The Lure of Bonnie Marin

by Shawna Dempsey

At 6 a.m., Bonnie Marin begins another day cooking over a hot grill. Breakfast orders pour in, but as always her mind is elsewhere. She daydreams of giant storks standing on wet floors.

At 6 a.m., Bonnie Marin begins another day cooking over a hot grill. Breakfast orders pour in, but as always her mind is elsewhere. She daydreams of giant storks standing on wet floors. Pan-gendered hybrids.Muscles and desire exposed for all the world to see.

If she’s lucky, she’ll be in the studio by 2 p.m.—the studio where her other work takes place. Marin creates paintings,sculptures and collages in the furnace room of the bungalow she shares with her partner of 19 years. Narrow, winding steps lead from her kitchen to this dark cavern of wonders below.

“Be careful not to hit your head,” Marin cautions.

She effortlessly navigates the labyrinthine paths of her workspace with the knowing of a sleepwalker. This is her domain, an impossibly small space filled with thousands of artworks, some finished and other in-progress, a water heater, a washing machine and a woodshop. Old magazines and oilpaints share a work bench. A lamp balances on the dryer. And magic is made.

Marin’s artworks have been exhibited nationally and internationally, in artist-run centres, in regional galleries and recently as part of Plug In ICA’s exhibition My Winnipeg at two venues in France. They are part of the permanent collections of the Winnipeg Art Gallery and Calgary’s Glenbow Museum. Her work has even entered the private collection of a minor Hollywood celeb. Yet this somewhat reclusive Winnipeg visual artist continues to work as a short-order cook five days a week.

Such is the economic reality for most artists in Canada. Even though she hates getting up in the morning and is often exhausted by the demands of two jobs, Marin’s enthusiasm for art-making is undampened by circumstance. When asked what her greatest achievement is to date, she replies without hesitation.

“The ability to make art after all these years,” she explains. “It isn’t easy, but I know so many people I went to art school with who don’t. That I’m persevering is a huge accomplishment. It took me a long time before I called myself an artist. But working in the studio, even if I have already had a really hard day, makes me happy. I can’t imagine not making things. It is who I am.”

As a child growing up in The Pas, Manitoba, Marin was very much a tomboy, always making things, moulding Plasticine or building go-carts. Her carpenter-father was an early influence and a ready source of tools. Then, in the fourth grade, she discovered something that changed her life: an art history book in the public library. She set out to repaint every image it contained. Ironically, more than a decade later, when she went to art school, the same book was her first textbook. The professor asked her to memorize the great works pictured.

“Memorize?” she thought. “I’ve already painted them!”

That four-inch-thick textbook, H.W. Janson’s History of Art, contained no artworks by women. Such was the gender bias in art education into the 1980s. The Old Masters were men. Old Mistresses were not acknowledged, other than as small-m mistresses and muses. In fact, Marin says didn’t know she could become an artist until she was in her 20s.

“Looking at art history, I thought it was something people had already done and was no longer an option,” she says. And  so she decided upon becoming a lawyer. Luckily, outdoor sculptures by John McEwen and visiting artists such as Jeffry Spalding at the University of Lethbridge opened her eyes to the potential of contemporary art, and reawakened her creativity.

She found herself back in Manitoba at the University of Manitoba fine arts program. It was a circuitous journey from the northern Manitoba of her youth. The Pas of Marin’s childhood was racially divided, made infamous by the brutal killing of Helen Betty Osborne.

As a young dyke, it was understandably difficult at times.

“Growing up knowing I was gay, especially then, the ’70s and ’80s, was a lot harder than it is now. There were no role models on TV. It was so narrow-minded. More than homophobia, the racism infected everything and was one of the reasons I was happy to leave. But, happily, it has changed. When I go home now, I notice a lot more native-run businesses.”

Much has changed during Marin’s lifetime. Not only has Canada become less racially polarized, gay people have won rights unimagined 30 years ago. Artists like Marin have been part of the social context that enabled such strides for gay and lesbian people. Not only does she have a truly mixed media practice, she also freely mixes gender, races, even species in erotic environments that are part middle-class 1950s normalcy and part spectacles of perversity.

Marin remembers spending long hours in her small-town movie theatre, watching B movies and imagining entering the proscenium. Her work is likewise theatrical and reminiscent of bygone pop culture, but transgressively so. Perfectly groomed pin-ups pose with rodents on mid-century furniture. Naked men navigate Winnipeg’s Portage and Main intersection wearing blindfolds. Flayed figures from vintage anatomy textbooks pose as anatomical studies of both strength and vulnerability.

Often her work takes images that have traditionally been objectified and places them in disquieting settings to upset the usual power imbalance. Implicitly feminist and definitely queer, her camp images and assemblages mix social commentary and humour in ways that question history as well as traditional expectations of gender and sexual expression.

One of her collages recently appeared in the international publication Le Monde, and publicity about the exhibition in France has been uniformly positive. Marin reached a wide audience in her home city of Winnipeg in 2010 through her  illustration of a Winnipeg-specific tarot card deck produced as part of a project that celebrated Winnipeg as the Cultural Capital of Canada (see sidebar). Her work also graces the cover of Chandra Mayor’s recent book of short stories, All The Pretty Girls. Even the commercial art world has taken notice, and Marin is currently represented by Mayberry Fine Art.

Marin celebrates each exhibition, major sale and commission with a new tattoo. She is literally inscribed with symbols of her own accomplishment, each one designed with the same care she takes with her artwork. The career of artist Bonnie Marin is cooking, in more ways than one. The piles of art in the basement may ebb and flow, sales and exhibitions may temporarily dent the stacks, but Marin keeps creating. Her life’s work—making—began in her father’s shop, developed with an art history book at the kitchen table and continues each day after the lunch rush is over.

As Marin says, “Even if I am not in the studio, I am thinking about my artwork. How am I going to approach to it? “Thinking about art, figuring out what I’m going to do, that part is hard. But making, making is fun time. Making is playing. And besides, I have no choice. It is what I have to do.”



Visual artist Bonnie Marin’s paintings lavish the stunnin g and wondrously queer Winnipeg Tarot Company tarot deck. Even if you aren’t into card readings, you’ll want to own this deck, in which each of the 78 cards features a clever, Winnipeg interpretation. The traditional fire, water, air and earth suits are reimagined as lightning, floods, blizzards and drought, and major arcana include The Fool on Garbage Hill.

Masterminded by performance artists Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan, who led tarot readings throughout the city in 2010, the Winnipeg Tarot Company deck explores gender and mythology with a signature Marin sensibility and wit.

Each deck comes complete with an interpretive guide to the tarot. Available from the Winnipeg Tarot Company for $30 plus $1.50 GST ($31.50). Email to arrange pick up in Winnipeg or to place your order for shipments in Canada for an additional $11 ($42.50).