Their Winnipeg: Pages from a Magazine’s History. Part, the First. by Robert Enright

Posted in Border Crossings Study Centre [BCSC] by Border Crossings on July 26 2013

All good ideas are like Wordsworth’s poetic children: they come into the world trailing paths of glory. That is to say, they have had a previous existence in the imagination where they are formed, and then they just need time and space to discover themselves realized. So it was with Arts Manitoba, the incarnation of the magazine that in 1985 became (and has remained) Border Crossings. The idea base from which the magazine sprang was fully a product of the education I received in Saskatoon in the English Department of the University of Saskatchewan. More accurately, it was the influence of certain faculty members—Peter Millard, Ron Marken, literature professors, and Terrence Heath, an historian—that opened up my mind to the ways in which the various art forms were constantly straying into one another’s terrain. In one way, it might seem surprising that when I left Saskatoon to write my MA thesis on the Newfoundland poet E.J. Pratt, I went to Paris by way of London. But I had been seduced into the aesthetic boundary crossing of the expatriate generation that had been drawn to the City of Light in the early part of the 20th century. I was entranced by their aesthetic pronouncements: Gertrude Stein was trying to write cubist, Ezra Pound was publishing criticism on sculptors and painters, and Hemingway famously declared that he “could make a landscape like Mr. Paul Cezanne.” I’m not sure what he meant, but I liked the sound of it. The world of art was open to the imagination, and no one could stop me from going in the front door.

I should mention one further thing about my education in Saskatoon prior to leaving for Europe. I knew very little about the visual arts, but I was interested in painting, sculpture and drawing and did visit the Mendel Gallery fairly often. Just before leaving I saw an exhibition of paintings that was being circulated by the National Gallery. It was called, “Joe Plaskett and His Paris: In Search of Time Past / Joe Plaskett et son Paris: a la recherché d’un temps passé.” The works were large paintings of the interior of the artist’s Paris studio, complete with friends and his signature dining tables, already displaying the beauty of their used-up contents. They were full of pastellated light and space and I thought they were gorgeous. I knew too little about the history of art to know that he was acknowledging the great studio paintings of Matisse, but that wouldn’t have dampened my enthusiasm. Plaskett’s sought-after time past was about to be my lived-in time present, and I remember going to Paris with a sense of excited anticipation. This growing fascination with art was my academic downfall. I did less thesis writing in Paris and London than I did going to galleries, but it was the best unofficial education I could have undergone.

Border Crossings Study Center at La Maison Rouge, June – September 2011. Paris, France.

When I returned in 1972 I moved to Winnipeg to do post-graduate work in the English Department at the University of Manitoba. My marriage had broken up and it seemed a new beginning in every way. But I didn’t return unencumbered. What I carried back from Europe, certainly with more conviction than when I went, was a sense of the close connections among the arts, and an inkling of the way those connections could be written about. I was fortunate to arrive at the University of Manitoba at a time when a group of professors at St. Johns College, notably David Arnason and Dennis Cooley, were beginning to entertain the idea of starting a literary press, and out of that initial interest we founded Turnstone Press in 1975. When Dorothy Livesay came to the University as Writer-in-Residence in 1974 and kick-started the literary quarterly CV2 a year later, she asked me to be the magazine’s Reviews Editor. The writing community in Manitoba was experiencing something of a literary renaissance, and Arts Manitoba emerged out of that heady context.

I’m tracing this brief history of the literary scene in the ’70s because it was instrumental in my thinking about the cultural magazine I wanted to edit. It was ambitious and cross-disciplinary with a pronounced interest in the literary arts. The first issue included a lengthy interview that Dennis Cooley and I conducted with Robert Kroetsch, and I published three sections of Seed Catalogue, one of the most important and influential poems in the history of Western Canadian literature. Arts Manitoba hit the newsstands in January 1977, and under the masthead name is the innocuous description, “A Bi-Monthly Magazine of the Arts.” It’s ludicrous and almost painful to think that my original idea was to publish six issues a year, but Volume 1 Number 1 covered January to February of 1977; Volume 1, Number 2 covered March to May (you can already see a certain elasticity in the application of our proposed bi-monthly schedule), and by the time the third issue was released we had altogether abandoned calibrating the year in months. Arts Manitoba, Numbers 3 and 4, in the winter of 1978 was listed as a “Special Double Issue.” When any magazine starts publishing double issues, the writing is on the wall, which means that in short order there will be no writing on the page. The magazine had accumulated almost $9,000 in debt, and I could see no way to continue. Arts Manitoba was over; it had been ambitious, under-financed, hopelessly managed and was editorially unfocused. I thought it was dead, but as it turned out only went into hibernation. A sense persisted that a cultural magazine belonging to us was still a good idea; what wasn’t a good idea was leaving it to me to run. By the fall of 1982 a group of artists and individuals who were interested in the arts had banded together to re-construct the magazine out of the ashes of its previous existence. They organized a fundraiser, which raised enough money to erase the debt that had been hanging over my head like an albatross, established a Board of Directors, rented an office, and Arts Manitoba was reborn. (I should say that among the board members was Meeka Walsh, the individual who has been more responsible than anyone for the survival and quality of the magazine, in all of its starts and restarts, but she has her own story to tell and I’ll leave her to it.)

The structural changes were necessary and critical if the magazine was going to continue, but so were editorial changes that were immediately evident in its pages. Because the first three issues were edited under the mistaken notion that they were the first part of a bi-monthly publishing schedule, I was commissioning individual reviews of the performing arts, particularly theatre, dance and the symphony. When we re-started Arts Manitoba with the more reasonable expectation of quarterly publication, I began to think less about reviews of single plays than about assessments of entire seasons, as well as trends in the performing arts.

There were two other notable developments in the issue, one was a hint at the magazine’s future; the other a more substantial affirmation about the direction I wanted to take the magazine. The hint came in the category I assigned to an article on the relationship between word and image written by Myron Turner, an English professor and the co-founder of The Four Humours Press. In the course of his article on concrete poetry, he referred to a range of other art works, including Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Christo’s Valley Curtain and Running Fence. The piece was called “The Literal Truth About Poetry and Art in Our Time” (when I named the piece I must still have had Hemingway in mind), but the category it fell under in the Table of Contents was “Boundary Crossings,” the first and only time that designation was used.

The affirmation occurred in the form of an interview with Bruce Ferguson, the art critic and independent curator who had juried the “Saskatchewan Open 82” for the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon. The interview itself was an expanded version of a conversation that had been broadcast on “Stereo Morning,” the CBC network radio program for which I was the Western Correspondent and the Visual Arts Critic. My experience with the program was the fulfillment of the idea I was developing about the necessary relationship between the here and the there, the local and the national. I lived in and worked out of Winnipeg, covering the West for a Toronto-based program that produced an almost inconceivable range of radio documentaries on everything from opera to painting, and from theatre to books, that were broadcast from one end of the country to the other. “Stereo Morning,” through its Executive Producer Anne Gibson, was the real classroom for my graduate education in the way the various arts formed an interwoven tapestry. It had a shaping influence on the direction I took the magazine. (When the program began to send me to the United States to interview artists, it confirmed my sense that we could look at anything from the perspective of Canada and from Manitoba. I did interviews with Borges and David Hockney in Minneapolis that were turned into radio documentaries. The first interview I conducted with Robert Motherwell was for “Stereo Morning”; the following week I was sent to Regina to interview Joe Fafard about his upcoming show at the Edmonton Art Gallery. The consecutive assignment was an example of the omnivorous aesthetic that I had come to believe was the most sensible way to look at the way art was made.

Border Crossings Study Center at La Maison Rouge, June – September 2011. Paris, France.

In that initial issue of the re-started Arts Manitoba, I also introduced the first of what has remained through a quarter of a century a signal feature of the magazine: the in-depth, heavily researched artist interview. From the beginning of my experience as a critic and cultural commentator, I had been interested in the interview as a multi-faceted forum for inquiry, criticism and information. I trusted what artists had to say about their work, and if I’m honest, I have to admit that my initial encounters with artists talking about what they did and why they did it occurred more in drinking establishments than in university lecture halls or seminar rooms. It wasn’t so much a question of listening to Bartok as paying attention to bar talk. (The idea for Turnstone Press had originated in a pub we frequented near the University of Manitoba.) The bar was a social space where ideas flowed as copiously as the beer we were drinking, and I’d wager that some of the most important cultural ideas in the West have been generated in the then smoky and sometimes sour air of prairie bars. I became personally committed to the idea and practice of intelligent conversation 30 years ago, and remain equally committed to it today. To be sure, as a working critic, I’ve found the interview has become the core of my critical practice. It is the most demanding and, when it works, the most exhilarating thing I do as a writer.

The first interview in the new Arts Manitoba in 1984 was with the Winnipeg painter and drawer Esther Warkov; in the next issue I interviewed Don Reichert; Volume 2, Number 3 crossed the Manitoba border into Saskatchewan to interview Vic Cicansky (who produced the first artist-designed cover in the magazine’s history); and we ended our phoenix year with Kelly Clark’s Untitled Diptych, our first foldout cover. It seemed like we had the components of a workable format, which we carried through into Volume 3, Number 1, an issue that featured an interview with and an article on KJ Butler, an artist who, in addition to his own practice, had played a significant role in the success of the Inuit art being produced in Baker Lake, Nunavut. In the visual arts section of the issue we also included a major article assessing the state of contemporary Inuit art by Peter Millard. It was my sense that these three pieces created compelling resonances.

It turned out that they created catalyzing dissonances. The winter 1983 issue was a lightning rod for the internal tensions that had developed inside the board. The short-term results were a significantly altered visual look for the magazine (we were smaller, and saddle-stitched rather than perfect bound), some board departures and a looming financial crisis. The long-term effect was a stronger magazine in every way; from the spring of 1984 Arts Manitoba began a steady process of concentrating on all its resources, including those that dealt with the editorial, the administrative and the governance functions. Once again the magazine had undergone significant changes and had emerged from the process with a keener sense of what it was and how it could better become what it wanted to be.

Earlier I mentioned the lingering sense, coming out of the organizational debacle of the original year of Arts Manitoba, that we needed a magazine that reflected our interests and fascinations. There was an event in 1976 that brought that need into high relief and, not surprisingly, it came from literature. That was the year Andy Suknaski’s Wood Mountain Poems was published by Macmillan of Canada. The book was edited and introduced by Al Purdy, and while it was a landmark book in Western Canadian publishing, it wasn’t published in Western Canada. All of us in the literary community already knew how good a poet Andy was, and we were tired of waiting for what we saw as the Good Culture-keeping Seal of Approval from Eastern Canada before the talents of our local and regional writers were recognized. That was the motivation behind the formation of Turnstone Press, and it carried over into the magazine as well. We were all persuaded by Northrop Frye’s notion in The Bush Garden, his collection of essays on the Canadian imagination, that “the centre is where you are,” and by that definition, our place, and what we were doing in it, was absolutely central. Frye formulated the question as follows: if you’re interested in self-definition, don’t ask “Who am I?”; ask instead, “Where is here?” Identity would flow from place. Interestingly, Purdy’s introduction praised Suknaski’s poems for not being sensational or indulging in verbal gymnastics before he focused on a notion that was critical to what we were doing. “There is a sense of place here,” Purdy writes, “that I find unequalled anywhere else. It is a multi-dimensional place.” In everything we were doing, we were going for a celebration of that multi-dimensionality.

It’s important to understand that this sense of place as we conceived it was neither narrow nor inward looking. It was closer to what William Carlos Williams called “a local pride.” We wanted to look at ourselves and to look outward, but we wanted to be responsible for the decisions about who we looked at and who did the looking. It’s in that context that Arts Manitoba, now Border Crossings, was, and remains, a Winnipeg-based magazine with a perspective that is concurrently local, national and international. To borrow an enthusiasm from Fernand Leger, we are engaged in “a local, international culture.” The magazine has uncompromisingly sustained that local attachment. The last issue I edited was what we called “the Matisse issue” because it devoted a large section to the Matisse Retrospective that was on exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1992. We asked a number of prominent American artists (including Alex Katz, Eric Fischl, April Gornik, Nancy Graves and Nancy Spero) to comment on the importance of the French master to their own practices and to contemporary art in general. We did interviews with all of them, and to this day, I marvel at the insights they offered. One of the great privileges of writing for the magazine has been the access it has allowed us into the spaces—both aesthetic and practical—where artists make art. But even though we had conversations with a cluster of artists who had world reputations, the cover on the Matisse issue was neither one of their paintings, nor one by Matisse. It was an image by Doug Melnyk, the Winnipeg artist, filmmaker and writer who was also interviewed in the issue about his work. It was a conscious choice to foreground the local in the context of the international, and that has remained the editorial strategy of the magazine for the past 15 years.

Another thing Border Crossings does, which has nothing to do with strategic alignments but is a reflection of the loyalties of the editors, is that we often look at artists who have already been in the magazine. Every one who contributed to the Matisse discussion was featured in subsequent issues of the magazine in longer, less specialized interviews. The only artist we didn’t follow up with was Nancy Graves, who died prematurely in 1995.

The sense of connectability I referred to earlier had significant implications for the content of the magazine. If we were convinced that the arts crossed over from one discipline to another, then it was only logical that a photographer making art about a subject would have something in common with a choreographer, a painter or a video artist looking at the same subject. Out of that notion, we developed our first special issue on “The North” in the fall of 1984. The idea had a political pedigree in the stump speeches of John Diefenbaker and his “Northern Vision,” and an aesthetic one in The Idea of North, the extraordinary radio documentary Glenn Gould produced in 1967. That was also the first issue of the magazine in which Meeka, who was the Chair of the Board, also assumed responsibilities as co-editor. It was the first of a roster of positions she slipped into. She was like a fixer, and every time she became involved with an aspect of the magazine, it got better. It was a harbinger of things to come.

From the issue on the North, we continued each year to do other special issues on some aspect of art and culture that interested us: Multiculturalism, Landscape, The Exiled Imagination, Art and Autobiography, Love, Art & Technology, First Nations Art and Culture, Photography and Film, Painting, Circus, Carnival and Cabaret. The subjects were various and the issues were layered in their aesthetic border crossing. It was through the focus of our second special issue, published in the fall of 1985, that we pulled off a transformation that became one of the most important in the magazine’s history. It didn’t take long before we recognized that Arts Manitoba limited the appeal the magazine might have to a wider audience. More importantly, the contents were becoming more broadly based. We were crossing disciplinary and aesthetic boundaries. Why wouldn’t we traverse geographical and national borders as well? We decided that our name should reflect our content and orientation. It took some persuasion to convince certain board members that the change was a good thing. I can’t remember exactly, but we probably suggested it was just for the “Special Canada/US issue,” the focus of Volume 4, Number 4. While our undeclared intention was to make it stick, we were casting a double hook. Above the cover image, which featured a photograph of one of Mike Olito’s shamanic constructions, and above the big red “BORDER” and the smaller red “CROSSINGS” of the masthead was the line, “A Publication of Arts Manitoba.” The strategic doubleness continued inside; the editorial introduced a poem section by referring to “this issue of Arts Manitoba,” while later in the same editorial I wrote about “issues like Border Crossings.” Both names were in italic, but not for long. Two issues later we were calling ourselves “Border Crossings: A Quarterly Magazine of the Arts from Manitoba,” and in the upper right hand side of the cover we were flagging “Formerly Arts Manitoba.” The magazine had undergone another transformation and in the process had renamed itself.

I have always admired the ability the magazine has to revive itself and the speed with which we could react to things. The front section (which began in 1995 under the title Borderviews) is always written last so we can respond to recent work and ideas. That flexibility is structurally determined in that every issue over the past dozen years has looked at four artists. But Border Crossings also finds ways to incorporate serendipities that are not planned. The most dramatic example occurred in connection with our special issue on Performance Art. It included a lengthy interview with Winnipeg artists Lorri Millan and Shawna Dempsey, as well as an international component from an exhibition called “Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–79,” curated by Paul Schimmel for MOCA in Los Angeles. We had intended to conduct interviews with a range of international artists, including Hermann Nitsch from Germany, Shozo Shimamoto from Japan, Allan Kaprow and Raphael Montanez Ortiz from the US and Francesco Conz from Italy. We did all those and then chance entered the performance space when Orlan turned up, dressed and decorated in alternating yellow and black, so she resembled a chic bumblebee. We interviewed her, and along with the conversation she gave us her “Carnal Art Manifesto.” It is an astonishing and provocative document, swinging as it does between defiguration and refiguration, and through its conception of the body as “a modified ready-made.” The other bit of luck came out of the hotel where we were staying, the infamous Chateau Marmont. One morning Meeka looked out the window and saw what she described as “a distinguished man” on the balcony across from our room. I recognized him from photographs, not his own, as Helmut Newton. I had always wanted to interview him about the way that he and Guy Bourdin changed fashion photography and had actually started a modest fax correspondence with him about that possibility at some distant point. Since he was within hearing distance I simply called to him, introducing myself across the hot air of a California morning. We met, set a time, and then Meeka and I scrambled to find as many of his books as we could prior to the interview the next day. I was familiar with much of his work, but we do thorough research before talking to artists and this was unplanned. We found enough material, I worked through the night, and we did the interview the following day in our room, interrupted many times by importuning women and young men who had photo shoots scheduled with Helmut later in the day. The interview ended up in a special photography issue, along with a conversation with Duane Michals and the exquisite Chernobyl photographs of Winnipeg’s David McMillan. Neither Orlan nor Newton was intentional, but our ability to respond quickly meant that we could augment our editorial content in exciting ways. As a footnote, Helmut admired the interview and told Time magazine when they phoned him months later that he didn’t need to talk to them since a small Canadian magazine had already conducted an interview that he advised them to use. The editors at Time declined to take up his offer.

Part of the success I had in the early years of Arts Manitoba came from the simple fact that I didn’t know what the rules were for editing a magazine: when you don’t know the rules, you don’t know you’re breaking them. But that has changed, and under Meeka’s editorship the magazine has gained in quality, stature and elegance. Border Crossings is no longer a happy accident. Today it ranks as an indispensable, challenging and eccentric magazine. It is eccentric in all the senses of that word: out of the centre, unique and unusual. It has remained steadfast in its commitment to the two things that have defined it for almost 30 years: a respect for artists, for what they make and say about that making, and an equal respect for the readers who come to our pages for an unmistakable engagement with the art of writing.

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