The Saskatchewan born young artist, Graeme Patterson, is a force to be reckoned as is amply demonstrated in his exhibition Secret Citadel that is now at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Debuting last fall at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the exhibition will tour nationally. After its Halifax stop, it will move on this fall to Montreal at the University of Montreal Art Gallery. 

Patterson’s work in this exhibition combines a suite of installations with video and music in a totally engaging way that echoes his prairie boyhood. His art education is broad. He studied at the Dundas School of Art in Hamilton, Ontario, The University of Saskatchewan, and finally earned a BFA degree at the Nova Scotia College of Art. He currently lives in Sackville, New Brunswick which, of course, did give me the chance to speak with him about his work and this exhibition as this, my home, as well. In fact, we see each other almost daily at a local coffee shop in town.

What struck me most about his suite of installation pieces were their incredible attention to detail and their outstanding craftsmanship. The most important aspect, however, is that he used his skill to tell a story, or stories, about his prairie life that are universal in nature. You should be prepared to spend some time with these works because if you do not look very closely, you are going to miss something important. According to his friends in Sackville, this exhibition is the result of three years of the artist’s time and effort. Those efforts show. Take his work Grudge Match, for example that gives us a bird’s eye view of a high school gymnasium, complete with a locker room and washroom, and is set in the rest period of a wrestling match. What I like in the piece is its careful minutiae—scuff marks on the floor, the less than clean toilet in the locker room, the general weariness of the place. It is the quintessential high school gym of all our memories, or at least the one’s we have reconstructed.

Craftsmanship aside, Grudge Match tells a story of childhood friendship through its ups and downs. It is the story of boys, once friends, maybe still friends, wrestling each other, Red versus Blue. This work, and the others in the exhibition, is a history of friendship. Patterson’s works are along the lines of a prairie In Search of Lost Time. Not that Graeme Patterson is a latter day Marcel Proust, but his work invokes similar feelings about the past, of a time lost; like, in my case, every time I eat a hot dog, I think of being at a ball game with father over sixty years ago. That is my Proust moment. Patterson’s art talks about a life past that we can all share. His art may not provide us with a strict autobiography. I’m sure it does not. But its story draws us in. Each work in the exhibition is a set time in the recording of the artist’s life memories. They span the time from childhood, at a summer camp, to youthful adulthood and, finally, to a rough and tumble bar. Camp Wakonda, another mixed media, installation is a model of summer camp where children spend time with nature and form bonds with each other. The camp artwork operates at many levels. Again, you are sure to find a new, and different story, each time you see it. It is a place where the artist, as his bison avatar, and his friend, Yuki, the cougar, spent their summers together. But, wait, what’s this school bus and car collision on the road leading to camp all about? The devil is in the details. Is this a sign of a tragedy about to unfold between the two boys?

My favourite installation of the suite, although I like them all, is the last of the series, Player Piano Waltz. It is as the title suggests, in part, a player piano. You have to pay, one loonie, to get the piano to play, after which a door opens to reveal a wonderful, and magical, world. Patterson composed the piano music, partially as homage to Edvard Grieg. It was transferred from digital files to a piano player roll. One has got to love modern technology. What we have in Player Piano Waltz is a player piano with a model of a very interesting two-storey building placed on top of the instrument. The model building could be a hotel or boarding house in some remote northern town and looking through its open front door we see a middle-aged man leaning on the bar, wearing boots that still are covered with snow. Is he the bartender? There are too many details within the model building to mention, but I really like the tiny dartboard on the wall, to the left of the mystery man. The hotel/boarding house is a world away from Camp Wakonda and the high school gym of Grudge Match, but all three are part of the same story.

Patterson is a storyteller, a master craftsman and, most of all, a consummate artist. He is equally at home as a sculptor, animator, video artist, and composer. He has the ability to take all of his talents and frame them in the light of his work. There are qualities in the Secret Citadel that are humorous and others that want to make us stop and think about the human condition. I have a new respect for the person with whom I often share a cup of morning coffee. I am lucky to know many artists as they make my life better. They can do the same for you and you don’t have to know them personally. All you have to do is take a careful look at their work. If you have the chance to Secret Citadel, to so. You will like it.

Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax
1 February—30 May 2014