A Village Artist
The setting sun backlights the prairie. A faint sound of a car passing on the highway is drowned out by the meadowlarks and robins. A puddle on the gravel road out front reflects the gently darkening blue sky. A hunting bird glides by. It’s a summer evening in Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
I moved to this prairie village in the southwest corner of Treaty 4 a little over a year ago. I bought a house, painted it and the fence, am learning how to grow food in the garden and have viewed – and followed with varying success – countless home maintenance videos. I regularly walk on the prairie, enjoy community events at the hall and outdoor summer movies projected on the town elevator. I’ve joined the board of a local cultural organization and have made new and truly wonderful friends.
This is a heady life for a working artist in a single-income household. I had long assumed that a stable and comfortable home in a supportive community would always be far beyond my reach. In fact, that was a choice I consciously made for myself when I committed to being an artist. But surprise! Here I am.
So with all these good things of course I have no regrets. But as a working artist who moved from a big city – Vancouver – to a smaller city – Regina – to the Village of Val Marie, I do notice differences.
I am far away from goods and services. Val Marie is 310km southeast of Medicine Hat, 360 km southwest from Regina, 120km straight south of Swift Current and 30km north of the US border. I live over 300km from the nearest airport. There is no public transportation and everyone living here needs to own a vehicle and to be able to drive.
There are times during the winter when some of us, especially we artists with small city cars, prefer not to leave town, as weather and highway conditions can be unpredictable and too hazardous to chance anything but essential or emergency travel. This spring our highway washed out, adding a 20-minute detour on slick grid roads.
Since moving to Val Marie, I have become aware that these travel distances and the sometimes insurmountable travel challenges can be difficult for urban artist colleagues and arts organizations to fully appreciate. While it’s clear that provincial and national arts organizations support, promote and encourage participation from rural and remote artists, especially on policy levels, there can be disconnects in practical application. Low mileage rates, insufficient funding for accommodation and per diems, as well as requirements for in-person attendance at meetings, are real barriers to rural artists.
Since becoming a rural artist, I have been aware of my own changes in understanding these barriers, that even when there is sufficient travel funding and flexibility with remote participation, there is lack of appreciation of the effort and anxiety expended anticipating then undertaking often perilous travel, or the drawbacks to attending a group in-person meeting via a laptop on a table. All of that significant time, effort, worry and struggle to connect is the hidden, necessary and generally unacknowledged work required of rural artists.
When making the decision to move from Regina to a smaller community I considered the barriers to living and working as an artist outside an urban centre, barriers that have recently been well-enumerated by my colleague and rural neighbour, Marsha Schuld in her excellent April, 2023 SAA Op-Ed and include physical and digital isolation and issues with access to collegial communities and opportunities for networking. Navigating these barriers was a big part of my consideration when choosing a rural community.
I am fortunate that Val Marie, with a 2021 population of 120 people, has several resident working artists. Val Marie also has a grocery store, library, card lock gas station and good, reliable internet. The Grasslands National Park office is here in town, and there are close to 20,000 visitors coming through Val Marie each year. There is a gallery in town, Prairie Wind and Silver Sage (https://pwss.org/). Grasslands Gallery Online, Saskatchewan’s only fully online professional commercial art gallery (https://grasslandsgallery.com/) is operated from Val Marie. I am also fortunate to have had an established community of professional and organizational colleagues when I moved to Val Marie, provincial, national and international connections that I am honoured to carry with me.
However even with my resources, planning and the distinct advantages of Val Marie, like many of my rural artist colleagues I thirst for better access to participation in arts communities, to attend exhibitions, to those opportunities for conversation and connection at openings and the world-expanding and practice-building experiences that are available in the physical presence of good artworks.
Like my colleague Marsha Schuld, I do not have solutions to the issues for rural artists. However, I can point to programs that contribute to equity for rural artists. In Winnipeg, MAWA (Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art) offers a Rural Artist Urban Retreat to woman, non-binary, trans or 2-Spirit-identifying visual artists living in rural Manitoba, Saskatchewan or Northwestern Ontario, providing up to two weeks free accommodation in downtown Winnipeg (https://mawa.ca/residency/rural-artist-urban-retreat). Currently in development, the SAA Rural Artists Working Group (RAWG) promises to be a valuable and productive group that will support rural artists in the province to consult, identify particular issues, build community and perhaps participate in developing wider solutions.
It is important to consult with rural artists throughout Saskatchewan. In addition to being widely-situated, the practices and professional priorities of rural artists are various and wide-ranging. And the issues I experience as a rural artist in Val Marie and that Marsha Schuld experiences on their farm certainly pale in comparison to artists working more remotely in Indigenous communities or in the North. In conversations and consultations, it’s vital to participate with as many various rural artists as possible. And perhaps even more.
While many of us view these issues through the lens of working as rural artists in Saskatchewan, identifying, discussing and potentially offering solutions to isolation and lack of access to community are concerns that resonate more broadly. In these conversations and beyond, rural artists have a lot to offer.
Barbara Meneley is a prairie-based intermedia artist living and working in the southwest corner of Treaty 4. www.barbarameneley.com