Summer Artist-in-Residence

June 2019

Mitchell Art Gallery

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

leah mcinnis

work work work

“Why do I make the type of work I do?” I ask myself this as I stand outside the gallery beside men in reflective vests, hard hats and steel toe boots. I think, I should ask them to follow me inside the gallery. I should ask them to pose in front of my drawings of construction sites so I can take their photos. Will it look staged? And, does that matter? I should really ask them to add to the poster that is nailed to the structure I built, that has the heading “What is your ideal work environment?”

I built this structure, open on one side, seating inside, a bar with library books, on Tuesday morning, before taking the five hour bus ride to Fort McMurray. I created this situation, with red drafting pencils available, so that when I returned, there would be a full page of scrawled answers for me. For my research. Hoping that whatever I am doing is always larger than me, but what can that even mean? I am just one person, an artist who is shy. This is why I asked myself that question, about why do I make this type of work, these situations that require participation from the public, a public I do not know. I know from similar past experiences that I cannot make anyone do anything in a gallery that they don’t want to do.

So I guess the question should be, how to create an environment that encourages people to participate. The poster, is facing outwards towards the desk of the gallery administrator. Maybe that deters people from writing on it? I can shift the structure, pull the sides. It’s heavy but it isn’t secured to the polished concrete.

When I first arrived at this gallery, two weeks ago, in Edmonton, Alberta, I knew that I needed to gather wood in order to build the structures like the one previously described. I wanted 2x4’s, 1x2’s, 2x6’s. Dimensional lumber. I like that classification because it sounds conceptual. Plywood. I called my friend and collaborator and asked him how I should gain access to the dumpster at a construction site. He told me I should just walk onto the site and into the office and ask the foreman. I thanked him and looked at my reflection in a glass door and thought of the millions of times i’ve been catcalled.

But i am a professional, and this is my work. So i must work up the courage and ask these men for their scraps. I need to ask if i can have access to their dumpster.

I walked by two condo developments, without courage. I walked by a new building on a university campus, and saw an open door, with a sign that said “site office.” I decided this would be my in. I wonder if it is because it’s on university grounds, and I feel more comfortable with this type of environment. Am I an academic artist? I feel comfortable on any campus, marching into the library, using the bathrooms.

I spent two days standing outside this site office door, waiting to catch the right person to ask. I’d walk by and peek in the open door. Very aware of my body and the fact that I was not wearing the correct PPE. I stood by the dumpsters smoking cigarettes. Finally a man who was around my age walked past me, hauling what looked like a compression tank, or a generator or a mini welder, I am not sure. Excuse me, excuse me…. He looked over. And I spewed out in one sentence, maybe it was one word.


Should I have used the word love? I certainly do not love the idea of crawling into a dumpster full of construction debris. Especially knowing that I am not very strong and would probably not be able to pull myself out. I could build a ladder inside the dumpster…

“You need to talk to the general contractor. He drives the big black truck.” And he pointed to the massive truck parked beside two porta-potties. The shiniest thing in the vicinity. “Because bosses are rich,” I think.

So then I stood around smoking, watching the black truck, waiting for someone to walk towards it.

I eventually found wood through another avenue, through a local artist actually. And I got it delivered and I built a thing and took pictures and put the poster on it and waited.

I took the bus up to fort mcmurray with workers, I sat on back decks and talked about the fire ban. The anxiety of three years ago simmering under the surface, as people water their lawns and watch the skies. Still dealign with the trauma of the massive forest fires that caused the entire population of Fort McMurray to be evacuated.

I designed my project at the gallery in Edmonton to be a study of work in relation to art. But it hits me, as I travel north on highway 63, that making a project about work in this part of the world will never be just about arts workers, or praxis, or the philosophical leanings I have. A poem I read recently dances in my head: Thinking is working and working is thinking. But thinking isn’t paying.

This is a region where the work people do defines their lives in a different way. It shapes communications. As I sat on the 9am return bus to edmonton yesterday morning, the driver announced the usual “please turn your phones on silent to not disturb fellow passengers…” but he also said “for the folks getting off nightshift that need to get some rest.” I looked down the aisle at the steel toed boots. The culture of shift work and commuting is common knowledge.

So, back to this morning. Standing beside the construction workers again, smoking, no longer asking for dumpster access, but wanting them to visit my gallery. I want to see what happens when the people who build the university look at what the university funds. Especially when I am drawing construction sites on 32” x 48” sheets of paper with charcoal and conte. The impossible forms rendered in bowed lines. Structurally unsound representations of what they actually do - for work. And am I acting weird because I assume their work is more important than mine? Or more real? I think how I would ask them. I would say, “Do you have a minute?” or, “It won’t take very long.” Because time is money.

They walked away from me and back into the university. I remain, forming words in my head and letting them drift away. Then, a truck slowly approaches the stop sign beside me. I look into the driver side window, and the driver is looking right at me. We lock eyes, and he is yawning. I don’t look away but just watch this man yawn at me. The exchange is entirely neutral, as if it goes without saying that it is early, it is Friday, we are all tried, we all are working. I watch him slowly glide away from me as I realize that he is driving a shiny, black truck.