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Interior Outpost: Vancouver Art Heads East

The late-summer air is soft and warm and the sky appropriately grey as I veer left off Kingsway at 15th and walk past the forest of bistros, beauty salons and galleries known as Little Montparnasse to interview Jane Irwin at her and Ross Hill’s GreyChurch Collection on Fraser Street. The focus of my visit is the couple’s largest and most ambitious project, Rancho Rasdoul, located 45 minutes north of Kamloops at Heffley Louis Creek. But rather than rehearse my questions, as I often do on my way to an interview, I allow myself to be distracted by a running tally of house demolitions. Vancouver housing prices are the highest in the country—yet not only are there buyers who can afford these houses, but there are also buyers who can afford to knock them down and build bigger ones.

I have lived in Vancouver’s Cedar Cottage neighbourhood long enough to remember GreyChurch’s predecessor—the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. When the building came on the market in 2007, Hill and Irwin saw enough love left in its deconsecrated bones to embark on a two-year renovation that included a terrazzo floor, a well-appointed kitchen and a climate-control system for the display of their Canadian-centric art collection. Since its transformation, Hill and Irwin have made GreyChurch available to arts groups like Artspeak and Fillip magazine, who staged the Intangible Economies symposium there in 2011. In addition to more formalized art events, Hill and Irwin have used the church to host dinners in honour of local and visiting artists, curators and directors.

I arrive at GreyChurch to find the gate open just enough for an expected guest to notice—the building’s rear glass door open that much wider. Wider still is Irwin’s smile as she welcomes me from beside a table located between what was once the church’s ambo and its nave. Although little of the original church architecture remains, I am tempted to evoke it in my response. I confess this to Irwin, and she deadpans, “Don’t bother—I’ve heard it all before.” Behind her, on what was once the apse wall, one of Myfanwy MacLeod’s snowflaked movie posters: William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.

For the next hour Irwin and I talk about Rancho Rasdoul, but also what has changed in Vancouver since we began our exploration of it as young adults in the early 1980s. It is a looping conversation, one I could blame on my lack of preparation, but it is not unlike past conversations I have had with Hill and Irwin (or indeed with others like us who were born in the first half of the 1960s), where a topic is not so much digressed from, but returned to, as if ordained.

One topic we continually return to (enough to make it a topic) is what it was to be a young artist in Vancouver in the pre-Expo 1980s—and how difficult it is to be a young artist in the post-Olympic Vancouver of today. For Irwin and myself, this earlier version included cheap rent, inexpensive food and clothing and a consumer-indifferent DIY punk culture. Most of this earlier Vancouver existed east of Main Street, and in the Downtown Eastside in particular, where artists and musicians lived and worked in warehouse spaces along Powell and Railway Streets. Another thriving warehouse scene was on Cook Street, at the south end of False Creek, under what became Olympic Village (later re-branded the Village on False Creek).

“I spent a lot of time on Cook Street when I was 16,” says Irwin, who attended Langara’s studio program before graduating from the University of British Columbia with an art-history degree in 1990. “It was great. Art, music, performance and theatre were inseparable; people participated in every way.”

What Irwin experienced at Cook Street is part of a continuum that began in the earlier 1960s with collaborative, interdisciplinary enclaves like Sound Gallery, Motion Studio and Intermedia, followed in the 1970s by Video Inn, the Western Front and Pumps Centre for the Arts. Whether the institutional looseness that was once associated with interdisciplinary practice continues today is debatable given that the city’s state-sanctioned artist-run centres behave closer to public galleries than as sites of artist-driven experimentation. Another mitigating factor could be the emergence of a private gallery culture that has younger artists making work less for each other, as was often the case in the 1980s, than for the market. Still another could be Vancouver’s transition from a resource port built on union labour to a transnational resort in service of IT entrepreneurs. It is here that we return to Rancho Rasdoul.

My first look at Rancho Rasdoul came in early summer, during a visit with 40-something artists Kevin Schmidt and Holly Ward at their 100-year-old farmhouse home, located a couple of kilometres south of the ranch proper. The two erstwhile Vancouverites had just returned from a three-year stint in Berlin (where Schmidt was a 2011–12 resident at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien) and, as was evident from the roadside, were busy with projects new, old and ongoing.

The first of these projects is the farmhouse itself, which, though in constant need of repair, provided the set for Schmidt’s EDM House (2013), a 17-minute video and sculptural work that has the building’s exterior festooned with Christmas lights that pulse to the beat of a soundtrack the artist had composed in its bedroom. The second is Schmidt and Ward’s future home, The Pavilion, Phase 2 (2011–), an architectural hybrid of rancher-style house and the 22-foot-diameter geodesic dome Ward constructed as part of her residency at Langara College in 2009–10. The third is Screen in the Landscape (2015–), a project that consists of a movie screen placed in a raked bowl carved into a sloping pasture. Screen in the Landscape, the farmhouse and The Pavilion are on land owned by Hill and Irwin.

“Jane and Ross have been incredibly generous,” says Ward as she tours me through The Pavilion’s unfinished interior. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with this thing once my residency was over. There was no way I could afford to store it—but I didn’t want to destroy it, either.”

Later that day Ward relates how Hill and Irwin came for a studio visit during Ward’s Langara campus residency and afterwards offered to move the dome to their Heffley Louis Creek lands. From there, Hill, Irwin, Schmidt and Ward spoke of the potential for future Heffley Louis Creek projects, including EDM House and Screen in the Landscape. Scheduled to open in summer 2016, the cinema was built with—and will include—the participation of community residents.

One of the more immediate community residents is Hank Inkster, a soft-spoken builder and self-professed ski bum who, like Hill and Irwin, was attracted to the area for its skiing (Sun Peaks is 20 minutes away). Inkster lives next door to the main house at Rancho Rasdoul and has, since Hill and Irwin acquired the ranch in 2004, assisted with the construction of its outbuildings. Part of his work with Hill and Irwin includes assisting Schmidt and Ward with theirs, an experience Inkster describes as “a trip.”

Community also extends to like-minded artists and curators living and working in and around the North Okanagan today, a list that includes Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller at Grindrod, Brian Jungen at Head of the Lake, Tania Willard at the Neskonlith Indian Reserve and Charo Neville at the Kamloops Art Gallery—all of whom grew up in smaller communities and spent time in larger centres, only to return to or, in the case of Willard, maintain ties to these communities.

On the topic of Hill and Irwin’s contribution to the region’s burgeoning cultural ecology, Neville is both effusive and informative. In a recent conversation she mentions how the North Okanagan, like the Lower Mainland, is transitioning from a resource-based economy, and she hopes that the “build it and they will come” presence of Rancho Rasdoul has encouraged local politicians and business leaders to include publicly funded arts initiatives in that conversation. “What Jane and Ross have given the local arts community, even more than tangible economic support, is intellectual support—the belief that a rich cultural life is greater than the financial means under which it is written.”

Neville points out that Hill and Irwin supported the KAG in 2011, when guest curator Patrik Andersson mounted “On the Nature of Things,” an international group exhibition based, as Andersson stated, on Lucretius’s identification of a natural world that manifests in “generative acts such as collision, stress and rupture.” Not only did Rancho Rasdoul contribute funds toward the exhibition and host a reception in its honour, but it was a venue as well.

Among the works included in Andersson’s exhibition was T&T’s Lighthouse (2010), a site-specific sculptural assemblage that greets Ward and me as we climb the slope from the renovated doublewide mobile home that is Rancho Rasdoul’s main house to take in the view of the larger valley. An apocalyptic hybrid of automobile and gas lantern, Lighthouse is too mannered to be just any car left to rust in the countryside. As such, it draws attention to that practice, a reminder that, like the ranch itself, it knows where it is and what it is doing there. The same could be said of The Pavilion, which Schmidt and Ward affectionately call the Domestead, and hope to begin using as a studio in the spring.

My second and most recent visit to Rancho Rasdoul follows the October 3 opening of Schmidt’s survey exhibition at the KAG. As with Andersson’s exhibition, Hill and Irwin host a brunch for area residents (KAG staff and board, local politicians, visual-arts faculty from Thompson Rivers University), as well as artists, curators, directors and collectors from Vancouver and beyond.

Moving through the crowd on a warm and sunny autumn afternoon, I catch fragments of conversations that only an art event can inspire. Most relevant to the critic are those that pertain to Schmidt’s exhibition, which is praised for its individual works, their selection and an exhibition design that most agree is of a high standard, like that found in “bigger cities.” Other comments are more intimate, based on personal experiences—how, “after all these years,” Schmidt’s exploration of the experiential, the landscape and the sublime, and Ward’s interest in the utopian and notions of social progress “seem to have come together,” “like Dürer’s hands,” and that it is “no surprise”—and “about time”—that the two are “testing the collaborative waters.”

Equally consistent among these fragments is an appreciation of what Hill and Irwin have quietly made—and are making—of Rancho Rasdoul. It is here that I learn the origin of the ranch’s name: Rasdoul is a childhood derivative of the Vancouver neighbourhood where Hill’s father started the family clothing store, Hill’s of Kerrisdale. I am reminded of a story Irwin told me of her 2004 Elsewhere residency in Greensboro, North Carolina: how that experience inspired her to make Rancho Rasdoul a place that might generate a residency program of its own.

As is often the case at events like these, I grow exhausted from my eavesdropping and need to rest my ears and write down some of what I have heard. So I leave the crowd to commune with my favourite of Rancho Rasdoul’s outdoor works. Shortly after moving in, Hill and Irwin had Inkster carve a 100-metre-wide circle into the boggy plain that runs before their guesthouse, “to see if it would fill.” What resulted was not simply a decorative water feature, a pond, but a world unto itself, a congregation of cottontails, fish, a mink and then one day “a line of nine fuzzy ducklings.” This too is something I take note of before wandering back to the other congregation, the one around the brunch table.

Michael Turner is a retired art critic. His most recent fiction, “A Study In Petulance” (with illustrations by Walter Scott), appears in Mousse #52.

This is an article, originally titled “Okanagan Outpost,” from the Spring 2016 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, pick up a copy on newsstands until June 14.

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