Salt Spring Stories

Canada's west coast has a fairly young history. The settlement at Fort Victoria was erected by James Douglas and the Hudson's Bay Company Good Ol' Boys in 1843, a mere 175 years ago. That's a big gap when compared to Atlantic Canada, when Vikings landed at L'Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland around ca. 1000 A.D. and ordered the first historically documented Double Double at the Tim Horton's outpost located there.

So west coast historical scat is fresher, more immediate, with plenty of artifacts to be unearthed. No smoldering campfires, mind you, but nothing buried too deep in the ground either. There's also a plethora of photographs from the earliest days of almost all early settlements, including Salt Spring. In fact, it's fair to say that Salt Spring has an almost fanatical devotion to its historical record-keeping, with the open source nature of the Salt Spring Island Archives leading the way and, importantly, lending support to local authors.

Local history was on artist Greg Klassen's mind for the last but not least of Salt Spring's Canada Day 150 events. "Salt Spring Stories," his most recent photographic exhibit, opened August 11th at ArtSpring, six weeks after Canada Day — right around the time when the smoky wildfire air, which had cast its gray-orange pallor across all of western B.C., and as far down as Oregon, finally gave way to the first clear days and cool nights of near-late Summer.

"Salt Spring Stories" was sponsored by a variety of entities at the federal, provincial, and local level, and was the most ambitious, artistically speaking, of local Canada Day events: 22 large panoramic photographs of Salt Spring natural landmarks, some photos as long as eleven feet, merged historical images and characters with Klassen's modern day shots. Every major Salt Spring bay, lake, and beach was represented in the exhibit, from Beaver Point to Southey Point and all places in between.

"Ganges Too" by Greg Klassen

Klassen, who is tall in stature and large in heart, moved to Salt Spring with his family in 2012 after graduating with a Masters of Applied Arts from Emily Carr. Much of his work centers around the exploration of identity, and is often quite personal: Klassen himself was featured in his "Mirror/Mask" series; his daughter Morgan was his model in "Mu (Liminal Spaces)"; and his daughter RhiAnnon is central in "Salt Spring Stories." (Visitors to last fall's "SURFACING: EXPLORATIONS IN TWO DIMENSIONS" group exhibit at ArtSpring may remember being greeted with a large black and white image of Klassen on the back wall staring directly into their eyes, expressionless, as they entered.)

Something you won’t find in Klassen's work is bright bold colors or big bold lines, that in-your-face eye candy that dictates sales in the art marketplace, that's less concerned with the conceptual ideas of a piece than with how well it matches up to the colors of a patron's couch. Rather, Klassen's work is brain candy that invites you in and makes you think. Lyricism and metaphor are not primary; rather, communication and a strong cerebral idealism are always at play. It's museum-level work, not necessarily wall decoration.

"Salt Spring Stories" was designed to create a spectre-like layering of past and future. The accompanying one-sheet texts for each photograph were written by Klassen's wife, Andrea Locke, and wonderfully blended a first-person narrative behind the adventure of the taking of the photograph and the unique historical data of the locale. Locke and Klassen hope to create a coffee table book of the exhibit, with fold-outs to accommodate the overly horizontally-biased dimensions of the photographs.

Klassen’s work is singular in conception, design, and execution, and his layout and hanging of the show in the gallery was no exception. The pieces were suspended throughout the space from the ceiling in a random, maze-like fashion which circumvented, one might even say thwarted, the typical stay-to-the-right circumnavigation of an exhibit which guarantees that you not miss seeing everything. This layout encouraged, one might even say forced, a more extemporaneous viewing strategy upon a visitor. In one big sense, the layout mirrored the island's groovy, non-grid street design, which provides for a free-flow experience for the most quotidian of point A to point B errands.

Space between the works was tight, which was just fine by Klassen. He wanted you to bump into the photographs, and bump everybody did. This idea, when coupled with the wonderful Canadian politesse when it comes to crowds and small spaces, made it impossible to view a piece without interacting and conversing with the stranger beside you with the pudgy nudgy elbows or large packback; you experienced the work together.

Each image, its structure, its content, is designed to simultaneously engage the viewer in a unique story about the historical context associated with specific sites around the Island and contribute to the overall collective – and ever-evolving – story that is this Island, its people and its larger context in contemporary Canadian society.
— Greg Klassen

The opening night of the exhibit was also something of a coming out event for Klassen, when he let it be known to the packed crowd that he has Asperger's Syndrome, a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction and communication. It's often mistakenly thought of as a milder form of autism — "autism lite" — but most people with Asperger's have relatively normal language skills and intelligence, compared to those with autism. People with Asperger's cannot pick up many of the important myriad social cues as easily as others can. Empathy can be also lacking. So those with Asperger's tend to parse their life experience logically and intellectually. (The best-selling memoir "Look Me in the Eye" by John Elder Robison, brother of "Running with Scissors" author Augusten Burroughs, is a humorous take on the subject, as told from Robison's first-person experience as a person with Asperger's.)

Klassen has what's considered a mild form of Asperger's. He's quite good at vocalizing and capable of saying what needs to be said. And he certainly has no problem speaking in public. Because of this, he feels a strong sense of responsibility to step forward as a disability advocate. He is deeply involved with GIFTS, an island organization which supports people with disabilities, where Klassen is able to bring his artistic mission of identity and inclusion into the local disability community.

Klassen's daughter, RhiAnnon, who is a GIFTS client, is an avatar in each of the "Salt Spring Stories" photographs, adding the personal contextual layer Klassen is fond of. RhiAnnon serves as a sort "Where's Waldo?" engagement for visitors, giving them a way to view the work and accompanying stories through another person's eyes, particularly a person of disability.

Greg and RhiAnnon Klassen

Each of the exhibit's twelve days featured a noontime guest speaker, selected to represent a diverse group of island voices — Kanaka, Black, Japanese, Coast Salish, LGBTQ, Disability — keeping with Klassen's vision of community inclusion. Gallerist Matt Steffich and legendary humorist Arthur Black also spoke during the show's run. The last day of the exhibit featured author Chris Arnett, a Springer by any calendar measure, who earned his PhD in Anthropology from UBC, where he also teaches. Also known for an earlier incarnation as the grandfather of Vancouver punk rock, Arnett's "The Terror of The Coast" is a classic in Gulf Island colonial history, a page-turning volume that details the shameless greed and land-grabbing way of the silver-tongued colonizer, document by official document.

With his encyclopedic knowledge and entertaining manner, Arnett kept the lunchtime crowd riveted to their seats as he described a retaliatory attack by the British naval gunboat Forward on a Hwulmuhw village on Penelakut (formerly Kuper) Island, a five-minute kayak ride just northwest of Salt Spring. That event, and the circumstances surrounding it, are the centerpiece story of his book, an event which is known primarily as the first and only time the British navy was repulsed by Native warriors. (Spoiler alert: the Brits came back, with bigger boats and bigger guns, and let loose one of the largest military operations in the history of British Columbia.)

Chris Arnett

Alas, history marches on. This summer will be remembered for its wonderfully hot days, a mid-morning solar eclipse, and a polarizing incorporation referendum that was tempered with the "no burn" neighborliness that is part of island culture. Whether you were for or against, it was clear that both sides wanted nothing more than to keep our little slice of Shangri-La as Shangri-La as possible. In some respects, the election was just another round of fingers in the dyke to hold back the inevitable "Economic Redevelopment" that's coming our way with the same greedy ferocity that has ravaged, and continues to ravage, Vancouver and Victoria and all the hamlets in its swirling, destructive path.

Life is change, and make no mistake: change is coming. Salt Spring will be shaped once more, perhaps permanently and irrevocably, by a flurry of "downtown revitalization" and "beautification projects" from "financial services" organizations — all buzzwords for how a condo may be built very soon near you, right up in your grill, by the faceless offshore shell company modern day robber baron development minions of Mammon's greed who won't be happy until the whole damn west coast looks like a mega-mega mega Singapore, right out of "Blade Runner 2049."

In the meantime, "Salt Spring Stories" is an important work in the island's rich expression of community-based art. Klassen has quickly become one of the leading photographic artistic voices on the island, and it's great to see him turn his attention toward our rich island history and merging it with his personal vision and goals on such a grand scale. Hopefully, 150 years from now, for Canada Day 300, some futuristic artist will take Klassen's photos of Grandma's Bay and Menhinnick Beach and Cusheon Lake and add a new layer onto them. And, hopefully, all of these views will still be condo-free.

POSTSCRIPT: Greg Klassen passed away suddenly, shortly after this exhibit. Although he was a visionary artist and photographer, Greg was first and foremost a genuine and nice guy, with a very big heart. It's a testament to his spirit that two celebration of life gatherings were required by the community to properly absorb the loss.

The Salt Spring Island COUGAR is open to art, literary works, poetry, creative non-fiction, photography, and other submissions from local residents.