An artist's guide to falling in love with Whitehorse: A creative hub where art is everywhere
Joseph Tisiga celebrates the unexpected places you can find art in the Yukon city
Everyone knows about the art scenes in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver — but what about Lethbridge, Sudbury or Victoria? In CBC Arts's new series "I He(art) My City," a local artist offers an insider's guide to the city they call home. Here, multidisciplinary artist Joseph Tisiga shows you his Whitehorse.
As a kid, walking down main street Whitehorse, I would marvel at the thought that I was strolling down a road in what felt like the absolute middle of nowhere, a hundred or thousand or million kilometres from anywhere else. It seemed impossible that anyone lived here, or that anyone would know that there was a city to come to. I still feel that way sometimes, despite the growing ease of travel and constant influx of tourists and adventurers passing through or settling in to make the Yukon home.
With a landscape and Indigenous history as beautiful as its contemporary social dynamic is complicated, the Yukon's outward identity — crafted around a brief period of gold craze over a hundred years ago — could not be further from the internal impetus that grounds our internal cultural identity. Many people, events and organizations contribute to the First Nations cultural revitalization that's happening territory-wide, and the same holds for the arts and culture more generally (so much so that I want to acknowledge that I could not sufficiently touch on it for this list!)
Roaming around our downtown, you'll find a number of our stocked arts and culture spaces — but for this list, I wanted to mostly look at some of the variety of things happening and spaces that are not apparent at first glance or are often out of sight. In Whitehorse, most of the action is happening in a quiet, day-to-day way. And if you're here exploring yourself, you'll find there are many more people, spaces and events than could be included in this candid snapshot of Whitehorse.
Chu Niikwan Artist Residency
These spaces are being used for the newly created Chu Niikwän Artist Residency, located downtown, right off the Yukon River behind the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre (KDCC). The residency — which is a collaboration between the KDCC, the Yukon Arts Centre and the Yukon Art Society — is actually starting this year and only open to Yukon residents, but I'm excited about the future prospects of this project! It's so important to have spaces in a community to host artists from here or away, and create the opportunity to inject their energy into the community.
Northern Cultural Expressions Society
Northern Cultural Expressions Society has been around for about 15 or so years in various forms. It's been critical in fostering carving among its young participants, and has had a rippling impact on many fronts. Part community program, part social enterprise, it is one of the most important local initiatives and cultural spaces in my opinion. Their current space is located in the old Industrial Area, just out of downtown, at 137A Industrial Rd.
The Crematory, probably
This is the Crematory — or so I believe. To be honest, I don't really know anything about the history of this place except that it's been a stocked walking path, party and graffiti spot and generally interesting place since I was a kid. Located on the "Clay Cliffs" which surround the downtown core, it's a Whitehorse classic, despite or maybe of because its potentially morbid past.
Yukon Arts Centre
The YAC is a bit of an anomaly on this list, or at least in my mind. It's a fairly prominent art and culture space in Whitehorse, but is strangely located and not likely known about to those outside of Whitehorse — so you have to make a point to visit. Housing a large art gallery and great performance theatre, YAC is an important venue for locals and visitors alike. Located at 300 College Dr., it's worth making an effort to check it out.
I'm personally very excited about this space, run out of Skookum Jim Friendship Centre (SJFC). I had the privilege of establishing the program several years back while employed at SJFC. Initially conceived as a drop-in art studio, through the energized guidance of others (namely Jona Barr, a local musician and artist) it has also become very popular with young musicians to rehearse, record and play shows. It's also spawned a pretty incredible hip hop night, creating a venue for a surprisingly large and talented community of musicians.
Midnight Sun Coffee Roasters
Midnight Sun Coffee Roasters is undoubtedly a Whitehorse institution, having existed in one form or another since I was a teenager. It was one of the places that I first encountered a public philosophical dialogue with local armchair philosophers and eccentric conspiracy theorists. Although it has since changed owners and relocated a couple times, the soul has remained and continues to be a stocked meeting ground for all manner of local, visitors, artists and musicians.
Arts in the Park
Arts in the Park is a great representation of Whitehorse's local arts and culture activity. Running through the spring and summer lunch hour, this project has a different musical act perform Monday through Friday along with a visual artist doing weeklong demonstrations and workshops on their practice. Super family-friendly and community-inclusive, the show goes on rain or shine! To boot, it's held in the same park that The White Stripes did a legendary (at least locally) impromptu show a number of years back — still a personal highlight of living here!
Lastly, the long vacant Super Valu grocery store is transforming into something called "Innovation Hub," which will be an amalgamated maker space, co-office, studio space, etc. spurred on by a local non-profit called Yukonstruct. The non-profit has got to be one of the fastest growing in the history of local non-profits, establishing itself in 2014 with a collective workshop and tool sharing space, soon followed by a large co-op office space. Now, they're taking over this relic of a grocery store to house it all and then some. My excitement to see what happens with the old Super Valu is second only to what will become of the old Dairy Queen one day...
More essential local artists
These artists' spaces may not be accessible to everyday foot traffic, but they help tell the story of a community that's not often seen.
Like many artists in Whitehorse, Suzanne Paleczny's studio is in her home, though few are as spacious and beautiful as hers. I had discovered Paleczny's work during her 2017 solo show at the Yukon Arts Centre. The work is immense and includes strong environmental themes.
Colin Muir, currently working on a PhD at Western University in London Ont., retreats to Whitehorse to visit family, as well as paint in his stable studio. Indicative of many eventual "Yukoners," Colin is pulled between Yukon and "the South." I'm curious what a handful of deep winters would pull out of his already psychologically cryptic paintings!
No stranger to working in any available space, Rebecca Manias and I lament the current cost of rentals and absence of (affordable or otherwise) studio space. Still, she has persevered in balancing her multi-disciplinary practice and full-time work at the Yukon Arts Centre. Rebecca's artistic interests involve femininity and mysticism, conveyed in a style unlike the classic "Yukonana."
I met Ken Anderson when I was a kid—our mothers worked together at the hospital. As a person and artist, I am inspired by Anderson's humility, skill and vision. Working across many mediums, such as painting, carving and larger industrial-looking public works, Anderson's got go-power. You'd never know it but he's also self-taught.
Michel Gignac, originally from Saskatchewan, does quite a lot of assemblage sculpture and installation work. He lives with his family and dog-sled team on Squatters Road, an area of town notable for its history of avowed social outliers, who squatted back in the day and eventually won squatters' rights. Gignac's sculptural work can feel as though it grows out of the eclectic surroundings of his home stead.
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