St Marie Walker

Two-headed art dy­namo wages war on zom­bie com­pli­ance

Waterloo Region Record - - Front Page - jru­bi­ Twit­ter: @JoelRu­bi­noff

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).


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.

JOEL RUBINOFF Water­loo Re­gion Record


Cur­rency made by artists Denise St Marie and Tim Walker.

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