Jen Rae arrived in town soon after I’d quit my day job to pursue freelance arts writing as a full-time endeavour. She was one of my first interviewees and we had kept in touch. I was assisting her at the last minute with a photo shoot for a creative residency at The Banff Centre and she ended up driving me back there with her.
That first night was spent at the grungy old sports lounge above The Kiln Cafe—both spots are now long gone. Everyone there was from everywhere, as Banff had plenty of everything but locals. Jen was born in Banff, but not many who are stay. I would eventually write about Banff for Sarah Fuller’s project on the town; Sarah is originally from Winnipeg, but she is now the longest living resident of Banff I know.
On the second evening, Jen took me to a party at Sylvie’s and I held a really long conversation with someone who had just come from Field. This was Jennifer Bowes.
Jennifer had studied at the University of Alberta and shown in the 2008 Alberta Biennale, but we hadn’t met then. She was in Banff only for a short visit and was living and teaching in Grande Prairie. I remember being surprised to hear the college had an art program. I have a distant memory of my sisters living for brief periods of time in Grande Prairie, but I never considered why or where. Jennifer suggested I come see Grande Prairie for myself, so I caught a ride with her when she was in Edmonton loading up on radicchio and Belgian endives from the Italian Centre. This would be my first time heading north of Edmonton in my twenty years as an Edmontonian and I still did not know why or where.
I would gain an intimate sense of Jennifer’s working method, which became intricately linked in my mind to the idea of homesteading. Her working process requires a stable work base, and nothing is more stable in this world than the comforts of the home. On the handful of mornings I stayed with Jennifer, I would come downstairs to find she had already been up for hours—preparing for class, cooking pies, simmering fresh venison stock, drawing, and carving. Once, I found her braiding together plastic bags from the grocery store into a long rope. Now she is repurposing tens of thousands of paper sheets pulled from old dairies and love letters spanning some twenty years, transforming them into an interlocking wall tapestry of open vessels. As an object containing an immense array of thought patterns and memories, there is a visible weight of time spent. Each container doubles upon itself, as time spent folding, writing and spanning.
Driving in on 100 Avenue, there were only a few blocks of prefabricated stores in 2008. Jennifer gave a confident prediction that I would see several Hummers during my stay, but that first trip I didn’t see a single one. I didn’t see anything I expected, actually. I did see an incredible private art collection courtesy of Murray and Chris that stands today as of the most astounding private collections of contemporary Canadian art I have ever visited. I would meet Peter and Teresa for the first time out in Demmitt, years before ground broke on the cultural centre, and I made visits with the faculty, including Tina Martel and Ed Bader. I also met Robert Stevens, the new Executive Director of The Prairie Art Gallery. At the time, the gallery was located in the corner end of a strip mall. The walls were overflowing with paintings, including several Euphemia McNaughts. The gallery’s roof on the old schoolhouse had just collapsed that previous winter under the weight of too much snow, and Robert had big plans for the small gallery.