Why I moved here, why I stayed: art matters in Waterloo Region

I moved to Waterloo Region originally around 2000 to work in the new and budding tech industry. I came with no idea of what Waterloo Region was outside of knowing I was heading into post-industrial, post-manufacturing, Oktoberfest and Mennonites. None of these held any interest for me. My first dance with the Region was with a small tech company in Waterloo. I lived in old Doon, old Preston, Waterloo near Chapters and finally in Old Westmount. I mostly worked. When I didn’t work, I would go to the Button Factory for life drawing. I attended festivals and appreciated the culture  as a pure consumer.

My life then moved me away from the utterly soulless world of tech for the first time (remember that first time you learned a tough lesson about something and then thought after enough time had passed things would have changed enough to try  again? Like re-dating that person you broke up with all those years ago, and finding out they hadn’t changed? Yeah, tech is my bad boyfriend. I don’t re-date people. I re-date an industry.) Don’t get me wrong… I loved coding. I love making things, and I love math. I love logic and algorithm. However, as an industry, it is deeply problematic. Especially for women and creative types.

I moved to Guelph for a bit to live through an utter devastation, and then moved to rest my head in Elora.

North Queen Elora

My beautiful wee cottage in Elora before I moved in. The gardens expanded, the house stayed the same. Now it is gone, replaced by a mondern monstrosity.

Elora was convalescence, rest, respite, heeling, solitude, quietude, gardening, bread baking, and perfectly introverted. I have nary a friend from that time and location other than the plants, the wildlife, insects, the falls and rocky gorges, a now stolen super heavy fixie pink bike that was impossible to push up steep or large hills, my extensive gardens, my writing. These are now all gone and I am left with nothing but nostalgic memories of beauty.  After some time in Elora, somewhere around 2006, I had the precious ability to choose any city with a university where I could want to live. Oddly, I chose downtown Kitchener.

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From my beautiful Elora cottage to my brownfield balcony-view flat in Kitchener

My family expressed concern and apprehension regarding my choice, and others who had seen my beautiful half-acre property and ancient house in Elora couldn’t possibly understand why downtown Kitchener held any appeal for a young mother with two babies who had just become single. Kitchener it was with Bread and Roses cooperative as the replacement for my sweetly quaint Elora home.

Once here, I became quickly integrated into the city. I developed a strong passion for the downtown in which I was a new resident. I became active in the happenings of the inner city street, advocating for small locally owned business, downtown residents, and the daily goings on that affected the health of this new and amazing place (context: I have lived in several cities). The tenacity and care of the people active in the core was infectious. The community up here is wound together through commonality and stays very open – you are all accepted and we do our best to take care of those in our community. Really a perfect spot to land for a penniless single mother.

There was one word that often came to mind that counted for everything…

Possibility

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In the downtown, my first stunning experience with art in Waterloo Region came from CAFKA: Haptic in 2007. I was blown away by the art-as-found-object nature of the show. The work was playful, filled with wonder, and haphazard and completely unexpected by this author in my first experiences in this city.

I was desirous to talk about it, and wanted to be as much a part of this stunning world that I hadn’t known in my previous existence in this city. I started a salon in the Exhibit Cafe (now where Imbibe is located at the base of  TheMUSEUM) to discuss art, food, philosophy, poetry, and civic issues. It featured researchers, specialists, poets, artists, farmers, and other amazing people who were willing to share their passion. We ran for over a year and I met so many interesting people. Among these were Dan Forsey who is now the owner of the Tannery School of Music (at the time, art event organiser extraordinaire), and Brian Scott (events department for the city of Kitchener). These two pulled me into an arts landscape that was to change me forever. I had other critical mentors in the shape of professors and friends who had no idea of the power of their words. Sometimes creativity takes a grand kick in the ass. Sometimes even that doesn’t work to get us there. Many people ignore this calling forever because there are several indications of the impossibility and pain of it all. Those people – I feel badly that they were discouraged. It’s tough. Really tough. But it is a worthwhile rollercoaster ride.

Eventually the salon folded when my schooling required more of my attention.

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Around this time, I had been introduced to the MT Space with the early workshops of The Last 15 Seconds. I was blown away by the quality of the work. I expected to see this type of art in Montreal, but not in my surprisingly more-than-just-Mennonites! downtown. I had moved my expectations beyond the tourism focus on quaint German-ness and Oktoberfest, but I had not expected this level of experimental and avant garde artistry.

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With a new-found passion for this local and exciting form (in visual art, theatre, and music), and my love of critical thought and communication (what I was studying) with support from Forsey and Scott, I founded a burlesque company (look at that hair colour! I am not sure how I did it… Aside this cast was outstandingly talented. I have such profound respect for all of these artists, many of whom have continued performing in one way or another). After a year of hard work (for me, there was an importance in having a critical perspective on the nature of burlesque. It had to be about more than the costumes and partial nudity. It needed to possess a reflexivity, a critical dialog in the arc of the performances… but man the costumes were a blast) we were invited to participate in IMPACT 09.

Our company impressed, but more important, I was impressed by the nature of art making in the city to a point that I could no longer be silent. The theatre/performance art community, as well as the Three Amigos and the discussions on multiculturalism, inclusion and art had absolutely grabbed my attention and has held me for all of these years. I was brought into the arts, and guided patiently by the likes of Majdi Bou-Matar, Paddy Gillard-Bentley, and so many others. The wealth of ability and creativity in this community is beyond words. IMPACT 09 and CAFKA Veracity saw the beginning of my reviewing art on my now defunct blog Urbanely Urban.

In writing Urbanely Urban, I had attended hundreds of art, and art related events in the region, and outside the region if it pertained to artists from here. I encountered all types of artists from high art mucky mucks, to people who are experimenting in transformative media, to graffiti artists who did little more than tag. I met composers whose work reached the sublime as well as those who worked with sound and noise: taking me on visceral journeys through abstraction. I reviewed blues, jazz, symphony, contemporary, outrageous, odd, dance, ballet, theatre, art talks, exhibits, solo artists, lectures, the Canadian famous, the brand new, the outsider, the insider and anything I could find at all interesting. My writing was quoted in several newspapers, magazines, some academic journals and in other various media. If nothing else, I gained a wide perspective on art and art making in this region, how it travels and has a knock-on effect on other locations. I also gained perspective on why people leave, which they continue to do in droves, and where they go when they have left. We have a serious case of creative brain-drain.

As for myself, I am a writer… an observer. I am also a playwright. I watch and write. And after a previous 15 years of changing my address several times per year every year, I have finally settled into downtown Kitchener as my long-term home. It’s been 7 years so far.  I won’t claim expertise on downtowns, Kitchener, Waterloo Region or the art made here, but I have put in my 10,000 hours of looking, making and writing here to feel a certain confidence in some of my observations.

Our grassroots arts are critical to the act of making art in this region. They are also critical to the health of our overwhelmingly diverse population. They are our stories and artefacts. They say something about us as a city and as population who are sometimes only held together by geography but still share a common experience within this. You see, Elora was a place of respite, and immediate heeling for a very sore and broken soul. Waterloo Region art is what breathed the life back into that something that still limped around even though it thought itself strong again. I am a part of this diversity. I am proudly a downtown Kitchener artist.

The next blog will be about this… the grassroots.

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