Three St. Isidore Artists

Quiet Community With Time to Create

by Susan Thompson

Laval Bergeron completes a train snow sculpture

The Francophone hamlet of St. Isidore is nestled among the pines just northeast of the town of Peace River. Despite its tiny size and sleepy country demeanor, at the centre of St. Isidore lies a vibrant and distinctive arts and cultural community that draws attention and visitors from across Canada.

One of the most distinctive features of the community is the St. Isidore Carnaval. The annual winter festival features various cultural activities and live music, as well as a popular snow sculpting competition that allows professional and amateur sculptors alike to turn blank white blocks of snow into stunning pieces of art. Snow sculptures are also used to decorate the entire venue, always in keeping with that year’s theme.

Every year, local artist Laval Bergeron creates everything from African animals to full-sized trains out of snow for the event, demonstrating his creativity and mastery of this sensitive medium. As a result Bergeron and partner Rénald Lavoie, recently featured in Art of the Peace for his soapstone carvings, have themselves become known across Canada, going on to compete in Quebec at the much larger Carnaval there as well as competing in or judging the snow sculpting competitions in St. Isidore.

Sandbanks by Barry Warne

However, Bergeron doesn’t sculpt for money or fame. Instead, he prefers to volunteer his time, and sculpt snow simply for the love of it. “I like that I don’t get paid, that I can volunteer,” he says. Bergeron also enjoys the temporary nature of the work, which vanishes as soon as the weather warms, or more tragically, when works are vandalized by overenthusiastic party-goers or teens. “I like it because you can’t sell it and you don’t have to worry about it. It’s going to disappear in no time,” he says. The only way Bergeron’s work can then be remembered is in pictures, or in the memories of those who enjoy it while it lasts. “It’s in our minds,” says Bergeron.

While Bergeron delights in creating art that is meant to be transient, painter Barry Warne views his art as an act of conservation. Self-taught artist Warne prefers to paint the nature he loves, particularly trees, “I think just nature itself, we take it so much for granted and we abuse it so badly, that I think people need to kind of look at it and wonder what they’re doing.”

The gentle landscapes Warne prefers to paint are drawn from elements he’s found across the country, some local it’s true, but others far-flung. A native of England who spent time serving with the Armed Forces in Edmonton, Warne chose to settle near St. Isidore with his family as a sort of trial and never left. Although a true Anglophone and thus not part of the local Francophone culture, he appreciates the quiet pace of country life there, which leaves ample time to create. “It’s the solitude of it, to be able to express your own feelings of things. Whether they turn out good or bad, whatever. It’s just being able to do it.”

While Warne doesn’t view his work as political or as a harsh criticism on society, at the same time he abhors the waste and the constant push for expansion that characterizes so much of the modern day life and economy, seeking to express an opposing viewpoint in his work. “Small is beautiful sometimes,” he says, appearing almost to state a personal motto.

This need to celebrate the things we take for granted drives Warne far more than any personal ambition. Thus, like Bergeron, Warne tends to donate his time and artistic efforts, such as a recent show where he donated the proceeds to Alzheimer’s research, and another in support of the Peace River Library. For these artists, art is a community service, a contribution to the greater human good.

Marie Lavoie at her loom

Community is also a huge part of what drives one of St. Isidore’s other most famous tourist attractions besides Carnaval itself, the weaver’s hall in the cultural centre. Marie Lavoie has been weaving for 36 years and has no plans to stop. “I learned from the others and I took courses. Most of the seniors were raised into it. It was part of their daily tasks. At the time there were large families, and sometimes the grandparents and aunts lived with them. They would weave during the wintertime. It was their way of recycling what they couldn’t use any more for other things.”

There are about five regular weavers, but sometimes more when others come to learn. The weavers create everything from simple tea towels to rugs or custom pieces, using mainly cotton and polyester. It is their heritage and craftsmanship that elevates their work to an art, attracting demand for their pieces at local sales and from tourists who come to visit based mainly on word of mouth. Local schools also bring children to the hall on field trips, and the weavers are always a central part of Carnaval.

Besides the traditional Francophone heritage of their work, the fellowship between the women is part of what keeps them coming back to the looms. “I am enjoying my companions, “ says Lavoie. “We’ve been working together since the very beginning.” While Lavoie says many of the things the weavers do are simple and standard due to public demand, “It depends what you’re working on. Some things are creative,” she says. “We are free to do whatever we want. If we’re not doing any big projects, or if the loom is empty, I can try something new.”

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