Story by Lizzy Hill / Photos by Aaron McKenzie Fraser
I’m hopelessly lost, gliding on a children’s scooter through dimly-lit corridors in Nova Scotia’s decommissioned “Diefenbunker” nuclear fallout shelter. It’s chilly and the sound of me calling “Mitchell, are you there?” bounces off the slick walls in the hallway—the same hallways that must have once echoed with the clatter of cadet boots marching to and from the mess hall.
A sign tells me I’m in Zone 9, but that doesn’t help in any way. Then I hear an auditory beacon—the sound of thrashing, wailing, and distorted saxophone notes emanating from Mitchell Wiebe’s studio.
I’ve driven an hour-and-a-half from Halifax to the remote village of Debert to visit Wiebe in the bunker, where he’s living part time as a resident artist. Wiebe uses the place as his escape from the city, going underground for days at a time, working away on giant acrylic, oil, and day-glo paintings that depict manic humanoid creatures.
His work ethic and otherworldly vision have helped Weibe gain international notoriety. He has current and upcoming shows in three countries. Massachusett’s contemporary gallery MASS MoCA has Wiebe’s work on display until 2013 in its Oh Canada exhibition. In Halifax, Wiebe’s painting “The Light Conversation” is included in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia’s Synaptic Connections: Art on the Brain. And lately he hints about a potential show in Berlin that he’s keeping hush-hush for now.
For regional observers, it’s no surprise that Wiebe’s work would cross borders; his paintings have an almost viral presence in Halifax. Here you’ll stumble onto it scrawled across the walls of the Backpackers Hostel café, hung proudly at the local video outlet called Video Difference, in countless North End living rooms, and even emblazoned on odd bits of people’s clothing.
Wiebe’s highly intuitive, imaginative paintings are rich in dream-like transformations—where limbs and new forms seem to sprout from the bodies of various creatures—as well as art historical references and chaotic and often contradictory narratives. His painted characters seem to each have their own stories lurking just behind the pigment. They also seem to live outside of good and evil or right and wrong, cheerfully reminding us of our all-too-human moral grey areas.
I follow the sound of music coming from Wiebe’s studio and it grows louder. I zip past the boiler room with it’s snake-like tubing and the old war room (still full of maps), but take a wrong turn and wind up peering into the space that holds “the robots,” the rows of humming lockers that hold Internet data-hosting machines.
Fearing a nuclear winter, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker built six “Diefenbunkers” across Canada during the Cold War. Many have been repurposed. The biggest one, located outside of Ottawa, now houses a Cold War museum. In 2008, a mysterious American entrepreneur named Anton E. Self purchased the Debert bunker and transformed it into Dataville, catering to clients in New York and London.
After taking a few more corners on my scooter, at last I catch a glimpse of the half-crazed humanoids leaping off the canvases placed outside Wiebe’s studio. I wander in and find him retouching a spinning black-and-white creature in one of his newer works.
“Did you find the kitchen okay?” he asks, though I can barely hear him over the music, some newer stuff that one of his bands, Catbag, recorded this year at the bunker. The collection is aptly named "Bunker."
“Not exactly,” I laugh. I flop down on the floor, hoping to chat some more with Wiebe about his painting but I feel too entranced by the manic droning of Catbag. Wiebe’s voice—sometimes wobbly and other times gravelly and biting—weaves in and out of gritty bass lines, tempered by a saxophone at first eerily smooth and then frantic and spastic.
Though Wiebe sometimes stays purposely unplugged, having no phone and going literally underground to paint beneath fluorescent black lighting, he always maintains a mix of artistic collaborations like Catbag. His downtown Halifax studio is often abuzz with people dropping in and out—and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Wiebe’s social interactions help pollinate his paintings.
While he could very likely thrive as a painter in any number of larger cities, Weibe has been based mostly in Halifax for the past 16 years.
“Half the reason I’m still here in Halifax is that the pleasure of making music with people goes on,” Wiebe explains.
Indeed, it’s tough to have have lived in Halifax without experiencing at least one of the many “Mitchell Wiebe bands” over the years, characterized by Wiebe’s outlandish costumes and that eccentric warble in his vocals.
Those who have made music with Wiebe report that there’s nothing quite like it.
“We have developed the ability to communicate telepathically, knowing when to start, stop and change tempo” says Catbag bandmate Craig Leonard. “He can improvise novellas while pounding out industrial trash beats."
Artistically, Wiebe bounces back and forth between lyric-writing and painting, but the crossover is clearly evident.
“I always doodle and there’s usually lyrics in there,” he explains, showing me his daily planner—a swampy work of art in itself, with slinky cat-like creatures and swirling pen marks crawling distractedly across the dates.
“Our process for making music was very much an art-based one,” adds Ray Fenwick, Wiebe’s friend and bandmate from another band called Pastoralia. “The music and vocals were assembled and collaged more than they were ‘written.’"
Fenwick is an artist-illustrator himself who recently relocated to Winnipeg. He misses working creatively with Wiebe because it is “addictive.”
“[Wiebe] somehow manages to keep the process positive and moving forward without sacrificing rigor,” says Fenwick. “I think his critical eye and ear are there at all times, but he never lets it push too far into the foreground and get in the way of a rewarding process.”
In their heyday, Wiebe and Fenwick often added a comic element to their joint endeavours. Back in 2009, they did a performative piece posing as pupil and student at Eyelevel Gallery, an artist-run centre in Halifax. In his student role, Wiebe put on his famous spacey, alien-like mask while embodying an alter ego he calls Dweebo (see below pic).
Patoralia hit its peak when Wiebe was making art in what used to be studio space above the Propellor Brewery building in Halifax’s North End. I first met him back then, when I climbed the stairs of the old brewery building, which had a distinctive, yeasty aroma, to interview him for the Dalhousie Gazette student newspaper. The space captured my imagination, so I kept making up excuses to go back.
More than mere studio, it was a creative and social hub, attracting a colorful and motley bunch who’d often stumble in with fascinating stories to share. Wiebe had been in and out of the space for about a decade, evidence by the multi-coloured layers of life that flourished everywhere. Antique stuffed animals with beady black eyes popped out of nooks and crannies—and often reappeared in Wiebe’s paintings. The walls were completely covered in canvasses depicting animals in the midst of transition to other creatures and landscapes bleeding into human forms. Wiebe’s furry gray cat Norma presided over all and served as the muse for much of his work.
These days, Wiebe seems energized and inspired anew by his recent working trip to Brooklyn, New York. He tells me about the joy of discovering “a symphony of rats in the subway, chasing each other, running, dancing around at 4:30 in the morning.” He’s now painting away in Halifax with renewed focus, working on a black-and-white series of what he calls “portal shifters”—dizzying scenes of creatures whirling on spinning tops in front of spinning backgrounds.
As with his music, Wiebe’s paintings are a storm of movement and possibility, liberally tinged with the unreal.
“They’re getting more sparse and kind of wispier,” says Wiebe of his now-familiar creatures.
I can see it. They are becoming more airy and ghostly, as though they’re only half present.
To this dream-like experience, Wiebe says he can relate: “I can certainly respond to the feeling of disconnectedness, but also of being in rhythm with the world.”
Lizzy Hill is a Halifax-based arts writer and blogger. View her work at hill.kingsjournalism.com.
Aaron McKenzie Fraser is a longstanding Guerilla contributor who calls Halifax his home. View his work at amfraser.com.