I’ve always liked watching trains. I enjoy making eye contact with the Engineer and pulling my arm through the air to see he’ll imitate my action and actually blow the whistle of the train. I enjoy counting the cars, engines and caboose. And I like to see the different rail cars as they pass by. Some carry grain, others oil, new vehicles, lumber and other interesting things such as slogans for the province of Saskatchewan, or Manitoba. More recently my fascination with trains has to do with the art people have painted onto them. I know most people just shrug these images off as “graffiti” … however I consider this genre to be an art form as well.
Before I go any further, I should state that I am by no means an art critic or an expert in any way, shape or form. I simply like what I like. Even when I’m buying a new story book for my children, the foundation of the story is important to me but it is the pictures that really sell me on whether or not I’ll buy the book. It’s important to me that my children are able to use the illustrations to “read” the story and make connections until they are able to read the words as well. I think graffiti artists are creating a similar idea with the art they add onto railway cars. They are using pictures to pique someone’s curiosity so that questions will be asked and maybe answers will be researched. When an artist creates interest, they also open doors to educating people as well.
After the resistance at Batoche, Louis Riel knew he was going on trial and that he would likely hang for his role in the resistance. Rather than wallow in self-pity over his demise, he decided to continue being a leader. But he also acknowledged dark days were ahead for the people he’d represented. He is attributed with the quote that advices, “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artist who give them their spirit back.” Perhaps it is because Riel was a writer and poet that he understood the power and influence an artist holds over those who read their work. Or maybe he had been influenced by artists himself. For whatever reason his quote emotes confidence that artists would bring awareness to issues affecting Métis people in the future, just as the resistance underscored how desperately the Métis needed sustainable food security and a homeland to call their own.
Last summer Tristen Durocher heard about the suicide bill that had been denied for the second time in Saskatchewan legislation. He took it upon himself to use his art to bring attention to this issue, which is a very real pandemic in the North. Once he completed his walk, he set up a tent in Wascana Park in front of the Legislative Building. He placed photographs of deceased loved ones who had suffered, then hopelessly taken their own life as a solution to the pain they faced on a daily basis. He documented his journey through poems and songs on his fiddle. And as he fasted on the hill of the legislature, he thought of all the people who had needlessly died because they felt there was nowhere else for them to find lasting solutions to their problems. I was particularly drawn to what Durocher was doing because my nephew left us earlier than expected when he took his own life. Unfortunately, I lost my son a few weeks after so it was an extremely challenging time for us as a family. At the end of last month, the suicide bill was introduced for the third time … and it was passed. I’d like to think this is the awakening Riel spoke of when he said people would sleep and then awaken. Viable solutions for things such as hopelessness shouldn’t require somebody to walk on foot in the heat of summer and then go on a hunger fast to get people to open their eyes to the problem and work together to find viable solutions. But that’s what happened.
Graffiti is a way for artists to put their concerns out on a very public format. Unlike other art forms that can cover the holes in the wall like wall paper – overlooked and ignored without ever really being seen, graffiti forces people to take notice and do something about it. On a building, graffiti is deep cleaned, covered over with paint and in some cases is removed by replacing building material. But it still leaves a scar, some form of evidence, to show that it had been there. And it is the evidence that has people talking and sharing ideas – even if it’s just a conversation on how to prevent more graffiti from popping up.
When I mentioned this week’s column topic to my sister she told me about a railway car she’d just read about. The car had been painted in red, representing the blood of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women across our country. She found the article she’d read regarding the box car and I googled it myself, hoping to find the context of why the picture had been taken and the story that went with it. I was very surprised by the question the person posting the picture asked, “I wonder what MMIW stands for?” I’m fairly confident that someone has enlightened her and also explained the symbolism behind the red paint as well. The graffiti artist piqued this person’s interest so well, with just a few simple words and paint. A whole conversation started and information was shared on a national and international level. Even people in the United States know about MMIW in Canada. What a powerful art form graffiti art can be!
I agree with a lot of people who say graffiti is an eyesore and the artist should be charged for defacing public property and destroying the hard work of other people simply to write a slogan claimed by a gang or to draw inappropriate symbols of the male and female anatomy. Some of these childish slogans are an unfortunate blight that holds no positive value at all it would seem. Yet the conversations that happen even around these types of graffiti bring change and help us evolve from being less closed minded when it comes to issues of importance. We need to learn that being complacent can be interpreted as being in agreement with issues that require our attention. After all, we will be affected by those things, even if we don’t talk about them. Ignoring the issues don’t solve the problem, nor does it make them disappear. I’m referring to things such as homelessness, food insecurity, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and a whole list of other things people may not be aware of. Look at how our whole perspective on life and the after effects have affected the human psyche, particularly in North America, since 9/11. We aren’t the same as we were, and I highly doubt we ever will be. It may seem humorous that we will one day tell our grandchildren we can remember being able to knit on a plane but after 9/11 we were no longer permitted to yet; our lives changed that day forever. Even for artists who work with wool and a needle or hook.
The next time you’re stopped at a railroad track as a train passes by, take a look at the graffiti art you’ll see on some of the cars. They tell a story and they’re recording this time in history. Let you curiosity be peaked by some of the things you’ll see and don’t be intimidated to research some of the topics you may find. You never know when you may find you have a direct connection to the subject matter as a consumer or even by being employed by someone who contributes to the cause – good or bad.
Take care and have a great week, everyone.