Why is there a 'Maritime Museum' in landlocked Saskatchewan?
Todd Gronsdahl's art exhibition imagines a world of Prairie pirates and seafaring inventors
The province of Saskatchewan doesn't exactly have a rich history of maritime exploration — so Todd Gronsdahl invented one.
The Saskatoon-born artist imagined a world in which explorers and eccentric inventors sail the Prairie waterways, and the military fends off foreign invaders who attack from the river's depths.
His brought his aquatic fantasies to life in the form of artifacts on display at an exhibition called The Saskatchewan Maritime Museum in the Art Gallery of Regina.
"Ideally, I want people to find it funny. I like making art that feels accessible to me — and for me, funny things are the best way to connect with people," Gronsdahl told As It Happens host Carol Off.
Seafaring inventors and WW II 'gluten bombs'
The idea, he said, to satirize the process of history-making and nation-building that so many accept without question.
"It kind of looks like a real museum," Sandee Moore, curator at the Art Gallery of Regina, told CBC Saskatchewan Morning Edition host Stefani Langenegger.
"Everything has this beautiful, cohesive — at first glance — very slick and technological look. But then as you look closer, you realize it's kind of little bits of scrap wood glued together and orange duct-tape, and the illusion kind of falls apart."
At the heart of Gronsdahl's fictional history is a man named Charles Gaspar, an inventor who explores Saskatchewan's regional rivers and streams on a floating laboratory called the Gasparfon.
"He's sort of a Elon Musk-type character from Saskatchewan, back in the days of Tommy Douglas, and he uses his vast fortune and influence to sort of try to improve humanity," Gronsdahl said.
Gaspar's many inventions include housing insulation made from cattails, which is perfect for the brisk Prairie winters, and lip balm made from sturgeon cartilage.
"That one might not fly today with sort of ethical concerns," Gronsdahl said. "There are vegan friends who wouldn't be happy."
But Gaspar's most elaborate invention is the Gaspar Apparatus, a machine to extract psychoactive ingredients from underwater plants.
"Unfortunately, he couldn't get any psychoactive reaction, but he did discover a way to distil vitamin B," Gronsdahl said. "So then he just got even more rich by selling his vitamin B pills."
In Gronsdahl's re-imagining of Saskatchewan, the province had to fight German U-boats in the South Saskatchewan River during the Second World War.
A key component of that maritime defence was hidden in plain sight at the University of Saskatchewan, in an area known as the "Devil's Dip." This natural formation on the riverbank was once home to a large wooden ski jump that would launch people out onto the frozen river.
"This is a real thing," Gronsdahl said. "Like, this actually exists."
Gronsdahl tried to imagine what role the ski-jump might play in his fictional universe.
"Why would they build that there? Why are the powerful elite deciding to install this?" he said. "And I immediately assumed that the jump was put there to propel gluten bombs into the river, which would gum up the props of German U-boats."
A replica of the ski jump is on display at the Saskatchewan Maritime Museum, along with Gaspar's tools and inventions, and other artifacts from Gronsdahl's alternate universe.
There are buoys tied with "farmer's knots." There's a series of nautical flags. There's even a replica of the "Frankwin Expedition," described as an "ill-conceived, ill-considered, ill-equipped" mission to chart the "rivers, streams and sloughs of Saskatchewan" in a whaling vessel.
Gronsdahl says that once he started working on the project, it was easy to let his imagination sail.
"I've heard this said about writers is they invent a character and then the character just sort writes the book," he said.
"That's pretty accurate to how I make art. I kind of start making an object ... and then one of these characters or the story sort of leads me through the making of the rest of the work. And I sort of get excited, and I have to finish the work to see how the story will end."
The Saskatchewan Maritime Museum will be at the Art Gallery of Regina until Feb. 22.
Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC Saskatchewan. Interview with Todd Gronsdahl produced by Samantha Lui.