"The Place We Live": A Preface

I was honoured to write the preface to the 2015 Saint John High School Yearbook. These are, what I hope to be, some meagre words of wisdom on their theme, "The Place We Live." 

I spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning behind your theme, the place we live. Place is probably the central theme in my own work. I’m always trying to figure out ways to interpret place/home/ landscape. Which is tough stuff in an urban setting. Cities are complicated. Urban spaces are made up of fields of accumulated meanings: memory upon memory, old landmarks razed for new ones, graffiti spray painted over graffiti, its people coming and going.

These non-static elements reflect the nature of urban identity itself. Transient. Changing. Shifting fields of meanings. Given its ever changing nature, it’s challenging to concretely define an urban place beyond simple geography. What is Saint John, exactly? How are we different from Fredericton or Moncton, Toronto or New York? How do we parlay the complicated memories and experiences living or going to school in the Uptown into identity? And how do these experiences inform our sense of place?

So this is what I deal with in my artwork. Or valiantly attempt, seeking somehow to capture the essence of my urban place (Saint John) on a static two-dimensional surface. I try to mirror the development of urban space in my work, re-creating a field of accumulated meanings through the physical application of materials, built over time on the canvas, each layer a temporary interpretation of the landscape. I also try to draw attention transient elements of urban culture, like graffiti, construction sites, cranes, scaffolding and tankers – things that move in and out of the urban landscape, and that are often painted over, concealed, moved, ignored or edited in a bid to preserve an aesthetic ideal.

Sure, there are parts of Saint John that are less that aesthetically ideal. I remember thinking this with particular vehemence one afternoon in Grade Nine Social Studies, when the some dank fishy smell wafted through the open Prince William Street window (the odoriferous hazard of going to high school next to a working port).

But you know what, I like the grit. I like the decaying bits of old piers in the harbour and the tugboats and the odd characters and our rough-and-tumble South End. Perfection is boring. Flaw is character.

Some of you will be leaving Saint John. For university or travel or work, eventually.Watch what happens to your sense of place and how you self-identify. I went to Queen’s University for graduate school and was surrounded by fellow students who thought Quebec was the East Coast and that the Maritimes was a mythical land populated only by Anne of Green Gables and that Ontario (alone) equalled Canada. My sense of identity there came into sharp focus.While I was living in Kingston, the Globe and Mail published an article about one of those happiness indicator studies, in which they found that Saint John was the happiest city in Canada. I was triumphant. I made photocopies and distributed them around the campus bulletin boards. My small act of in-your-face-Ontario rebellion. We might be a little grimy around the edges but at least we’re a happy bunch.

Sometimes, the not-so-nice-at-the-time elements of the place in which we live or grew up - the bits we don’t like (it’s too small, too poor, too dirty) - become the things that we miss the most when we’re away from this place. And maybe they will be the things to draw you back. It drew me back. And I opened a studio and a gallery one block away from my old high school, in my favourite place in the world: our little uptown. I like the smallness of this place, that this community will get behind a young entrepreneur and support her career. I like that we’re warm-hearted enough to stop our cars for passing funerals and slow-turned enough to chat with neighbours. I like that the lofts in our uptown buildings are full of artist studios and rehearsal spaces. I love blueberry pancakes on a Saturday morning in the City Market and tea at the Feel Good Store and Queen Square in the summer.

So, the place we live. Or maybe soon, the place we lived. In either case: explore, go for walks, drink tea, visit art studios, eat pancakes, watch tugboats.

Sarah Jones (SJHS Class of 2003)
Visual Artist, Jones Gallery + Studio