Manitoba

Ode to Manitoba winter: Love it or hate it, season has inspired artists for 200 years

Manitoba's capricious winter can be a fickle child — calm and cordial at times but fierce and erratic at others, throwing a flurry of tantrums and leaving a big mess to clean up.

Something about the cold kindles creative fires in artists living within its clutches

William Kurelek's Wintertime North of Winnipeg (1962) is one of many paintings inspired by his years growing up on a farm near Stonewall in the 1930s. (sothebys.com)

Manitoba's capricious winter can be a fickle child — calm and cordial at times while fierce and erratic at others, throwing a flurry of tantrums and leaving a big mess to clean up.

Love it or hate, regardless of its temperament it has provided endless inspiration to painters, poets, songwriters and other artists for nearly 200 years.

It can be miserable at times but it can also be beautiful with "the blue sky, for example, made up of touches of pure blue, pink, and yellow," artist Walter J. Phillips, who was born in England in 1884 and moved to Winnipeg in 1913 — where he lived until 1957 — once wrote.

He viewed snow as holding layers of revelation.

"Snow assumes a great variety of colours, depending on the quality of light, and also on the sky, which it reflects. You see deep blue shadows on the surface … wherever anything protects it from his rays. That is the blue of the zenith," he wrote.

Our Street in Winnipeg, 1933, by Walter J. Phillips. (Loch Gallery, Calgary)
Winter in Winnipeg by W. J. Phillips, 1918. (National Gallery of Canada)

"Within the blue shadow you may see tinges of other colours, reflected back, perhaps, from the object-the red barn or the hay-rick-to which it belongs.

"Then, when the snow mantle lays in folds, some parts will borrow greener hues from the sky immediately above the horizon. And when the sun is low he radiates a warmer, rosier light, and shadow seems greener still within its contours."

A Suburban Street, Winnipeg, 1920, a colour woodcut by Walter J. Phillips. (National Gallery of Canada)

Phillips became one of Canada's most celebrated artists while producing hundreds of watercolours, colour woodcuts, etchings and engravings.

His vast catalogue includes winter scenes in and around the city and the forests and farms around it, many of which are on display in the Pavilion Gallery Museum at Assiniboine Park.

Walter J. Phillips' The Red River in Winter, 1927, shows the blue shadows on snow that he loved. (National Gallery of Canada)
Winnipeg Street, Snowbound, a 1927 colour wood block print by Walter Joseph Phillips. (lochgallery.com)

The same force that galvanized Phillips, sparked inspiration in Lionel MacDonald Stephenson who lived in the nascent city of Winnipeg between 1885 and 1892.

He captured some of the earliest snowy landscapes in a settlement still centred around the fur trade, dog sleds and Fort Garry.

Lionel Macdonald Stephenson's oil painting of Fort Garry, dated 1869. (Lionel Macdonald Stephenson)

A young Swiss immigrant, Peter Rindisbacher, was also among those first to record winter in the Red River colony.

He was 15 when he arrived in Manitoba in 1821 with other Selkirk Settlers at York Factory, on the shore of Hudson Bay.

The landscape and its people immediately captured his imagination, inciting Rindisbacher to paint views during the lengthy overland travel from York Factory to the colony at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.​

His images of Hudson Bay Company forts along the route are the earliest pictorial record of them, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.

One of his first paintings was made later that same winter of people fishing at The Forks.

His work delighted HBC traders and officials who purchased paintings as souvenirs or to send home to relatives, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

Peter Rindisbacher's, Winter Fishing on the Ice of the Assynoibain and Red River, 1821. (Historical Atlas of Canada)
Peter Rindisbacher, Assiniboines Hunting on Snowshoes, 1833. (Amon Carter Museum of American Art)

That small settlement, which has grown into a population of 705,000 continues to stir contemporary artists like Winnipeg musician John K. Samson as well as former 'Peggers Randy Bachman and Neil Young, who have penned odes to the cold.

Samson's songs — as frontman for The Weakerthans and as a solo artist — paint aural portraits of many seasons but winter surfaces often.

  • Civil Twilight (from Reunion Tour, 2007, The Weakerthans)

My Confusion Corner commuters are cursing the cold away
as December tries to dissemble the length of their working day
and they bite their mitts off to show me transfers, deposit change

Streets slow down and ice over,
dusk comes on and I struggle stop-to-stop
To stop thinking of you at civil twilight

  • Grace General (from Provincial, 2012, John K Samson solo album)

Cruel snow, cracked lips, sun lost by 4. 
Cold winces through the cardboard window 
where the cobblestone was smashed into glass, 
and the bare bulb of moon swings over Portage Avenue,
lights the icy ruts they sprinkled with sand, 
down the dim hall of chain stores to Grace

Winnipeg also enchanted English writer and poet Rose Fyleman, who paid a visit in December 1929. According to Manitoba Free Press at the time, she was invited to Winnipeg as the guest speaker at a couple of women's clubs.

While staying at the Fort Garry Hotel, she went for a stroll one evening with the president of one of the clubs. They walked along Broadway to the legislative building so Fyleman could see the statue of Queen Victoria.

It was a beautiful, calm winter evening and when Fyleman got back to the hotel, she was inspired to write a poem.

"In Winnipeg at Christmas they line the streets with trees, Christmas trees lit up at night, with little balls of coloured light," Rose Fyleman was inspired to write during her visit to the city in 1929. (Peter McAdam collection/Manitoba Archives)

In Winnipeg at Christmas appeared in print soon after, on New Year's Day 1930, in the British magazine Punch.

In Winnipeg at Christmas there's lots and lots of snow,
Very clean, and crisp and hard
And glittering like a Christmas card
Everywhere you go;
Snow upon the housetops, snow upon the street,
And Queen Victoria in her chair
Has snow upon her snowy hair
And snow upon her feet.

In Winnipeg at Christmas they line the streets with trees,
Christmas trees lit up at night
With little balls of coloured light
As pretty as you please.
The people hurry past you in furry boots and wraps;
The sleighs are like a picture book,
And all the big policemen look
Like teddy bears in caps.

And oh! The smiling ladies and jolly girls and boys;
And oh! The parties and the fun
With lovely gifts for everyone, 
Books and sweets and toys.
So, if someday at Christmas you don't know where to go,
Just pack your boxes up, I beg,
And start at once for Winnipeg;
You'll like it there I know.

George Toles, professor of literature and film at the University of Manitoba, believes those long, dark days when summer is a frost-encrusted memory help us find something inside ourselves.

"Winter drives us further inward, and if we know how to look for it, that is where the deepest imaginative treasure lies," he said.

That feeling is shared by director and filmmaker Guy Maddin, with whom Toles was a frequent co-writer and collaborator.

A still image from director Guy Maddin's 2007 film, My Winnipeg. The movie, which he has referred to as "docu-fantasia" combines archival footage and interviews for a dreamlike tour of his hometown. (Guy Maddin)

"I've always found the winters here charged with a special power. As a kid I was told we were the coldest city in the world, so I clung to that fact as the sole source of civic pride — something that would allow us to hold our mythic own against many another city mythologized by the American TV I grew up watching," he said.

"I could tell that depictions of winter in movies and on TV always involved fake snow, and actors looking far too comfortable for the temperatures they supposedly endured, so I knew we were the only ones who truly experienced the minus-40 that feels like pliers turning your nostrils inside out."

Car exhaust thick as sheep flocks

Maddin, who gained worldwide acclaim for his 2007 film, My Winnipeg, a dreamlike homage to his hometown, said the cold shouldn't be shunned but rather embraced as a Scout-like survival badge.

"We were the only ones who heard the air tinkle as we broke our way through its frozen depths, the only ones who drive through billows of car exhaust as thick as sheep flocks. This filled me with pride," he said.

We were the only ones who heard the air tinkle as we broke our way through its frozen depths.- Guy Maddin

"It gave anyone who went outside in winter the feeling they had the city to themselves, for they pretty much did. A curious kind of myth crystalized concerning the city."

Winnipeggers have learned to thrive in these conditions but that fails to be noticed by others, falls far short of the myth-making stories that seem to envelop other cities for whatever reason, Maddin said.

"Our winter is simply lived. No sis-boom-bah, just cold. And that's a fine starting point for cultural currency to accrue interest," he said.

"And with our frosty cultural coffers bulging, it's no surprise an artist can thrive here."

  • Randy BachmanPrairie Town (excerpt)

Growing up in a prairie town
Learning to drive in the snow
Not much to do so you start a band
And soon you've gone as far as you can go

Winter nights are long, summer days are gone
Portage and Main 50-below
Springtime melts the snow, rivers overflow
Portage and Main 50-below
Portage and Main 50-below

Smokestack breath

"Winter in Winnipeg reminds me I am a measly human on a vast planet in space," said Winnipeg musician Keri Latimer, whose band Leaf Rapids has a new album, Citizen Alien, coming in spring 2019.

"We put on our heavy parkas, wrap up in wool, and all that's left to identify each other is our frosty eyelashes and smokestack breath. I love traipsing over the squeaky snow in big boots, otherwise eerily quiet as the drifts absorb the city noises."

Leaf Rapids, also known as Devin and Keri Latimer, pose in the otherworldly white glow of winter. (leafrapids.org)

Even just talking about that otherworldly quality to the winter landscape brings the creative juices to a roiling boil for Latimer, who has been writing, recording and performing with the band Nathan since 1999 and with Leaf Rapids, which she formed in 2015 with husband — and fellow Nathan-ite — Devin Latimer.

"It makes me feel like an astronaut, and then I wonder why we don't have space helmets for this climate," she said. "I think about that a lot. It would also help with the mosquitos."

The song, Galaxie 500, on Leaf Rapids' last album has lyrics about driving around to get a baby to sleep in the middle of a winter night in a small mining town in northern Manitoba.

  • Galaxie 500 (excerpt from Lucky Stars, 2015, Leaf Rapids)

Four in the morning at 40-below, there's a blue so deep
It seeps into your dreams
And if fortune smiles, neon green paints the sky while you sleep
Right through the loudest colours

Group of Seven member, L. L. FitzGerald, who spent his entire life in Winnipeg, was a friend of Phillips and the pair frequently sketched their snow surroundings together.

Taking a streetcar to the limits of the city they would, in winter, don snowshoes and walk along the Assiniboine River, according to Maria Tippett and Douglas Coles, editors of Phillips in Print: The Selected Writings of Walter J. Phillips on Canadian Nature and Art.

Fitzgerald didn't always need to venture too far, however. He found inspiration in the alleys and fences of his own neighbourhood in St. James.

L.L. FitzGerald's 1928 painting Garage and House was a study of his own snowy neighbourhood. (National Gallery of Canada)
Lionel LeMoine (L.L.) FitzGerald painted Walking Bridge, Winnipeg, in 1920. (Mayberry Fine Art)

Alberta-born and Manitoba-raised writer and illustrator William Kurelek was greatly influenced by harsh and happy experiences of growing up on a farm near the town of Stonewall, north of Winnipeg.

Much of that would later provide subject mater for his art, which reflected the excitement of the first snowfall, skating on homemade rinks, building snowmen and forts, the awe of a blizzard and the burn of frozen metal on bare skin.

The stories and images were captured in a 1973 book, A Prairie Boy's Winter.

William Kurelek collected his winter stories and images in a 1973 book, A Prairie Boy's Winter. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)
William Kurelek's work reflected the excitement of the first snowfall, skating on homemade rinks, building snowmen and forts, the awe of a blizzard and the burn of frozen metal on bare skin. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

About the Author

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. Story idea? Email: darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca

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