roots, deep and otherwise

Had a fabulous time at the Deep Roots Festival in Wolfville. Some amazing musicians, and the magic of spontaneous on-stage collaborations (particularly the late night sessions at Paddy’s) really left me breathless. Going to this fest was all about taking a chance on the music – there were many performers I had never heard before – and I was more than pleasantly surprised in many cases. Particular highlights, of new-to-me music: Coco Love Alcorn, Ari Hest,  the madness of Steve Poltz, The Sultans of String. And (of course) Joel Plaskett was excellent – I really enjoy his live work. All brilliant performers, and terrific musicians.  Wolfville itself was a delight; friendly, welcoming people, beautiful old houses and buildings, fall colours starting to come out on the maples and other trees. A completely brilliant way to spend a weekend.

One of the many things that struck me at Deep Roots was the love and pride people had for their town and their festival; the festival is aptly named. This is something that has become very evident in the last few months out here in Nova Scotia: the incredible support and pride people manifest for initiatives, and for individuals/artists from the area. I see this not only in the support for the musicians, but in the way art and artisanal work is positioned and promoted in the galleries.  In part, because that support is demonstrable – there appears to be a greater tendency out here for people to really come through time and again for artists they appreciate, particularly if they are ‘home grown’. This support is predicated on the conviction that what is being produced has inherent worth – and doesn’t need to be compared to work being produced elsewhere in the country or the world to have value – it could be and often is, and stands up just fine to the comparison, but it’s not necessary to prove its worth. The other side of that coin is that it may well be more difficult for someone new to the area to break into the market in any meaningful way; the dues might be long in the paying, but the reward certainly is palpable. I honestly don’t know how accurate these observations are, but as someone who is ‘from away’ this is what I have read in the cultural communities so far.

These observations do of course lead me to contemplate my understanding of ‘home’ and my sense of place as it pertains to my work in particular, and my sense of identity in the larger scheme of things. What does it mean, precisely, to have a practice that is informed by 40+ years on the Prairie? My sense of space and what it means to be contained is certainly informed by that experience … perhaps my understanding of what it means to be exposed – or more correctly, how exposure can be signified and understood – is perhaps predicated on the experience of being a small body in (at times) vast-feeling, flat, open places. So that hiding or obscuring things is more a matter of building up flat-ish layers or skins to protect or hide things, and an awareness that on some level, nothing can ever be completely hidden. The ocean has a similar sense of vast flat space, but there’s also the unavoidable depth to be considered, and the liminal space of the shoreline, with nooks and crannies of stone and layers and layers of sand and gravel on the beaches. So there’s immediately a completely different sense of what physical exposure (and protection or hiding) is here – how those concepts operate in space. 

Here too, I have to consider how my understanding of human relationships has been informed by that sense of Prairie-born space, and how that in turn shapes my work.  It’s not a compact place; with the exception of the urban centres, there’s more than enough space on the Prairies in which to be alone, or to feel isolated for that matter. Distance measured in hours between places, between people. Grids of township and range roads marking off space, but not necessarily connecting much of anyone to anyone else, and that only relatively recently … Alberta’s centenary just passed in 2005. We are all ‘from away’ out west; comparatively few born there (and fewer still stay), while the great shift of population in recent decades has been to the Prairie, to Alberta for jobs, but not for a ‘home’.  So,  out west the investment doesn’t run as deep for most, perhaps, as it does for people who have lived generations and centuries in the same place, and have built on (and over) long-laid foundations. So I wonder what it means to have roots in a place where so few stay, and where one can be considered a local by virtue of a few years residence?  I’m not in Kansas anymore, Toto.