Warmth and wisdom

Inspiration for river-trail hut designs runs deep into culture, history


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Canoes and paddles have been synonymous with The Forks for thousands of years.

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Canoes and paddles have been synonymous with The Forks for thousands of years.

The latest piece of canoeing history at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers happened Friday when St. John’s High School students and teachers unveiled Azhe’o, the first high school entry for The Forks’ annual Warming Huts art and architecture competition.

Azhe’o means “to paddle backwards” in Ojibwe, and the warming-hut entry is an interpretation of a canoe with paddles, in this case, eight large ones that are 3.3 metres long.

“I was really excited to showcase it, that was the one thing I was happy about,” says Grade 10 student Kyree Perrault-Barkman, who enjoyed embracing her Indigenous background with Azhe’o. “This is a pretty big project for me and I’ve never done anything like this.”

The paddles are decorated with seven animals that represent Ojibwe culture’s seven Grandfather Teachings — love, respect, bravery, truth, honesty, humility and wisdom — and their corresponding Ojibwe spellings. An eighth paddle includes carvings of the sun and moon, and all eight include QR codes that invite visitors to learn more.

“When you scan the QR codes it shows, you learn the meanings that the animals have,” Perrault-Barkman says.

While many students involved in the project have Indigenous backgrounds, Azhe’o welcomed students from a variety of cultures. One of them, Preston Moodley, a Grade 10 student, moved to Winnipeg five years ago from South Africa.

“I knew nothing about (the Seven Teachings) so it was quite fun learning about it while working on the project,” he says. “I’m quite happy that we managed to put it up. From the start, from designing it to seeing in person, I’m quite happy about it.”

About a dozen students in the school’s woodshop worked on Azhe’o, two others did the metalwork, and staff members and Indigenous knowledge keepers from the Winnipeg School Division also assisted the students, said St. John’s teacher Aaron Cyr, who led the Azhe’o project.

While St. John’s High’s young designers showed off their creation, so too did one of the city’s most successful artists.

This year’s invited entry to the warming huts competition is titled Nix, by Winnipeg painter Wanda Koop, a winner of the Governor General’s Award for visual and media arts, and Thom Fougere, a University of Manitoba architecture grad who lives in Montreal and specializes in furniture design.

Koop and Fougere describe the circular snow sculpture made from 50 tonnes of snow as an “inhabitable sculpture.”

“I’m really thrilled. Three years in the works and Thom’s in Montreal, so we’re sending text messages back and forth, ‘What about this? What about that? What about this?’” Koop said while sharing a snow-carved bench within Nix with Fougere Friday.

“To actually see it — ‘What about this?’ — is like a dream come true and we’re thrilled to share it with the community.”

Koop also called Nix a snow fort; its thick, snow-carved walls create a windbreak and the structure’s marble-like walls change colours as the sun rises and sets.

Workers were putting touches on Nix Friday morning, setting up portholes that will give visitors the opportunity to peer at the river landscape outside the structure and for those outside to look in.

Fougere says it will be “fully activated” Saturday for one day only. Fires at specific locations on the riverbanks and the Forks’ bridge will be observed from Nix’s portholes.

Instead of it being taken down like other warming huts before the Red River ice melts, Nix will eventually follow the river’s current during spring breakup, with Koop hoping the structure will stay afloat all the way to Lockport.

The three winners of the Warming Huts contest build upon its international reputation, with awards being handed to architects and designers from Europe, Asia and North America.

Peter Hargraves of city firm Sputnik Architecture and one of the contest’s organizers, described Curtain, by Barcelona’s Alejandro Felix and Shanghai’s Fang Cui, as a combination of winter, architecture and space. Its curtains are created with river water being poured on ropes and freezing.

Hayspace, by Winnipeg’s Hugh Taylor and Phillipp Gmür of Walenstadt, Switzerland, is a fort made of columns of cylindrical hay bales that comes closest to the literal interpretation of a warming hut.

‘This is a soft and cuddly and warm project. It snowed last night so there’s a little sprinkling of snow on it that makes it very photogenic and cosy,” Hargraves says.

A third winner, Meanwhile We Still Dream, by Seattle architects Lindo Jia and Jaymon Diaz, is a procession of animals seeking an unknown destination in the cold, and sits beside Azhe’o near the Forks Market.


Twitter: @AlanDSmall

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Alan Small

Alan Small

Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.

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