It is difficult to view Eric Walker’s new exhibition at Cube Gallery and not think of the rail tragedy at Lac Megantic.
This talented Ottawa artist calls his creations “paintings.” I prefer the term “two-dimensional sculptures” or “assemblages.” They are essentially collages, made of tiny metal strips and other found objects, arranged on a board to create a scale model of cities and airports, as seen from the sky, and miniature versions of container ships, buses and, of course, trains.
The trains in Walker’s world, at least in this exhibition, tend to be happy trains. One CN train reproduced by Walker is a rolling advertisement for Kool Aid, complete with oversized smiley faces painted onto boxcars.
In earlier exhibitions, Walker has also presented the darker side of trains, notably his “paintings” of the deadly Crow Gulch Train Disaster in Newfoundland Sept. 14, 1966.
But train disasters, like plane crashes or boat sinkings, happen rarely. And no mode of transport, except perhaps for the canoe, has been so inextricably linked to Canada’s evolution as have trains.
Trains are in the DNA of this country. Trains are The National Dream, as the late Pierre Berton would say. Trains are what, initially, united the east and west coasts. Trains are what brought most settlers to the prairies and then hauled prairie wheat to ships on the coasts.
And so, when a train creates a disaster like that in Lac Megantic, we feel betrayed. The train is supposed to be our friend, if not our lover.
Walker’s trains are romantic. They are filled with love and nostalgia and take us back to the days when trains were the engines of our economy, the vehicles that gave us marvellous vacations rolling clickety-clack through the Rockies and taught us what this country is all about.
A train – or perhaps the people that ran the train – betrayed Lac Megantic. But don’t blame all trains. Commune with Walker’s trains. They will raise your spirits and allow you to remember what trains are really all about.
Eric Walker’s exhibition, New Works, continues at Cube Gallery until Aug. 11.