Bernie Martin: Leadership Among Pumpkins

A Certain Place: The Bernie Martin Festival explores what it takes to build an arts community

Myrmidon

Throughout the whole month of November, over 75 artists from different disciplines gathered with hundreds of audience members for the 14 different events of A Certain Place: The Bernie Martin Festival, celebrating the life, work, and legacy of a man many have probably never heard of—but whose effects are still being felt to this day.

Bernie Martin

Bernie Martin

Bernie Martin was a playwright, a poet, an actor, a painter, a musician, a clown, and a shipbuilder (among other things). “He sank deeply into every art form he did,” says Kate Story, who co-organized the festival with Ryan Kerr. Bernie was a mentor to many, and worked tirelessly to bring people together in the various media in which he worked.

A Certain Place has tried to honour that, with productions of a number of Bernie’s plays at the Theatre on King, an exhibition of his artwork at Evans Contemporary, a night of his music at The Spill, film screenings, spoken word performances, workshops, and panel discussions.

Though Martin was born in London, Ontario, and spent much of his life there and in Orono, he spent the last few years of his life in Peterborough, acting at 4th Line and putting on shows at the Union Theatre, until his passing in 1995 at the age of only 53. Though he never achieved great fame, Martin’s work has lived on in surprising ways. A Certain Man, a tribute album to Bernie’s roots music, was in heavy rotation on Trent Radio for many years and was once described by Lester Alfonso as “the soundtrack of Peterborough.” (It is available to stream for free via Trent Radio’s Local Music Archives.)

brian-sanderson

Brian Sanderson

“I think you can credit Brian Sanderson with a lot of why anyone knows anything about Bernie Martin today,” says Kerr. “When he left town, he gave me three duotangs of Bernie’s plays, and said, ‘One day you’ll do something with this.’” In fact, there were several of these duotangs floating around town, admired and looked at but never acted on.

Then, in 2014, Kerr and Story walked into The Garnet and found local musicians Benj Rowland and Jay Swinnerton—who were still children when Bernie passed—playing his music under the name Weekend at Bernie Martin’s. An idea was born.

“I met with a lot of people and asked them what they wanted to do,” says Story. “And then every single person who participated took whatever the initial idea was and made it so much bigger. Everything was more complex, interesting, different, and fun.”

Looking at Bernie’s work as a whole, as we’ve finally been able to do with this festival, is at times a bit perplexing. It’s difficult to see what unites these works: the stripped-down psychological drama of Meat and Potatoes, the surreal and hilarious musings on how pumpkins govern themselves in Dark Passage, the brutal and evocative monologue about social injustice that is Faltan Mas, his light and playful roots music, or the soft and nostalgic curves of his visual art.





But certain themes do begin to emerge. There’s a sense of play in much of Bernie’s output, in his choice of subject matter and in his inventive mixing of different media. Though his plays are often deeply bizarre, they feel open and easily accessible, buoyed by a streak of deeply dark humour. “He’s actually dealing with some very serious subjects, in a very light way,” says Kerr, “and I think that’s what makes it work. It makes it more palatable, and it also makes it last longer in your psyche, because it’s easier to take in and keep there.”

Story adds, “On a personal note, as I approach 50, one gets more of a sense of urgency. Time is short. Bernie didn’t know he would die young, but when you look at his output, it’s as if he did. He was just churning this stuff out, all mediums.”

ryan-kerr

Ryan Kerr

But perhaps what really unites Bernie’s work was his own ability to unite. Many people speak of Bernie as a mentor and a guide—which was expressed in the festival in long-term workshops, where artist mentors led local youth, senior citizens, and members of the John Howard Society in making art. It was also alive in the community panel discussions, in encouraging young and emerging artists to take part, and in the whole multi-disciplinary, multi-venue spirit of the festival.

If there is something about Bernie’s work that is distinctly Peterborough (this particular “certain place”), perhaps this spirit is it. “What Bernie found in Peterborough,” says Story, “and what a lot of people found here, was the ability to work in different media, to find collaborators in different media, and to create work at a high level.”

Kerr and Story hope that this ideal will continue long after the festival ends. The youth group who gathered for spoken word workshops have said they want to keep meeting, and the general consensus at the panel on regional art-making was that Peterborough needs more of these conversations. The impact of one man, or one festival, can travel far beyond their end, by inspiring others to keep their principles alive.

Says Story on the process of creating the festival, “By making a scaffolding of vague ideas and funding, and putting a lot of our own work into it, we were able to make a lot of magic happen that had nothing to do with us. Invite people to do something, and they will do it.”

 

Myrmidon and Ryan Kerr photos by Andy Carroll.

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Gabe Pollock

Gabe Pollock

Gabe Pollock is Editor-in-Chief of Electric City Magazine. He is a Peterborough-born freelance writer and editor who has covered Peterborough music and culture since 2012, first on Electric City Live and now in its magaziney successor.