Leafing through Harper’s one day last year, I was struck by one stunning photograph called “The General’s Wife.” In the harsh light of what appeared to be an official assembly room, a grotesque, heavyset woman in a bright blue dress shot through with gold threads sat amid a group of Honduran military officers and glared at the photographer as she snapped her black leather handbag shut with stubby, red tipped fingers. I was equally struck by the caption, which said the photograph had originally appeared in a Toronto quarterly called The Journal of Wild Culture.
The Journal of what? In Toronto?
I headed for my local newsstand. Sure enough, there was the Summer 1990 issue of this curiously named thing, The Journal of Wild Culture. “Eco-freaks wig out on bard,” said the top coverline, over a funky, sepia-tinted photo of a three-member Toronto artistic collective called Fastwurms. Inside was a masthead crammed with Toronto literati (Christopher Dewdney, Brian Fawcett, Marni Jackson, Barbara Gowdy, Gary Michael Dault), listed variously as contributing editors and “eminences vertes,” and acknowledgment for the support of no fewer than ten private and public funding bodies, everything from The Laidlaw Foundation to Environment Canada.
Throughout its 56 attractively designed pages appeared a fascinating mix of photos, fiction, poetry, journalism and ecologically oriented odds and ends: “Mind Jazz,” an in-depth interview with cultural historian William Irvin Thompson; “The Footpath of Pink Roses,” an erotic short story by Toronto actress and writer Carol Lazare; “Wild Foods Field Guide,” by Wildman Steve Brill, “the man arrested for eating a dandelion in Central Park [who] offers some practical instruction on finding your edibles.” It was wild. It was cultured. It skittered allover the place. I liked it, even if I didn’t really understand what wild culture was. I wanted to find out. I discovered that wild, cultured and allover the place is as apt a description for the magazine’s creator and editor, Whitney Smith, as for the magazine itself. Smith is a man with a lot on his unusual mind; The Journal of Wild Culture is only one of his many pursuits as artistic director of an organization (also founded by Smith) called The Society for the Preservation of Wild Culture.
It’s the journal, though, that in just three years and seven issues has garnered enthusiastic responses from an everwidening network of fans. Lynn Cunningham, executive editor of Toronto Life magazine, calls it “quirky and innovative,” while Robert Fulford thinks it’s “definitely very promising.” Along with the nod from Harpers, it’s been written about in The Whole Earth Review; and an ad last year in the American alternative-press digest Utne Reader brought in 500 requests for sample copies from across the United States. In a letter to the editor published in the Summer 1990 issue, a reader from Beacon, New York, named Pete Seeger (yes, the) pronounced Smith “some kind of genius.” He added, “I hope you have some practical people working with you too!” Not a misplaced hope. In the late fall of 1990 and early winter of this year, one of Smith’s concerns was the precarious state of his publication’s finances-so precarious, in fact, that in mid-January, he announced that the journal had been suspended temporarily due to lack of funds and that a new publisher was being sought.
This isn’t a unique state of affairs in the world of Canada’s “cultural” magazines-a world where articles are labors of love written for next to nothing, everybody is either underpaid or a volunteer passing through, and editors, in Smith’s words, have to “beg, borrow and steal” to put out each issue. Statistically, four out of five Canadian magazines (including mainstream ones) don’t make it past their fifth year. But some observers feel that Smith and his inexperienced, if well-intentioned, cronies are learning the hard truth that goodwill, good connections, government grants, great parties and inspired ideas-all of which the journal has in abundance-won’t sustain a magazine. You also need an editor with the patience and temperament to, well, edit. Month to month, year to year, in tight financial conditions, there’s a lot of arduous nit-picking work to be done beyond brainstorming with stimulating pals in cafes. Some (including Smith himself) wonder if Smith’s unique talents and energy are suited to the task. My first conversation with Smith is in the large park across from his home off Toronto’s Queen Street West, where it stops being trendy and gets a little run-down. His house is a modest two-storey, semidetached on a long tree-lined street. He owns it (though it’s saddled with a hefty mortgage) and shares it with the American editor and writer Mary Ovenstone. The offices of The Journal of Wild Culture and The Society for the Preservation of Wild Culture occupy the front two rooms of the house. But to discuss wild culture, one really must be outside, in the natural world. So we stride across the street and into the park, Smith pausing to say hello to the people he knows and ask if they have received invitations for his cocktail party that Saturday night (Smith loves giving parties). We sit at a picnic table bathed in the waning rays of the sun on a pleasant autumn afternoon.
Smith is a tall man with the kind of blond good looks that belie his age-4O-and make it easy to understand why he was once a model for Eaton’s and Simpsons. He talks slowly, choosing his words deliberately, his long, slim fingers gesturing in accompaniment as he fills me in on his background. Smith grew up in the middle-class respectability of the Toronto suburb of York Mills. He did not attend university, preferring to experience “real life.” He has toiled in the Toronto arts community for the past 20 years, and one glance at his CV reveals that those two decades have been busy ones. He has produced more than 30 short and full-length documentaries for CBC Radio, and been the founder, performer and producer of the Shadowland Repertory Company, which in 1984 organized a theatrical extravaganza on Toronto’s Ward’s Island called Island Follies. He has also been the leader and guitarist of a 17-piece swing orchestra and now leads a new band called Wild Culture. On the political side of things, he has been a member of the Coalition Against Free Trade, and he is a founding member and coordinator of the municipal activist group Reform Toronto.
As cofounder of a catering company called Forest Foods, Smith spent much of his time through the late seventies picking fiddleheads and other wild plants in an area stretching from Hamilton to Kingston, selling them to restaurants, hotels and supermarkets. It was this activity that sparked the evolution of the idea he would eventually dub “wild culture.” While out foraging one day, he had what he calls a revelation. “I was thinking about ‘wild’ versus ‘cultivation.’ Most of our culture relates to cultivation, it’s not something that springs up wild. The definition of culture is that we impose it on the world, we paint on the canvas. Something is wild and yet our lives are not wild, the way we live is not wild.”
Smith took the contrast he saw between the wild and the cultivated, the natural and the manipulated, ecology and capitalism, and developed a series of performance pieces called Fern Policy. He invited artist friends to perform with him, to make it a sort of cabaret. He thought, “Let’s take this idea, let’s inflate it, pump it up, and see how the artists work with this concept.” The poster for the first Fern Policy performance in 1982 depicted one fiddlehead in a tweed suit shaking hands with another fiddlehead wearing a beret and carrying a paint palette. Smith says the performance was a great success. But he didn’t actually hit on the term “wild culture” until he was working on his last Fern Policy performance piece, which he eventually took to the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Ottawa. He was having a lot of difficulty, more than usual, in developing that last piece.
“I thought there must be another forum for this and I thought what I really want to do is a magazine. I’ll call it The Journal of Wild Culture. It just came to me,” he says. That was in May of 1985. Every chance he got he announced his intention to start a magazine-at parties, events, his performances. He started the Cafe of Wild Culture, evening events at local bars, and announced it there as well. People reacted positively to his idea, even though they were not always clear exactly what it was. “But there was enough of something there that a few said yes,” he says.
By the summer of 1986, Smith had gathered together a small group of converts-independent filmmaker Christopher Lowry, graphic designer Bernard Stockl, architect Peter Ferguson and public relations consultant Kim Obrist. Lowry was the only one who had any publishing experience, and it had only been a one-shot deal-a satire of men’s magazines called The Best of Play Boar.
They spent that summer discussing what wild culture was and what direction The Journal of Wild Culture should take. Smith calls those early meetings “juicy genesis times.” Whenever anyone got confused, he would tell them to go back to the name. “One editor in the city said he’d kill for it,” says Smith, laughing. After it came to him, he examined it very deliberately. “Journal” implied serious study of this oxymoron, wild culture. The point was, of course, that you couldn’t seriously study it, since no one (not even Smith) was sure what it meant. It was tongue-in-cheek, and indicated the whimsical slant the magazine would take.
The group invited friends like poet Christopher Dewdney, writer and broadcaster David Cayley, illustrator Barbara Klunder and the late poet bp Nichol, to brainstorm with them. Smith began soliciting contributions from artists he knew and by holding parties at Chris Lowry’s Kensington Market home. (Dewdney remarks that “half of the experience at The Journal of Wild Culture is the parties.”)
Smith differentiates his publication from what he calls “legitimate magazines.” A journal, he explains, exists on the goodwill of a network of people; an editor of a journal doesn’t assign stories. Instead, “you call for papers and people send in things and the journal becomes a vessel for that particular discipline. And our discipline is wild culture.”
After talking to Smith on that sunny fall day, I thought I understood what wild culture was. But whenever I was asked to define it, I couldn’t. During our next conversation, on a cool November afternoon, we sit indoors and I ask him again. What is wild culture?
He patiently explains that it is like a transparent painting. You put everything on this canvas, everything of the city the houses, cars, museums-but instead of the canvas being opaque, it is transparent. “You see one thing, and behind it, you can see another thing. So you can look at the streets and the houses of the city, but you can also see that there are rivers beneath the city and nature lives. That the earth, the geological life of the city, is alive.” And what is The Journal of Wild Culture? “The journal just happens to be the best known version of the vision.”
Dewdney and Lowry say it is the vagueness of the idea, the inability that I and a lot of other people have to pin it down, that makes it so attractive. “It’s playful and yet timely. And so many things can fit into it. It’s not rigid. It has no boundaries,” Lowry says.
For nine months, the group worked on soliciting contributions, choosing by consensus and splitting the duties. (Smith got the final say on what was published, since he was working on the journal full-time.) An “anonymous angel” provided $5,000 so there was no overhead. Smith, Lowry and Stockl, who was the art director, did most of the production work, which took almost four months. Stockl says working on that first issue “was quite an experience” because the ins and outs of magazine production were so new and different to all of them. Lowry says he had fun.
In late June 1987, more than two years after Smith conceived the idea, The Journal of Wild Culture made its debut. Three thousand copies were printed and sold for $3.95 each. They were gobbled up. High on that initial success, Smith and company printed 7,000 copies of the second issue, which proved to be far too many. Following issues had print runs of about 3,500 each; with only 800 subscribers and unpredictable newsstand sales, it was a more sensible number.
Stockl, listed on the masthead as “Design Chef Emeritus,” says he modelled The Journal of Wild Culture after Harpers and Arts and Architecture, an innovative arts magazine of the fifties and sixties. “The trick was to create certain effects with what was available to us. Trying to cheat our way through it without it looking like that,” he says.
The trick worked. All of The Journal of Wild Culture’s covers, for example, have been eye-catchers, especially the Barbara Klunder tapestry of brightly colored fish and other marine life that appears on the fall 1989 double issue.
As for content, Sarah Sheard’s short story, “What Goes Around” (the tale of a woman who learns the meaning of life and death when she begins to compost) exemplifies The Journal of Wild Culture’s values. The story found its way into the fall 1989 issue after Sheard gave a reading at a Cafe of Wild Culture event. Smith liked it because it talked about ecological issues “in a warm, artful way.” But beyond that it “would be counterproductive” to pinpoint the journal’s raison d’etre. “It isn’t about one thing. It’s about many different things.”
Eclectic, ephemeral-and elitist? Some have thought so. But Jocelyn Laurence, editor of Canadian Art and an early admirer and contributor to the journal, puts it: “It can seem like it’s put together by an in-group and directed toward another in-group.” For his part, Smith says that The Journal of Wild Culture is not a “lofty concept for the privileged and intelligent. It’s just that we are working on something here that will attract certain types of people who have the same sense of the world as we do.”
In fact, Smith considers the magazine and The Society for the Preservation of Wild Culture part of “many movements -the bioregional movement, the men’s movement, the feminist movement, the handicapped movement and many more,” as long as they are interested in “changing the paradigm from the old kind of patriarchal, commerce-dominated world to one that is citizen-based, more respectful of the ecology of the earth.”
However laudable the journal’s political intentions, it has been accused of displaying a certain naivete. On the back cover of the double issue (Fall 1989) there’s a color ad for Molson Canadian, featuring a golden corn field swaying in the wind. Printed across the deep blue sky is a quote from John Molson, circa 1925: “We are all members of a larger community which depends on everyone playing a part”
The ad appeared when Molson workers were engaged in a bitter labor dispute and asking the public to boycott Molson products. In his printed reply to one reader’s complaint, Smith put the gaffe down to “a young, green advertising policy,” and belatedly expressed “solidarity with the workers at Molson.” He’s aware of the moral dilemma, but says in defence of the decision, “We were supposed to get a drinking and driving ad, which we felt fit in our perspective, but at the last minute we got that one. We needed the money so we went with it.”
A young, green editorial policy also poses problems; even though The Journal of Wild Culture calls itself a quarterly, it has yet to come out four times a year. Some in the magazine business, like Toronto Life’s Lynn Cunningham, think it shouldn’t call itself something it patently isn’t. Smith says they always try to publish four times annually and on time, but they can never find the money. At one launch party for a new issue, Smith had promised to hand out copies to the guests. But it hadn’t been completed on schedule and all he could do was wave a sample cover around.
Most colleagues say Smith is utterly charming-and utterly disorganized. Judy MacDonald, This Magazine’s managing editor, worked at the journal for four months in 1988. Smith was part of the reason she left. “Working with Whitney was very difficult. He had so many great ideas, but he couldn’t stop and think things through,” she says. This led to confusion and extra editorial duties; as managing editor of the magazine, MacDonald didn’t think that she should have been spending her time coordinating auctions for The Society for the Preservation of Wild Culture. Still, MacDonald admires Smith. “It’s not that what he does is wrong. It’s just that he has a very different approach,” she says.
Bernie Stockl, who left after he found that his paying work “had less hassles than the magazine,” says that “the things that make him a joy to work with also make him a pain.” Marni Jackson, who also admires Smith for his creative energy, thinks that he does too many things to devote enough effort to the magazine and that it really “needs someone to edit full time.” Chris Lowry says Smith “has good instincts about writ ers and artists…he’s an idea: person, he needs a team.”
And yet, these people also say that the only reason The Journal of Wild Culture lasted this long is that Smith is so committed to it. “My will was such I was not prepared to let it go under, which it could have a long time ago,” Smith says. He also credits the determination of others who have worked on the journal. Normally a talkative guy, Smith dries up quickly when asked about money. All he will say is that he makes his living as the artistic director of The Society for the Preservation of Wild Culture, earning between $25,000 and $30,000 last year. He is also cagey about the magazine’s finances, though he grudgingly gives me some dollar amounts. He estimates that it has cost between $15,000 and $20,000 to put out each issue. He includes overhead costs like office rent in those figures. The journal has received all $39,000 The Society for the Preservation of Wild Culture has made in its four annual auctions. (Items auctioned have included dinner by star chef Michael Stadtlander and signed editions of Margaret Atwood novels.) Whatever grant money the journal has picked up hasn’t gone far. It has received grants of $24,500 from the Ontario Arts Council, and $5,000 each from The Toronto Arts Council and the Canada Council. But it had to decline this year’s OAC grant of $3,600 because of the decision to suspend publication. Where the rest of the money has come from to fund the magazine, Smith won’t say. Subscriptions and ad revenue are fairly insignificant. He says The Journal of Wild Culture’s deficit is running between 15 and 20 percent of the budget.
When I point out to Smith the journal’s chronic lateness, its poor financial state and the criticism of his editing style, he shrugs. He is suffering from the flu and looks as grey as the November day outside.
“I’ve never said I’m trying to make it in the magazine business. I am someone with an idea and I’m doing the best I can. I’m not a career publisher,” he says wearily. He doesn’t want to be judged by the same standards as Toronto Life, for example, because he says, “they’re not my standards.”
For now, Smith, the creative ideas man, is philosophical about The Journal of Wild Culture’s fate. Even if, ultimately, it does fold, the concept of wild culture won’t die ifhe can help it. “Because magazines don’t last forever doesn’t mean they are failures. They’re love projects. They’re like fireworks. They go and then they stop.”