Nic Wilson is ambivalent about the explanatory precision of regional identity but acknowledges that their artistic practice grew up in the prairies. Wilson moved from Tiohti:áke / Mooniyang (Montreal) to Treaty Four Territory (Regina) in 2017 to pursue an MFA.
“I found myself formed in that MFA program,” Wilson says. “It felt like the starting gun. Before [the MFA] I wasn’t getting shows. I really didn’t know anyone.”
At the University of Regina, Wilson was surrounded by supportive mentors such as Risa Horowitz, David Garneau, and Leesa Streifler. The academic environment and broader artistic community gave Wilson just the professional push that he needed.
“I’m always working on something,” Wilson says. “The switch happened when I started finishing things. For a very long time I would have many things on the go, but they were either too esoteric or cerebral.”
The Sobey nomination came as somewhat of a surprise, but only because Wilson has learned to expect rejection. The timing of the nomination makes perfect sense as Wilson has been busy finishing a variety of projects since completing their MFA in 2019, including three solo shows and projects, two group exhibitions, and multiple publications in 2020 alone.
“The guilt sets in almost immediately because there’s very limited spots and I can name a ton of other artists from the prairies I think are just as worthy,” Wilson says. “[Prizes] are so individualistic. It’s about nominating one practice whereas I like to think of my practice within an ecosystem of other practitioners. My practice is completely dependent on people who are around me—some who are in Regina and some who aren’t.”
A 2019 collaboration between Wilson and Blair Fornwald entitled proposal for a flag emerged out of this ecosystem. Wilson and his peers regularly met up for an informal and invigorating workshop which they came to call “performance art gym.” These activities culminated in a performance at a project space that Wilson and a friend were running. Fornwald’s contribution that night led to a conversation about the connection between commercial branding and settler nation-building. proposal for a flag, which was part of a group exhibition at the Remai Modern, highlights this connection through its critical adoption of the No Name label. The label’s designer, Don Watt, had allegedly long claimed to be the uncredited designer of the Canadian flag.
“We were thinking a lot about Canadiana gossip,” Wilson says. “How those half-rememberings or rumours crack the rational façade of nation-building.”
Another oppressive fiction that Wilson’s work challenges is heteropatriarchy. He cites Elizabeth Freeman, Jack Halberstam, and Marilyn Arsem as major influences along these lines. Wilson’s MFA thesis exhibition, A Wreath of Snakes, A Lexicon Devil, A Hole in Time, A Single Thought, consisted of 24 large-scale drawings that repurposed the motif of the Greek meander in order to illustrate how queerness is a distinct, anti-materialist form of social (re)production. Wilson drew the meander freehand, photocopied it, cut it up, re-shaped it, and then re-projected it in various ways, multiply mediating a seemingly simple image.
The figure of the meander is fitting as Wilson prepares to take a new turn—not away from but— within the structure of his personal identity. Learn Spelling is a writing project that will meditate on Wilson’s dyslexia, and is presented in association with Struts Gallery. The project marks the first time Wilson has thought of himself as neurodivergent and, conversely, neurotypical passing. It is also the first time he will make a book that does not include any visuals, only what he characterizes as the intimacy of misspelling. Wilson credits Leah Garnett, who has a cameo in the book, for telling him how she thought “it’s more interesting to see how people think something is spelled. Because then you have a relationship of interiority.” Wilson is in the process of editing the book in collaboration with his father, who is an academic historian. This collaboration, coupled with an art project absent of any visuals beyond the book itself, furthers Wilson’s established curiosity in both the translation between disciplines and the transgression of the boundaries between them.
“It also has a lot to do with queerness,” Wilson says. “No matter how much you try you cannot escape these things that create a minoritizing worldview.”
Everyday objects also embody such radically asymmetrical power relations, as another of Wilson’s upcoming projects, A Floating Ruin, demonstrates. The title derives from the still life backdrop stand that is used in product photography to make the world disappear. Wilson’s photographs and postcards document the imperial dislocations that define still lives.
“Once you start narrowing in on so much Dutch Golden Age still life images, [you see that] they’re from unimaginably vast corners of the world,” Wilson says. “There’s squashes from Central America next to pomegranates from Iran. And they’re all held in porcelain from China. There’s a vast and complicated and really ugly history that is played out in objects that are no more than arm’s length from you at all times.”
Three photographs from A Floating Ruin will be displayed on a billboard in Treaty Six Territory (Saskatoon) at the end of this summer, as part of a project with the AKA, an artist-run centre. Wilson also plans to pitch it as a book work in the future, with a large text accompaniment.
The road ahead for Wilson likely includes a Visual Arts PhD, which Wilson describes as another opportunity to “level up” his practice, as well as immersion in art worlds beyond Canada. On the occasion of the Sobey nomination, though, he is also looking in the rearview mirror.
Nearly 10 years ago, when Wilson was completing his BFA at Mount Allison, he remembers an exercise from a fourth-year Fine Arts seminar. They were challenged to come up with one-, five-, and ten-year plans for themselves as artists. He was encouraged to put a Sobey nomination on the list. Wilson recalls thinking he would be shocked if it came true. Now it has.
“[The Sobey] was always a goal,” Wilson says. “But when I was in undergrad I thought, ‘oh my god. This is the Olympics of art.’”