Firmly set on visiting the region by means of its small country roads, your path leads you down a lane lined with small picturesque houses surrounded by majestic fields. You’re soaking up the scenery when the road leads up to the small village of Gallichan.
Suddenly, a strange metallic structure catches your eye. Upon closer examination, you perceive that it is composed of old school chairs that have been welded together to make an impressive and colourful tower of metal and wood.
You are drawn by the work when suddenly a man with long snow-white hair and beard wearing overalls approaches you. He is the creator of the work before which you stand and which is entitled “La Tour du savoir.”
He introduces himself as Jacques Baril, sculptor: “Jacques Baril, is a young man from the Abitibi region who, after having left 10 years, on a whim decided to return and tell everybody there that he was a sculptor,” he’ll tell you with a laugh. Since that time, he has remained forever young (he goes on laughing). Abitibi truly represents his chosen land. “I was living on the Plateau Mont-Royal and had decided that, that summer, I was going to hitchhike to Vancouver and then go to Mexico. I would spend the winter in Mexico after which I planned to return to Montreal. But, as my grandparents lived in Rapide-Danseur and I had not seen them for almost eight years, I decided to pass through there. I helped them to bale hay and one day, as I was standing on top of a hill with my rake in hand, I felt a warm rush of wind coming from the south pass through me. It was like a rush of inspiration and all of a sudden I took in the landscape and was filled with the conviction that my place on earth was here. I nevertheless went to Mexico, but all the time I was down there, I thought only of coming back here. Come spring, I came back and lived in a house where my grandparents stored grain. There was no running water or electricity. I stayed there for three and a half years. The first exhibitions I held were of craft works that had been produced under the light of an oil lamp using a saw, a handsaw, a hammer and gouges.”
Since then, he has not left the Abitibi-Temiscamingue region. Though he no longer inhabits that same house, he still lives in the countryside, of which he is particularly fond: “Abitibi’s landscape is a landscape of depth. It’s not the type of landscape that dazzles you with grandeur, but from any given point, one can see the horizon. It’s as though the fact one can see so far creates a kind of intense feeling, akin to something spiritual.”
If he can see landscapes in 3D perspective, you tell yourself, it’s not surprising that he has chosen to become a sculptor. He had always intended to devote himself entirely to this profession, though that did entail some difficult times at first. Today he earns his living very well and says he is even a little overwhelmed by the number of contracts that keep rolling in. In the winter, snow sculpture competitions (which he very often wins) keep him coming and going from one end of the region to the other.
As you listen to him talk about his works and the region’s cultural vitality, which is expressed through, among other vehicles, CULTURAT for example, you tell yourself that local people region without a doubt master the art of expressing themselves and sharing their culture. “I consider CULTURAT to be a great adventure,” he says. “It’s just a matter of taking advantage of it, of making oneself available for it to work. I find that it’s a tremendous cultural vehicle for making art in the Abitibi-Temiscamingue region known to others, for showing them what makes us tick and who we are. Indeed, what we (Liliane Gagnon and himself) are doing perfectly illustrates the idea of freely sharing our vision with people from outside the region.”
Baril and Gagnon offer visitors a first-hand opportunity to tour their studios and present their works and approaches. One can also meet these two uncommon artists. The passion with which they describe their livelihoods and works make the Boutique de l’Atelier more than simply just a shop. “Of course it’s a boutique,” explains Baril, “but its aim is not primarily mercantile. Its real purpose is to serve as a platform for meeting others, as those who take the time to come here are special in that they wish not only to see what we’re doing, but also to meet us.”
Baril enjoins visitors to the region to entertain the same openness of mind: “You have to come here with an open mind. You shouldn’t come here expecting to find certain things. One must let things find them. One should strive to cultivate a feeling of openness toward what the landscape and people have to offer. One shouldn’t try and seek out the most beautiful sights as everything is beautiful to behold. I have been everywhere throughout the province and seen incredible landscapes, but this place is like a whole other world.”
And how does Baril get away from it all, you ask? “I never want to get away from it all,” he laughs. “But every once in a while, I like to go out into the forest to cut trees for firewood. That really recharges my batteries. Or I go out on Lake Abitibi just to hear the waves lap against the sides of the boat or to fish.”