exist only in the form of a photograph. For a moment the lingering concerns and questions of the future fade away and I feel relieved and oddly free from the past and my previous ways of working. Maybe this is a chance for me to push myself away from a familiar medium and experiment. I’m not sure how the others are doing but personally, I don’t know where to start again with my art. Emerging can be such a hard place to be, almost like an artist’s purgatory.
Before the warehouse was converted into artist studios, it functioned as an embroidery and textile mill that made custom patches and sleeping bags. I used to wander through the dusty rows of deserted machines when I was feeling tired and uninventive, searching for inspiration in the boxes of abandoned thread and half-finished patches. It was a mysterious and unsettling environment that I usually found myself fast-walking away after hearing something shift in a dark corner of the room. This section of the warehouse was completely abandoned. Everything had been dropped and left stagnant, as if the employees of the working factory had evacuated for a fire drill and never returned. Last year one of the artists in the studios filmed a remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 Alphaville in the mill, but I never got my hands on a copy. The basement of the building was inhabited by local metal bands that used the lower level as a practice space. I didn’t know any of the musicians personally, but I know they lost everything as well. I was always most comfortable making my art when the wooden floors beneath were vibrating melodically to a chaotic bassline. On a quiet day you could sometimes make out muffled sounds that resembled deep pig squeals. It felt like home. Thank you.
I can feel the warm, limestone steps underneath my butt and I’m starting to feel foolish and over caffeinated. Why did I come back here? What did I expect to find? I scan the rubble to see if maybe, just maybe, a single print was spared; surviving the blaze as the miracle I needed to revive my practice. Or maybe one of the swords I bought for sixty dollars from an old man in Steinbach, MB would magically appear under a pile of charred brick without a scratch. Nothing. Whoever purchases these ruins and builds on this land may find some remains of our work and think it’s some weird, ancient artifact. As I look around hoping to recover even a fragment of a work made by just one of the artists in the building, I can’t help but cry. The warehouse housed some of Winnipeg’s most prominent artists such as Eleanor Bond, Dominique Rey, and duo Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan, to name a few. Over thirty plus years of artwork and memories were destroyed in an instant.
The news crews are starting to show up again and the smog is getting thicker. Every breath I take fills my already asthmatic lungs with the things I cared about most. The work and memories created at 274 Jarvis are now airborne, floating in all directions as a visibly dark, collaborative cloud. I should probably get going but it’s so hard to look away. Uncertain what the future holds for all of us, my mind wanders back to making and moving forward. I have an empty coffee cup in one hand and the phone I’m writing this on in the other. I’m about to holster my phone to pick up one of the charred bricks from the studio, as a piece of paper blows past me which reads, “Monica, I still love you”. I think I might be able to start working again.
Feature image: Photograph of the remains of the fire of 274 Jarvis Street. Taken by Graham Wiebe on Monday July 22, 2019. All photos courtesy of the artist.