This month I’m heading west across Canada on the Trans-Canada Highway, starting from Toronto. Although I’m tempted to call the series of dispatches I will be writing along the way a “regional survey,” the limited time I can spend in each community means that my coverage will be highly subjective—it would be unfair to consider this a comprehensive overview. Instead, these articles will offer a condensed journal of this journey, and an opportunity to recognize a few of the dedicated artists and organizers who advance the arts in these locations.
The drive from Calgary to Vancouver takes about 11 hours on a good day, so I decided to split the drive in two to preserve some sanity. I made my way through Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park and then settled down for the night at a small campground in Sicamous, British Columbia, and passed through Kamloops the following day. The distinct desert-like, mountainous terrain felt powerfully familiar and nostalgic to me because I lived in Kamloops as a child, but haven’t returned since.
Since Saskatchewan, reports on the radio warned of forest fires in the westernmost provinces. I hadn’t noticed the dryness in the Prairies, but the closer I got to Vancouver the dryer the foliage became: a cigarette butt tossed out a window could easily start a fire. I arrived in Burnaby, where I stayed with my partner Miriam Moren’s family. The sky was filled with smoke from the forest fires and the morning sun looked like a flat, yellow disc in the sky, hardly penetrating the thick haze.
Moren and I wanted to visit artists Garry Neill Kennedy and Cathy Busby, recent Vancouver transplants from Halifax, where we were close neighbours. When we visited, they were still unpacking boxes from their move. “We arrived for my artist-in-residence position that included teaching in the fall of 2012 at Emily Carr University, and the next semester we were offered a co-teaching position there,” explained Busby. “The next year we were offered co-teaching in visual arts at the University of British Columbia. Ever since we arrived, new projects and opportunities have been presenting themselves, so we’ve kept coming back and have now decided to stay.” In the first term of each year at UBC, they collaboratively teach a printed-matter course and, in the second term, they team teach fourth-year students in the studio.
My next stop was a meeting with artist Heidi Nagtegaal, who runs the Hammock Residency. Based out of her home, the Hammock Residency is a space for artists to spend time with with Heidi, lay in a hammock, talk about their art ideas, make art and be inspired. There is no application to do the residency; Nagtegaal said that she tried that once, but “the hammock wasn’t happy.” The application is, essentially, based on having a conversation with Nagtegaal. “The Hammock Residency happened because all I was doing was this, 24/7 hanging out,” said Nagtegaal. “After art school you are broke and can’t access grants right away so you sit around and discuss each others’ practices. One day someone came over to a potluck and said, ‘I want to hang out with you in your hammock, I feel like being here will be inspiring and I can just work on my shit.’ So I said, ‘That’s it, that’s the Hammock Residency. I’m going to open it up for conversations and process.’” For Nagtegaal, art is about social exchange—she’s not afraid to be expressive, open and frank with strangers about her ideas on life and art.
I also visited the Model studio collective, which artist Tiziana La Melia showed me around. Similar to the studio/galleries I had seen in the Prairies, Model had a main gallery space in the storefront with studios in the back. It also had a nice lounge space in the back, and currently also on display is Committee Projects featuring artists’ books organized by Denise Ryner, and a small bar. “It’s a project space that was founded by Rebecca Brewer, Emily Hill and Laura Piasta,” said La Melia. “I’ve had a studio here for the past year. It’s a place/opportunity to show work without the strictures/restrictions of institutions.” “Rent,” an exhibition by Montreal-based artists Lorna Bauer and Jon Knowles, was on view when I visited.
My final visit was to Western Front, where I talked with Pablo de Ocampo, the exhibitions curator, who gave me a quick history of the institution and a tour of the facility. “It was founded by a group of artists that bought the building on a whim. It wasn’t until the ’80s that it became an official gallery, before that it was used for more time-based and performance-based work,” explained de Ocampo. “It’s no longer run by the original artists, there has been a shift towards having a full staff.” It’s a huge old building, erected in 1922 as a fraternal lodge for the Knights of Pythias. The organization has 12 staff members, which is an impressive number, especially considering that the majority of the spaces I visited have less than three employees. De Ocampo’s position focuses on running of gallery program, but he enjoys some overlap in the centre’s other resources. “I have an interest in cinema, I have an interest in performance, I have an interest in music. All the exhibitions that I do tend to combine these elements. We produced a play that was part of the exhibition downstairs,” he said, referring to Rana Hamadeh’s show “Can You Make a Pet of Him Like a Bird or Put Him on a Leash For Your Girls?” Western Front is in the process of purchasing the building from the original owners, noted de Ocampo, which will hopefully happen by the end of the year.
Western Front often assists artists with production, explained de Ocampo. “There is something valuable about being in an institution that is large enough to support people to do stuff, both in terms of having a budget for people to work with and also things like having a fulltime technician, video-production facilities, performance space. With all those assets an artist can come in and have serious institutional support while, at the same time, have the flexibility that comes from the artist-run centre.”
There were many similarities between Western Front and the Khyber Centre for the Arts in Halifax, which I used to run. Though Western Front is much larger, both are 100-year-old buildings were constructed for social purposes and retain much of their original architectural features, both juggle community rentals alongside a gallery program, both were established by a group of artists at a grassroots level. It was great to see how Western Front utilized their space and how well it had been working for them, whereas the Khyber building has confronted numerous managerial issues and sat in limbo for over a year. Nevertheless, after spending the past month travelling to visit many great studios and art spaces across Canada, I found myself deeply inspired by the spirit of the artist-run initiative. During my last day on my journey, I hung out with artist Eva Bryant. Bryant is a friend from Halifax that used to volunteer and work for the Khyber when she was a student at the NSCAD University. She now lives in Vancouver and gives stick-and-poke tattoos; I asked her to give me a little Khyber building tattoo. The next day I left BC to embark on the long drive back home to Toronto.