Sunday, November 27, 2022

Near and Now: Back to the Crawl

Back in my days at the Hamilton Arts Council, I had a front row seat to the launch and growth of Supercrawl, which has become a hallmark, not only of the city’s arts and culture scene but the vibrancy of Hamilton as a whole.

A unique characteristic of Supercrawl is how it manages to be many things to many people. For some, it’s a street festival synonymous with musical acts showcasing homegrown indie bands alongside big-ticket draws. For others, Supercrawl is the place to see some of the best large-scale installation visual artworks. That’s not to forget the kids programming, authors tent, food trucks and fashion shows that have also become part of this three days festival.

For me, the vendors in their assorted tents up and down James North are the hallmark of Supercrawl. The sheer variety, from picture frames to jewelry to self-published books, has always spoken to me of a unique do-it-yourself vibe about Hamilton. Again, my affection for the vendors’ tents also harkens to my days at the HAC when we would release the annual culture guide in time for the festival while staffing the booth to answer questions about the arts council amid the bustle of the ‘Crawl.

Tallies on the TD Stage. (Photo credit: S. Near, 2022)

Obviously, due to the pandemic, the live aspect of Supercrawl had largely been shuttered. And, like many festivals, this year marked a return to some semblance of normal for the ‘Crawl. But, as I snaked my way through the Saturday crowds of Supercrawl, I was wholly unprepared for just how much this return to normal would come roaring back with a vengeance. There were people everywhere. Listening to music. Lining up at food trucks. Buying from vendors. Walking among the artwork. Talking to artists. Talking to each other.

Experiencing it even for the brief hours I was there on Saturday, it felt like a bit of an awakening. I know that’s a cliche but it’s really the best way of describing it. I walked out of Jackson Square after a brief shopping expedition and smack in the middle of a set by a band on the TD Stage. I was immediately struck by the ethereal vocals of the lead singer backed by the other members of the band playing a powerful, lilting melody. I was transported back to the 90s, to bands like the Sundays and Cocteau Twins, and the haunting way that certain harmonies can form the soundtrack of your life. I stood there with the scattered crowd through three songs before consulting the online program to discover this band was called Tallies.

I’m such a music shut-in these days that I’d never heard of them. But I immediately downloaded their album on Apple Music. I snapped a picture and shared it over Instagram. I stayed for the whole of the performance and then proceeded north along the street as the band finished their set. The smell of the food trucks, and the throngs of audiences fleeting for parts otherwise, was a familiar feeling from past ‘Crawls. I settled into a muscle memory of weaving in and out of the huddled groups of fellow ‘Crawlers through the food-saturated bottleneck of James between King William and Rebecca until escaping into the open air of York-meet-Wilson intersection. From there, past Beavertails and giant Lemonade stands, the first leg of the vendor tents beckoned. I spied artists selling giant black and white photos and hand-made jewelry adorned on carved wooden stands. I craned my neck and saw a line-up outside the CBC Hamilton booth. Just like past Supercrawls. This was all familiar.

Brandon Vickerd’s Challenger. (Photo credit: S. Near, 2022)

Approaching Cannon, I passed the spot where I had, myself, sat at a booth and greeted passers-by. It’s another bottleneck thanks largely to the necessary police roadblock allowing for traffic to pass bisect the Crawl. But it’s also here that the large installation artworks appeared on the street, beckoning the crowds to halt their migration and examine these strange artifacts. This year’s installations were collectively called What Was Once Lost; an evocative reminder of both the trauma and need for healing occupying this moment in time. From the multi-coloured, buzzing bee hives of Joseph Farrugia, to the evocative digital billboard of Indigenous work by the All Our Relations Collective, to the cosmically apocalyptic sculptures of Brandon Vickerd, this year’s installations were both stunning and stark. I found I was anchored in this area James for quite a while, reflecting on the pandemic and the feeling of being part of a collective appreciation of art amongst the crowd.

Supercrawl Author’s Tent f. Lorraine Thompson and Jason Allen. (Photo credit: S. Near, 2022)

Finally, I made my way towards Barton. Past the Armoury and several live theatre performances, and past Christ’s Church Cathedral which played host to the Hamilton Makers Market. Then I found a discussion and a reading at the Authors Tent. As a writer, the author’s tent is another Supercrawl destination I look forward to. It seems not so many years ago that Noelle Allen, of Wolsak & Wynn, first began lobbying the festival organizers to include author readings and a book tent. This year, Noelle’s author programming was perhaps the largest it’s ever been and even featured poets like Gary Barwin, Eddie Lartey and Fareh Malik taking to the Exclaim! Stage by the GO Station. The written word is alive and well at the ‘Crawl!

Indeed, it seemed the vibe of Supercrawl’s from years past, before the pandemic shut it down, had come roaring back with a vengeance. Like Hamiltonians needed this festival to return so they could reconnect and reclaim so much of what was lost or left behind during COVID. I honestly didn’t expect to feel so… emotional during my brief walkabout on Supercrawl Saturday. To walk amidst the crowds, surrounded by music and spectacle, and not feel a sense of anxiety or fear was exhilarating. And I was grateful for all of the hard work that must have gone on behind the scenes to make both the festival and the experience a reality this year. 

Stephen Near
Stephen Near
Stephen Near is a freelance writer and educator living in Hamilton. He is a graduate of York University (BFA), the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (B. Ed) and the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. He works at Mohawk and Humber College and is a member of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada and an alumnus of both the Sage Hill Writing Experience and the Banff Centre. Stephen's plays have been produced at the Hamilton Fringe Festival and Theatre Aquarius and he is completing his first fiction novel.

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