January 21, 2020

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Finding her place

Nickerson mulls motherhood, an artist's life and community in graphic memoir

Sylvia Nickerson’s debut graphic novel, Creation, is about the cost of losing and gaining identity, both as a city and as a self. After moving to Hamilton, Ont., with her then-partner, Nickerson was ready to start a family and a new stage of her career as an artist.

Instead, she finds herself as a new single mother, contemplating the personal and political implications of creating art and raising a child in the rapidly gentrifying James Street North neighbourhood of Beasley.

Promenading her son around in his stroller through the streets of Beasley after hours, Nickerson could be seen as a modern-day flâneuse — initially a 19th-century French literary archetype, usually of some wealth, who wanders the neighbourhood as a detached observer.

Incidentally, she notes some wish to "revive Hamilton’s 19th-century image, where it was known as the ‘The Ambitious City.’"

Once a booming industrial town, Hamilton is now home to an alarming amount of toxic waste. And Nickerson is far from carefree, as her sculptor’s eye for formlines and watercolour grey palette depict heavy pollution and lingering "industrial smells" as well as high rates of homelessness and poverty.

"How could I ignore that this same place was where so many dreams come to die?" the author wonders, reflecting on her own privilege, idealism and ambitions upon first arriving in Hamilton.

A part of the creative class, she is relatively financially secure in relation to many of her Beasley neighbours, but also all too aware of the precarity of a career as an artist.

As Nickerson describes Beasley’s complicated flux, she also ponders a similar state of being as a new parent, often longing for the freedoms she enjoyed before her son was born.

"That’s me on James Street, feeding my son in a disorganized way. I wish I was in my studio," she writes early in the book, hinting at a heartbreaking revelation later on.

Though she often feels guilty for not maintaining as strong a presence in the local art scene as she’d like, she also reveals the guilt associated with the freedoms of making art in a place where many are barely able to survive.

Admitting to her own involvement as a gentrifier, Nickerson writes frequently of displacement, showing faceless, formless individuals against meticulously sketched buildings whose ongoing revitalization leaves them much more well-attended-to than many of the surrounding residents.

Both the loosely drawn people and frenetic, graffiti-inspired cityscapes shown here are reminiscent of the 1980s street art of Keith Haring, whose work also engaged with urban landscapes, class politics, the effects of nuclear proliferation and the accessibility of art in public spaces.

And accessibility is an issue that Beasley residents know all too well, as Nickerson depicts how the influx of businesses in James Street North have become contentious to those who believe that "what’s needed in the neighbourhood are more methadone clinics, needle exchanges, and women’s shelters, not art galleries, art supply stores, or restaurants," — raising the question of who, exactly, this neighbourhood is meant to serve.

Throughout her own neighbourhood travels, Nickerson encounters many residents in need of help. One woman — whose vivid, lifelike features are jarring, as the author breaks form — accepts an offer of food and is later found in a snowbank. Nickerson then devotes the subsequent chapter to the woman (Nancy)’s funeral, claiming that "the community failed an angel."

Noting the community had failed a human being just like herself could have resonated just as strongly. But Nickerson doesn’t shy away from sentimentality: "In loving, we give our power away," she says plainly, positioning her displacement as the personal cost of love, though many of her neighbours have been similarly displaced for much less gentle reasons.

Although the author’s personal struggles with art and motherhood are compelling, they often exhibit a dubious parity with the larger-scale cross-class issues at play.

But Nickerson’s detailed chronicle of how urban communities are formed and disrupted makes Creation a noteworthy effort nonetheless.

Winnipeg’s Nyala Ali writes about race and gender in contemporary narratives.

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