When I arrived at Sandy Fairbarn‘s Welland: Times Present Times Past opening at Art is Hell, I noticed how evocative and emotionally stirring an exhibition of photography that captured the ever-changing face of downtown urban life in Welland and beyond, really could be.
On February 15, Art is Hell — a spacious and cozy gallery in the heart of downtown Welland — hosted many from not only Welland — searching for the familiar images of their own memory — but also many from outside of the Rose City, who were appreciative, as well as emotionally evoked, by the various images of the times past and present. Both artistic and historical, the images presented had never been shown in the Rose City beforehand.
For over fourty years, Sandy Fairbairn has been taking photographs of Welland and Niagara, focusing on what is around him. Overhearing a passing conversation at the reception, I caught the artist remarking, in his own words, that though he had had some experiences elsewhere, “I belong here.” His intimate and personal images of Niagara stretch back to the 70s, recalling the industrial history of the region, and capturing the growth, downturn, and changes in Welland’s scenery.
This is a very personal exhibition: not only is it a window into the life and times of the artist through his own eyes, but also the life and times of neighbourhoods through the portrayal of the various commercial buildings’ changing faces. For those that are familiar with these surroundings, each photograph contains a personal memory. For those unfamiliar with these scenes, the sense of change is shown, although most photographs seem timeless; most are devoid of the visual clues that specify the date. In some cases, the rare flash of a person in these store-front portraits is an uncommon treasure, furthering the timelessness of the scene, adding to the feeling of contrast between emptiness and life.
Fairbairn portrays this familiar awareness through his playful eye. Singular scenes and vibrant colour often meet in his visual histories, but his black and white photographs also contain as much of a visual contrast and the same warmth that his colour pieces do. Rather than the usual scenes of the Rose City we have seen photographed historically and artistically, such as Bridge 13 or other public places of celebration and community, we are given more intimate images to trigger our nostalgia and emotion. One wall, entirely comprised of enlarged stereoscopic black and white images from the 70s, creates a repeating pattern of vintage memories of days and places gone by, reinforcing the local history of Welland and the surrounding area from a not-so-typical view. Many of his more modern photographs utilize hinted saturation: colours pop brightly, working off the deep brick and slate tones of his subjects. Even as static structures, the life is there amid the perceived emptiness. This is no mere showing of snapshots of the past and present: this is a personal journey for both the artist / photographer and the viewer, the common theme being the immediate world around them.
In one of the more notable walls at this exhibit, two long landscape photographs portraying a block of Hellems Ave. in downtown Welland is shown in Spring and Summer of the same year: The bottom photograph showcases the block in full colour, popping with life from blooms and greenery. There’s a sense of moving from fullness to emptiness, and from left to right as each individual address of the block decreases in activity. The rare treat of two pedestrians going in different directions, one male and one female with a stroller, is also highlighted in the foreground of the scene, further adding to the comparison and contrast in this one photograph. In the bright blue sky tones a the top of the piece, a hint of Bridge 13 does peek out at us, above the rooftops and beyond the block, reminding us where we are. This contrast / comparison continues as we move to the photographic landscape immediately above it, showing the same scene of the same block, but a few months later. The black and white photograph of this scene is now absent of activity and people, awash in bright tones and devoid of colour, giving one the feeling of a bright, sunny day in the extreme heat, and with all people in the neighbourhood now in solace from the extreme daytime temperatures. Even now, the scene remains timeless both in photography and in reality, as one may happen upon the same block of buildings now in the real world and see how much has remained the same, yet as time passes alongside slight, constant and eventual change, it is there.
Prominently placed on display from the rest of the photography collection are two works: Crowland Relief Workers’ Strike 1935, Frank Meets the Police on Beatrice Street, Mitch Legislates And We Forget and The Replacement for Jack Bickell as the Object of Mitch Hepburn’s Affection are both reminders of the Crowland Relief Workers’ Strike of 1935. An interesting chapter in history, in an area with a largely industrial background, this artwork heralds to the memory of a local Depression-era strike in which many immigrant workers from different European backgrounds “remarkably” collaborated to gain fair compensation for their labour. An interesting history in itself (which I urge you all to read up on) is illustrated in the use of photography, and relief sculpture, creating evocative and interesting images of a tumultuous yet unifying point in our local history: hard-working people, passionate together, to fight for each common man’s interest. As the decades progressed, we can now witness in the rest of the photography exhibition the fruits of that labour, and what remains after those fruits had been harvested. Even now, flowing beneath the cultural subconscious of Welland’s community, there is still a fierce pride and hard determination of effort to face adversity that ensures our continued survival and existence.
It is not so much the individual pieces that stand out in this art exhibit, though for each viewer, there is definitely a piece that one would find personal significance in, so much as the entirety of the exhibition as a collection. The constant play between light and shadow, colour and black and white, saturation and pastel tones, empty and full, and repetition of image or pattern unify the pieces, while each one plays off and contrasts each other, as well as within in each piece. Much credit for this arrangement must be given to Bart Gazzola for stepping into the shoes of curator for this show, as both he and Fairbairn have put together a collection of fascinating and intimate portraits of urban life, industrial and social history, and an overall sense not of upward nor downward trending fortunes for Welland, but of the ever-constant change and transition that happens, and what still remains familiar. It is not only a story of how we got here or where we came from, but also of where we are, and, possibly, a signpost directing us to where we are going. It was an art show that emotionally triggered the locals of Welland with nostalgia, and astonished those from out of the city to find this secret and intimate pocket of creative cultural community discovered in the environment and landscape of Rose City.
Sandy Fairbarn’s exhibition Welland: Times Present Times Past, is on display at Art is Hell until March 15, 2020. Art is Hell is located at 179 East Main St, in Welland, and their hours are Friday to Sunday, from 12-5pm, or by appointment (contact bart.gazzola[at]gmail.com).
All images are untitled, except for the sculptural work pictured (detail) of Crowland Relief Workers’ Strike 1935, Frank Meets the Police on Beatrice Street, Mitch Legislates And We Forget, 1977.