A new exhibit debuting in Minden this week will shine a light on traditional folk music depicting what life was like for settlers in rural 1800s Ontario.
Peterborough-based artist Rob Niezen spent four years piecing together Cross Cut, a collection of 24 linocuts breaking down the meaning behind a host of historical ballads, including two locally sourced pieces. The project is more than a decade in the making and touches on the parallels Niezen, himself an immigrant, draws from his own life and the experiences of 19th century newcomers.
“This show has a special meaning to me… I wanted to show that humans haven’t changed a whole lot over the years. Technology has changed, and we’ve become, perhaps, a little more civilized, but we’re still people who do smart and stupid things,” Niezen told The Highlander. “There’s still war, there’s still love, death. These themes come up quite a lot.”
Niezen leaned heavily on the work of Edith Fowke, a popular CBC radio host and folklorist who collected field recordings of traditional Ontario songs during the 1960s. The origins of these songs date back to 1820 to 1920. Lyrics and tunes were adapted to local experiences, Niezen said, offering a reflection of society at different moments in time.
One of those songs, The New Limit Line, focuses on a group of workers who travelled up the old railway line connecting Bobcaygeon and Minden to work at some of the County’s lumber yards. Niezen said there’s evidence the workers made it as far north as Dorset.
“They’d travel in teams, with horses, and it would take them a good 12 or 13 hours to walk the route,” Niezen said. “There are a few names mentioned in the song that people may recognize.”
The other local piece is The Ballad of Bill Dunbar, retelling the tale of a now infamous Kinmount hotelkeeper.
“The story goes that, in the late 1870s, Bill and a few buddies went to the ice races on Little Lake in Peterborough, and coming back north they got a little lost in the fog… and ended up going through the ice,” Niezen said. “Legend says Bill threw his mitts up onto the ice, so people knew where to search [for the bodies]. Those mitts are still in the museum’s archives today.”
Niezen will perform both songs during an opening reception at Agnes Jamieson Gallery May 6. The exhibit will run until July 1.
Attendees can also listen to modern interpretations of the songs, performed by Niezen’s band The Backwoodsmen, by scanning QR codes built into the linocuts.
Shannon Kelly, Minden Hills’ cultural resource manager, said this exhibit is the first of three planned for the new season. In the summer, the space will showcase original paintings and limited-edition prints from the world-renowned Robert Bateman, a frequent cottager in the area. In the fall, there will be another show featuring works from the Ontario Society of Artists.
“We have some exciting things coming, but it’s great to kick things off with Rob. I saw this exhibit at Lang Pioneer Village last year, and it’s such a treat to bring it to Minden. Given the connection to the County, this is something anyone from this area can relate to. It’s going to be a really good show,” she said.