St Marie Walker
Two-headed art dynamo wages war on zombie compliance
WATERLOO REGION — They’re the Bonnie and Clyde of Kitchener conceptual art, papering the community with fake money and T-shirts, robbing it of the smug certainty that perceptions can be controlled.
They’re St Marie ϕ Walker — a.k.a. Denise St Marie and Tim Walker — artistic and life partners who, in the three years they’ve been embedded in Waterloo Region, have launched a full-scale attack on phone-obsessed, glassy eyed social conformity.
“How is it we can create meaning in the world?” they pose in tandem, as they do almost everything else.
“How do you get people to think about things they might otherwise not think about? One of the advantages of being an artist is you don’t live in the traditional world.”
He’s 37 and intense. She’s 41 and folksy. He has a beard. She sports colourful scarves.
Together, they’ve taught English in Japan, won a Governor General’s Award for their masters work at the University of Waterloo and put a lot of thought into the placement of a bobbing cat toy secured to the ceiling of their modest Kitchener apartment.
While the rest of us belch, burp and celebrate the arrival of buck-a-beer, the 2018 City of Waterloo Artist in Residence (yes, that’s singular) ricochets around the region like an atomic pinball, planting seeds of thoughtful reflection with their textbased provocations and pop art popups.
Are there any lengths to which they won’t go?
When you first contacted me with an email signed “St Marie ϕ Walker,” I thought you were one person. Was this an attempt at deception?
There’s always an individual piece of each of us inside the completed work. We see our collaboration being unified.
What is the “ϕ” hieroglyphic in your artistic signature — a tribute to ’80s icon Prince?
It’s a Greek symbol that is the beginning of the word “Philosophy.” There’s a ton of other meaning, but we don’t expect people to get that. We do expect it to grab their attention and make them question, much like you did, what it means. Also we love philosophy, and think the ampersand is boring.
In real life, you often finish each other’s sentences. How do you expect me to take accurate notes?
Simple. We don’t.
Between the two of you, you have a BFA, B, Ed., MFA, B. Phil and MFA — how many degrees does it take these days to become a working artist?
At least one more . . . but probably two since there’s two of us. But honestly, these degrees are more a reflection of our love of learning.
You’ve described your artistic vision as “investigating the applied nature of human perception, belief, value and illusion via the creative process.” No offence, but I feel like you’re speaking in Sanskrit.
There’s a tendency to think you’re experiencing reality as it “really is.” But there’s a lot of research that shows we’re motivated by our emotions, culture and upbringing and these qualities can distort our experience. For example, there’s a lot of social pressure to determine the value of things economically. But what price do you put on family? Laughter? Knowledge? Compassion?
You live in the most drab building I’ve ever seen, yet your apartment boasts a funky retro vibe that feels like beatnik nirvana — was this contrast intentional?
Only because we don’t control the outside of the building.
One of your art projects — the Social Bank — involves handing out fake money with intriguing buzzwords like “knowledge” and “compassion.” Do people get upset when they find out it’s not real?
We have a strong tendency to determine value economically. We want people to question how they see value in the world.
Do you ever try to pass these bills off as legal tender if, say, you’re a bit short on cash?
I doubt “Courage” will exchange for a $10 bill.
Being an artist in a profit-driven society is no easy gig. What’s the secret to surviving on little or no money?
Spending less than you make. But honestly, a lot of people spend money on things they don’t need or use, but think it’ll make them happy. We have learned to do without a lot of things we are quite happy doing without, like a brand-new car, or a boat, or a cottage. We’re much more interested in following our passions.
How many grants is it feasible to apply for?
(Laughs) . . . Answering this question would cost a consulting fee.
Are there buzzwords like “artistic synergy” or “hybridization” you can strategically insert into funding applications to propel you to the top of the heap?
Today it’s more “community-engagement” but yes, the whole “buzzword” thing is part of the game.
Luckily, our practice currency aligns with the mandates of granting organizations so we have been quite fortunate.
Tell me about your first date — I understand it was quite romantic.
(Denise) I had put text on an empty
bus shelter — “It’s not what they see, it’s how they see it” — and said, “Do you want to see some art?”
(Tim) I thought we were going to a gallery and she brings me to some street corner and I was like, “Where’s the art?”
Your cat is 18 years old but doesn’t look a day over six — what do you feed her?
It’s a “him” and we just changed his food since he had a few health problems with our previous food. But he largely survives on our affection.
Your plan to head to Winnipeg in hot pursuit of an eggshaped retro trailer sounds like an art project all its own. What’s the motivation behind this?
A place to live, if all else fails . . . (laughs) . . . But seriously, there’s multiple reasons, one of which involves a tour of this region we’ll be starting next spring/summer with our Social Bank. We needed something to move the project around. We’ll also be using it for camping.
Your doormat is shaped like the moustache I sported in 1977. How does this fit your artistic vision?
I guess it’s about exceptions. We thought it was funny and most people don’t expect to be greeted by a 1977 moustache to wipe their feet.
You told me your art is designed to puncture the mundane reality of people’s lives — doing the wash, cutting the grass, making dinner. My question is, who does your wash, cuts your grass and makes your dinner?
Obviously we do all of our chores just like the majority of society, but when we do these mundane tasks we listen to podcasts and watch documentaries on everything from the universe to the extremophiles that live near heat vents at the bottom of the ocean. Denise loves listening to Greydon Square rap about physics.
Let’s not stand on ceremony about the wash: is it your parents?
Hahahaha. Never! That ended when we were teenagers. We both left home early and have been doing chores ever since.
What’s the biggest challenge in getting people to look up from their phones and interact with your work?
We try to make it funny, engaging, inspiring and participatory, but it’s not for everyone. Our thought is that if we enjoy it, there will be others out there who enjoy it as well.
You served a huge plate of papaya on my arrival. I find this choice of exotic fruit intriguing.
If you like peaches, then you’ll like mango. And if you like mango, you’ll like papaya. It’s just a slippery slope.
You have a rack of T-shirts emblazoned with philosophical statements like “We can’t be defined by arbitrary boundaries and “You are shaped by how you see others seeing you.” I understand this is art, but do you ever just throw them on when your regular clothes are in the wash?
We haven’t tried wearing those around. Tim does have a shirt we made that states “Free will is an illusion” that gets fantastic reactions. We’ve had great conversations with people who agree with the statements and amazing debates with those who don’t.
How about a T-shirt that reads “We’re artists. Give us money!”?
People don’t like it when you beg. But we’ll accept any donations.
Another project consists of billboard-sized thought bubbles emblazoned with whimsical quotes like “I think of you often . . . ” Frankly, this sounds a lot like your T-shirt exhibit.
It is. There’s a lot of public messages that just want to convince you to buy things. We want you to think.
You told me your goal is to confuse people and spark “uncertainty.” How is this beneficial?
When people feel uncertain, they question things more. It forces them to pay attention to the moment they’re living in. People who question the use of public space are becoming more civically engaged, which is definitely a good thing.
Some of your thought bubbles have been defaced with graffiti. Were the defamatory swear words at least creative?
The least creative things people write are their names. Tim likens it to a dog pissing on a fire hydrant. You’re here. We get it. Denise just sees it as a desire to be seen. Also penises. Penises are a very popular thing to write as well.
Denise floated the idea of marrying an older man to help fund your artistic exploits. How realistic is this option?
(Laughs) . . . It’s looking extremely unlikely. Thus we’ll have to figure it out, just the two of us.
Just for the record, I already have a family.
Now it’s looking even more unlikely!
You told me the two of you have been engaged in an ongoing debate since you met in 2005. At this point, who’s winning?
There is no winning, in the grand scheme of it. I think any victory would be swiftly followed by a split.
Is it true that without that yin and yang between you, true art can’t emerge?
It’s a dialogue, and this dialogue is very much part of the art. The debates we have inspire and push us to create more rigorous work.
My wife and I have debates over whether lining the garbage bin with newspaper will make it less attractive to maggots. Would this be considered art?
I’m sure we could present your marriage debates in a gallery setting in an interesting way. However, “art” is a tricky word, sometimes almost too broad, so we want to say no.
Think fast: “Do you believe what you perceive or do you perceive what you believe?”
I took that from the giant wood pendulum hanging on your living room wall.
What’s important it’s that they’re not mutually exclusive, and we’re always doing both.
Both of you have roots elsewhere. Why settle in Waterloo Region?
We came here for our MFA at the University of Waterloo after seven years in Toronto. We like the lifestyle here and the pace. We’ll stay until we can’t afford to anymore and opportunities arise elsewhere.
The plant on your windowsill tried to eat my finger. Is it a man-eater?
We like living on the edge. It’s a Mimosa Pudica. It’s neither a man-eater nor a fly-eater. It’s
commonly known as a “sensitive plant” and we first encountered it while living in Japan. We like watching it react to touch.
Your collection of tiny cardboard furniture reminds me of “The Friendly Giant” — are you preparing to launch a kids’ show on Treehouse TV?
We prototype a lot and test out our ideas before committing them full-scale and to more expensive material. It’s our version of sketching.
You’ve turned a number of art projects into lamps — where’s the line between artfor-art’s-sake and saving money on appliances?
Why must there be a line? There’s a synergy there, in our opinion! Those were some experiments that we simply chose to repurpose.
Ever thought about marketing this stuff to Ikea?
We have, after several gin and tonics. But we usually come up with another creative idea that we’re more invested in exploring.
Denise has described herself as “a bit of a poet that got sidetracked into art.” Did you ever consider getting sidetracked from art into something more lucrative, like corporate law or dentistry?
Sometimes. But that’s a whole other life that requires complete dedication the way that art making does. Denise wrote once “The future has been written down and then ripped out . . .” so who knows what the future holds?
What about aerial dogfighting?
Tim has always wanted to get a pilot’s licence, but aerial dogfighting seems about as practical as art and poetry! Besides you need a lot of initial capital to get started. Flying ain’t cheap!
Did I mention I’m not marrying you?
What if we were aerial dogfighters?
You can catch St Marie ϕ Walker’s work on thought bubble signs in midtown Kitchener, during “word walks” in Waterloo Park, at Waterloo’s Lumen Festival (Sept. 29) and at the Fibreworks 2018 exhibition at Cambridge Art Galleries Idea Exchange (opening Sept. 21). www.stmariewalker.com
Tim Walker and Denise St Marie in the art studio in their Kitchener apartment.
Denise St Marie and Tim Walker show some of the T-shirts they make in their Kitchener apartment.
Currency made by artists Denise St Marie and Tim Walker.