Roadside Attractions boosts the province’s public art profile

Art | by Gregory Beatty

If you’ve spent much time on Saskatchewan highways, you’ve likely seen your share of roadside attractions. Mac the Moose in Moose Jaw is probably the best-known, but plenty of other cities and towns have attractions of their own that are symbols of civic pride and promotion.

Technically, they qualify as public art but there’s usually a lot of kitsch involved, so the connection to “fine art” is pretty tenuous. This summer, though, the existing roster of roadside attractions in Saskatchewan is being joined by over 20 new attractions with a ton of public art cred.

Funded by Canada Council through its New Chapters program to commemorate Canada’s sesquicentennial, Roadside Attractions is a collaboration between Regina’s Dunlop Art Gallery and eight other galleries: the Art Gallery of Regina and Sâkêwêwak (Regina); AKA and PAVED (Saskatoon); the Mann Gallery (Prince Albert); the Godfrey Dean Gallery (Yorkton), the Allen Sapp Gallery (North Battleford) and the Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery.

“In Saskatchewan we love a good road trip,” says Dunlop executive director/curator Jennifer Matotek. “So the original idea came from the desire we all have to explore the province.

“Another source of inspiration was just noticing that we have a certain type of public art,” adds Matotek. “It’s often large versions of everyday objects and I wanted to put something together that would challenge people’s ideas of what public art can be.”

The Dunlop is a branch of Regina Public Library, and through the provincial library network the gallery recruited additional communities to host public art projects. That was limited to sites that were on the main highways between the six cities, though.

With a bit of consultation with the Dunlop, each partner gallery selected its own artist to show. Then the Dunlop curated artists for the other locations.

“About half the artists are from Saskatchewan, so they know the people, history and geography quite well,” says Matotek.

“The rest come from other parts of Canada, so they don’t know the province as well. A few hadn’t even been to Saskatchewan before, so they had a chance to learn about our province, and offer that outsider view which I wanted to have. I think when people come in they help us see ourselves in a different way.”

Roadside Attractions opens July 1 but the website is up now. It has artist bios and information about host communities, along with podcast interviews with the artists where they talk about their work. To offer a broader perspective on the project’s three-pronged theme of history, people and geography there’s also interviews with notable Saskatchewan writers and musicians such as Trevor Herriot, Tenille Campbell, Megan Nash and the P.A. pop trio The Wolfe.

Treaty Land

If you visit the website, you’ll also find an acknowledgement that various display spots in the project are on land covered by Treaties Four, Six and Ten. “There is an understanding we are on treaty land and a lot of the works are cognizant and respectful of that history,” says Matotek.

“Ruth Cuthand, from Saskatoon, is creating a work in Cumberland House about a smallpox outbreak that happened there,” Matotek says. “So she’s directly addressing a painful moment in our history. Other artists are doing work around truth and reconciliation.”

Joi T. Arcand, another Indigenous artist in Roadside Attractions, was just short-listed for the 2018 Sobey Art Award. She’s a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in northwest Saskatchewan, and is creating a text-based work in Cree syllabics in Moose Jaw to highlight the area’s historic importance as a winter camp for the Cree and Assiniboine (Moose Jaw is from the Cree word  Moscastani-sipiy which means “warm place by the river”).

As Matotek notes, Roadside Attractions also includes an outsider’s perspective on Saskatchewan. Vicky Sabourin is one example — she’s from Montreal, and will be exhibiting in Montmartre.

Montmartre, as it happens, is one of those Saskatchewan communities that boasts a “roadside attraction”. It’s a scale-model of the Eiffel Tower, which is appropriate as the town is named after Paris’ infamous 18th district which, during the Belle Epoque from 1872–1914, was a hub of bohemian creativity.

The Paris Montmartre, in turn, takes its name from a 130-metre hill in the district. Located on the prairies 90 kilometres southeast of Regina, Montmartre, Saskatchewan lacks a similar geographic landmark.

Coming from Montreal, which is anchored by the 230-metre tall Mont Royal, Sabourin was struck by the flatness of the landscape, says Matotek. “What she’s done is create a text-based work that, when you view it from a particular angle, looks like a mountain because she was quite jarred by the flatness and wanted to intervene and create her own piece of landscape.”

Road Trip

When traced on a map, the 20-plus locations in Roadside Attractions resemble a bird with spread wings. Not counting the time spent viewing the art, covering the circuit would take around 20 hours.

Matotek would love to see people tackle the project that way but she recognizes that may not be possible. She also recognizes that with the way the project is structured, with sites scattered across a wide swath of Saskatchewan, accessibility will be an issue.

“There is an opportunity to travel but not everyone will be able to do that if they don’t have a car,” she says. “When we first thought of the project, STC was still there. Now that it’s not, it means the project is only accessible to certain people in certain ways. That’s a problem.”

Some thought has been given to organizing a charter, but factoring in an overnight stay somewhere, it would be expensive to organize.

Nonetheless, Matotek and her project partners are eager to engage the public this summer.

“We have a website, first of all, which is really an aggregate place for content. We also have Facebook and Instagram, and will be encouraging people to upload and share content. So we really do want it to be a shared experience where we engage with everyone.”

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