Red Deer artist Nicole Kelly Westman has turned the history of an Alberta ghost town into a piece of avant-garde cinematography.
Her new art installation Rose, Dear, at the Banff Centre, shows the abandoned mining town of Wayne, Alta. in an unexpected way.
Westman’s 16-minute film, commissioned by Banff’s Walter Phillips Gallery and screened in a continuous loop in the Eric Harvie Theatre, doesn’t show coal chutes, mining equipment — or even miners.
Instead, Westman, a Notre Dame High School graduate who now lives in Calgary, focused her camera on the coulees that surround Wayne, near Drumheller, the cacti that grow there, and imagined women in the community.
The esoteric short was shot digitally, as well as on grainy Super-8 and slide film. It shows, in part, two women in fur coats walking along a wintry road. “It’s a timeless aesthetic,” said Westman, of clothing blending with landscape.
A ghostly image of another woman is seen weaving down the side of a coulee and crossing a frozen river.
Westman, a graduate of the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, admitted she’s interested in ecofeminism. It’s a philosophical and political movement that combines ecological concerns with feminist ones, regarding both as the result of a male-dominated society.
She was intrigued to discover through her reseach that virtually nothing remains of Wayne’s feminine history.
There must have been hundreds of women living in the coal mining town, since its population hit 1,500 by 1932. Females must have filled many roles in Wayne, but Westman said none were recorded for posterity.
Instead, her research turned up a “tough, masculine community,” in which Ku Klux Klan members were hired to keep communists and union workers out of town. Westman noted bullets can still be found embedded in the hotel tavern’s walls.
From 1912, when the Rose Deer Mine opened in Wayne, to when The Great Depression began taking a toll on the community’s economy, the town had been thriving. At its peak it boasted having a grain elevator, lumberyard, service station, garage, and a general store. According to historians, it also had four tennis courts, a baseball diamond, skating rink, theatre, bank, tailor shop, dance hall, meat market and hotel.
But mines closed during the Dirty Thirties and people moved away to find employment elsewhere. By 1956, Wayne’s population had dwindled to 255. Only 93 people lived there by 1966. Today, only the historic hotel continues to operate as a tourist draw.
Red, Dear is Westman’s third filmatic art project dealing with Canadian mining communities.
The artist previously created the Singing Land exhibit about the Centre of the Universe attraction near Kamloops. The former gold mine has a colourful past. It was once labelled the centre of the cosmos by Tibetan monks. Her film series, shown at Calgary’s Sled Island Music and Art festival, shows characters trying to put the gold back into the land.
Westman, director of Calgary’s Stride artist-run gallery and centre, also created the Inherited Narrative exhibit that toured in Toronto, Edmonton and Halifax. It featured the Pine Point lead-zinc mine that her father once worked at near Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. It was shut down in the 1980s.
The artist grew up in a supportive family of Icelandic and Metis heritage in Red Deer. While she wasn’t keen on the religious aspect of her high school experience, Westman discovered her penchant for photography while working on a book of poetry and essays at Notre Dame. She later took fashion photography at a school in San Francisco. “But I hated it.”
Westman discovered her love of filmmaking at Emily Carr. “I was pretty excited,” she said, to be able to express a subjective viewpoint, incorporating personal narratives in her projects.
Rose, Dear, which includes a light box and canopy installation, continues to be shown until June 4 in the Eric Harvie Theatre at the Banff Centre.
Some of Westman’s works will also be featured in the Art Gallery of Alberta’s Biennial of Contemporary Art in Edmonton in 2017.