Art With Rural Communities

By Meghan Hunter-Gauthier           

As a creative practitioner[1] whose work is focused on rural communities, I have come to find that many residents tend to view art as a purely urban matter. This is a common conception among rural Canadians, and it is also an understandable one. After all, rural and urban spaces have different needs and varied social landscapes which contribute to a range of mentalities regarding the value of the arts. What is interesting to consider is how this gap developed, especially considering the fact that before and during colonization, all of Canada’s communities technically were rural [2]. Having said that, it stands to reason that the culture of urbanization has had a definite impact on the slow but steady divide between rural and urban mentalities towards the arts.  

In order to better frame the origin of this divide, consider the work of European trained painter Lucius R. O’Brien, who found great inspiration in the Canadian wilderness. One of the products from his inspiration is the landscape painting: Sunrise on the Saguenay, Cape Trinity (1880).[3] If one were to ask the question, who is this painting for, the answer certainly would not point towards any inhabitants of the Saguenay territory, including those of First Nation or settler descent. Rather, this painting is for an affluent, urban, European community. To attest to this statement, “O’Brien was the first president of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, and this painting was one of the National Gallery of Canada’s first acquisitions”.[4] Thus, Sunrise on the Saguenay is a painting made for an early Caucasian-Canada attempting to build itself as a nation, complete with paintings of the same calibre as those found in European galleries.

In referring to the work of O’Brien, I am referencing the emergence of academic Canadian art. Not every Canadian citizen is equipped with the tools to understand or even appreciate the art that is in the National Gallery. This is because the space of academic art boasts a culture and economy all its own, one that is quite separate from the bare necessities of life that many rural residents of Canada are primarily concerned with. Consider ‘logging towns’, small rural centres with few residents, whose only economic stimulant is the forest industry. Even in a contemporary Canada, fine paintings, opera, theatre and ballets dwindle in value compared to ‘money making’ industries such as logging, mining or the auto industry. Unlike in urban centres, an artistic economy is much more difficult to rationalize in a rural setting.

It is interesting though, that over the years the challenge to establish art in rural spaces has been continually met by creative types and supporters. For example, the earliest documented European-style play in this country occurred in 1606 within “Samuel de Champlain’s settlement of Port Royal,” [5] and in 1933 the University of Alberta, Department of Extension established the Banff Centre [6], which would eventually ignite a trend of rural based art centres across the country [7]. Furthermore in recent years (2009), the work of Creative City Network of Canada has done an excellent job of spotlighting the economic and social benefits that the arts can offer rural communities. As a result, spaces such as Osoyoos (BC), Rosebud (AB), Prince Edward County (ON), and Bouctouche (NB), have jumped on the bandwagon[8]. Indeed, this is all well and good, especially for artistic people in rural spaces – however, it is important for creative practitioners and supporters of rural arts to remember that it is one thing for art to exist in rural spaces and another thing for art to exist with rural spaces.  

In order to better explain my previous statement, consider the emergence of the Aanmitaagzi Collective, a relatively new community arts organization based in Northern Ontario. Over the past eight years, Aanmitaggzi has developed under the artistic direction of Penny Couchien and Sid Bobb. Couchien’s ancestral home is Nipissing First Nation, and when the couple returned to the area in 2006, they saw the possibility of living and working as professional artists in their new home community[9]. The pair of artists applied a community arts model to their inaugural work and began collaborating with pre-existing, like-minded groups within Nipissing First Nation. With the networking underway, it became clear the Nipissing had the potential to support a thriving arts community.[10]

I admire Couchien and Bobb’s approach to building Aanmitaggzi because they began by taking a look at the social and historical ecology of Nipissing First Nation. In fact, the pair’s very first project helped them to assess the willingness of the Nipissing community to embrace, access, and participate in artistic practice. This investigative project involved partnering with Nipissing First Nation in order to develop a summer program called Stories of Nipissing. This project was built with the intention to engage local youth and elders in a storytelling forum, which included three “ [. . .] components: elder’s storytelling luncheons with lead artists; elders’ storytelling with youth; and lead artists guiding the youth in retelling the stories through theatre arts.”[11] Ultimately, Stories of Nipissing proved to be a success, and as a result of continual community support, the Aanmitaagzi Collective officially emerged in 2008.

This profile of Aanmitaagzi reveals how introducing artistic practice on a community level can not only challenge notions of art as a purely urban matter, but also provide the social service of community engagement. The arts have a unique capacity to work flexibly with different environments and issues[12] and in order to catalyze arts potential I feel that it is important for rural communities to not only exist alongside art, but rather with art. As Aanmitaagzi’s Stories of Nipissing has revealed, the capacity for this union is already present; it is simply the job of cultural practitioners to identify potential and begin to stock the fire.


Notes: 

[1] For the purpose of this paper the term ‘creative practitioner’ will be made in reference to any one person whose art practice is conducted with the intention of social betterment and or economic betterment.

[2]   [8]  [12] Creative City News.

[3] “Collections”.

[4]  [10]  [11] Ibid.

[5] “A Brief History of (Rural) Performing Arts in Canada”.

[6] “History of The Banff Centre”.

[7] Examples include the Yukon Arts Centre and Fogo Island Arts.

[9] “History”.


Bibliography

“History”. Aanmitaagzi. (n.d.).  

“A Brief History of (Rural) Performing Arts in Canada”. SPARC. n.d. 

“History of The Banff Centre”. The Banff Centre. (n.d.)  

 O’Brian,  John and White Peter, ed. (2007) Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art.

Chaykowski, Natasha. Ruralism: Sunday Drive Takes Art Out of the City. (7 September 2014). Canadian Art, Reviews. 

Creative City News. (2009). Revitalizing Rural Communities Through Arts and Culture. 

“Collections”. (n.d.). National Gallery of Canada.