Rising from the Dirt

Dirt City: Dream City starts the conversation in the Quarters.

At the Artery, an east Jasper Avenue gallery and nightclub, Emily van Driesum sits at a table in front of a drawing of some trees. Nothing terribly exciting but, she explains, it’s just a rough outline.

What she is planning, though, is quite remarkable.

One of 15 local contributors to public art project Dirt City: Dream City, the 22-year-old mixed-media installation artist is stitching Aspen trees – cut for the development of new subdivisions – back into the ground with wire.

The symbol of healing ties directly into revitalization plans for the area, though van Driesum admits she’s worried about how the trees, without the benefit of roots, will hold up to Edmonton’s erratic weather. “When it’s not in a controlled environment, it can be unpredictable,” she says.

Project coordinators Chelsea Boos, of the Edmonton Arts Council, and New York-based curator Kendal Henry selected the contributors based on 25 submitted portfolios.

Despite the underlying theme being the same, “everyone has taken such different approaches to this,” says Henry, who was asked by the Arts Council to set up an exhibition that would attract people to the distressed neighbourhood and help change its public perception.

According to Boos, the exhibition name, Dirt City: Dream City, is a play on a years-old nickname some artists have given the city, because the combination of mucky winters and austere cement architecture can make for an unpleasant scene, and because of the city’s working class and industrial history. But, she explains, if you take the term “dirt” literally, it’s something from which flowers grow.

It’s not unlike other projects on which Henry has consulted. “I work in places that are in a state of transition,” says Henry, who has done similar public exhibits in revitalized areas of Australia and Russia.

He and Boos challenged the artists to think of something that would interact with the environment. “It’s probably been the most stressful and anxiety-inducing art experience that I’ve had,” admits Nickelas Johnson, 32. He’s creating a parking stall-sized wooden sculpture of a severed hand, symbolic of a beggar’s, with posable fingers that people could turn into different gestures. “Whatever they want to say with the fingers.”

The Quarters has a long history of being a troubled, but strong, community, says Boos. She knows that realizing the dream of revitalization is going to take a lot of work, but with the help of projects like this, the people of the Quarters are essentially rebuilding what has been lost.

Dirt City: Dream City is running from July 20 to 30.

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