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Calgary Report: An Artist-Run Alberta

Pamela Norrish, a 26-year-old Calgary artist, recently exhibited a brilliant series of unique works, made entirely of beads, and sold out the show. It was the first time she had presented her beadwork in public, and in the interest of full disclosure I have to say that one of these works went home with me. Each piece in her series Works on Paper reconstructs a to-scale sheet of three-hole, loose-leaf notebook paper, complete with horizontal blue lines and a vertical pink margin rule. One beaded sheet appears to have been torn from a notebook’s rings; one simulates a deep-blue spiral made with a ballpoint pen; others bear a hot pink diagonal zigzag and a worn-away hole at the centre. In all, Norrish showed seven works, and this was the first time she had sold any—let alone all—of her exhibited art.

By any measure, Norrish’s debut was successful. But the venue for the exhibition, which she shared with collagist Sean MacAlister, was not a commercial art gallery. The DIY venture, called Haight Gallery, opened in November in a clean, white, well-lighted garage behind a northwest Calgary bungalow not far from the Alberta College of Art and Design. Norrish graduated from ACAD in 2009 and Haight’s artist-owner, Matthew Mark Bouree, finished in 2010. Although the model for Haight is semi-mainstream—Bouree brokers sales for artists and is trying to attract viewers beyond young artists and their friends and families—it is one of the newest pop-up galleries in a city with a deep and rich history of artist collectives and alternative art galleries and exhibition spaces.

“Calgary has always been a community-based art scene,” says Tyler Los-Jones, a 25-year-old artist and ACAD graduate. “It’s difficult for somebody here to be a star, there’s just not the art market to support it. So you don’t have the same the level of competitiveness.

“People just support each other. You are more interested in seeing activity. If you don’t let people show in your garage, then where the heck are they going to show?”

Los-Jones put this thought into action as a co-founder of the 809 Gallery, a garage gallery that was open for 809 days in 2007, 2008 and 2009, and of Local Library, an all-ages music and art venue in the downtown Central United Church, which includes a gallery space and is one year old this March. The inspiration for 809 was a trip to Chicago, taken when Los-Jones and his friends were fourth-year students. Chicago has a thriving pop-up gallery scene driven by young artists. One gallery the students visited, 65Grand, was in a small apartment kitchen. An ACAD fourth-year trip to San Francisco was similarly inspiring to Bouree, who named his gallery after that city’s famous Haight-Ashbury district, a centre of the youth revolution of the 1960s.

“Once we saw how easy it was to do in Chicago, we realized how easy it would be to do here,” Los-Jones says. “And it’s not that difficult: we entice people to come out with barbecue and beer. People were having shows in their apartments and their garages to open things up.

“It’s about participating in your community. The stakes are a lot lower [than at a publicly funded artist-run centre] and that allows people to be a lot freer.”

Precedents for the current DIY scene in Calgary go back to the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1970s, several initiatives were pioneered by Clive Robertson working with other artists: the collective W.O.R.K.S. (which stands for “We ourselves roughly know something”), with Paul Woodrow; Voicespondence, an audio production and publishing co-operative; the Parachute Centre for Cultural Affairs, with Woodrow, Ron Moppett, John Hall, Don Mabie and Marcella Bienvenue; and Arton’s Video Publishing.

During the 80s, Calgary’s now well-established artist-run centres, the New Gallery, Stride Gallery and Truck, were being founded. In 1986, sculpture student Bart Habermiller moved into Graceland, a junkyard covering three city blocks, and established a site to make and show work and stage collaborative performance, which involved many artists and lasted until 1997. In the latter part of the 80s, painter Mary Scott, a co-founder of Stride, went on to open two galleries she ran on her own, the unpronounceable << >>dL and One White Wall, the latter in her house. A student artist collective, the United Congress, formed at ACAD in 1988. Although the Congress is only infrequently active these days, some of its original members, who include Lisa Brawn, Milo Dlouhy, Angela Inglis and Kenneth Doren, have continued to initiate ever-morphing alternative activities.

Brawn has presided over a series of art projects that could collectively be called the Sugars. They began in 2001 when she launched the Sugarmobile, a broken-down 1935 Bowlus Road Chief trailer she had rehabilitated for use as an artmobile. Next she parked Sugar Gallery in a tiny space in the historic Grain Exchange building, where she had shows on Friday nights for seven months. Meanwhile, Dlouhy and Inglis had opened Estate Gallery in their house. They threw in with Brawn in 2003 and the three opened Sugar Estate Gallery and Museum of Oddities in a warehouse downtown, which they kept going for 18 months. Brawn and Dlouhy then opened the tiny storefront gallery National Portrait Gallery Inc.’s Portrait Estate in the downtown Art Central building in 2007.

Brawn describes this project, which was roughly 66 square feet, as “a sort of artist-run storefront museum.” Her next venture, with Inglis and Jane Grace, was to rent a little 100-year-old cottage on the edge of Confederation Park in 2009, and turn it into the Sugar Shack Art Salon, where exhibitions and events like garden-cum-costume parties were held until last year. Brawn now operates the Sugar Cube Gallery, even tinier than the National Portrait Gallery Inc., in a walk-in window under a staircase on 17th Avenue SW. Its most recent offering was an intricate floor-to-ceiling collaborative drawing by Drunken Paw, whose members are Mark Dicey, Leslie Sweder and Janet Turner. Passersby could watch them at work, nearly standing back to back, in the cramped space. Before Sugar Cube, Brawn called this space Museo Poco.

Artist Shelley Ouellet’s Carpet n’ Toast Gallery, which ran from 2006 to 2008 in her basement (newly renovated after a flood into a pristine white cube), was directly inspired by Mary Scott’s One White Wall and Lisa Brawn’s Sugars. But while veteran artist DIYers like these have been visible forces in the Calgary scene, the younger generation of DIY artist-gallerists to emerge in the past few years was largely ignorant of Calgary’s alternative scene of the 70s and 80s. The new crew learned about their predecessors after they started their own efforts. Their activity, however, has been five- or six-fold, imaginative and diverse, with projects lasting a day, a few months, a few years. Recent galleries to come and go, besides the ones already mentioned, are Imaginary Ordinary, Art Life, Ideal (located in the former Ideal Body Shop) and CAM, an old house in an inner-city neighbourhood that was transformed into the Contemporary Art Museum by Bree Zorel and Heather Kai Smith.

The CAM was a collaborative artwork that included exhibitions of fellow emerging artists’ work and spoke pointedly and humorously to the lack of a contemporary art gallery in Calgary—despite the community’s expressed desire, for the past 35 or so years, to have one. As a remedy and critique, CAM, guided by the motto “We do what we CAM,” seamlessly combined everyday domestic life and fictional museum structures and rituals. The house-museum closed last August because of household expense and landlord troubles. But, filled with CAM-do spirit, Zorel and Smith are continuing their work as Camettes, using an itinerant model to keep on challenging the status quo.

The house in CAM’s logo has now been replaced by a tent. In a recent intervention into the urban landscape, the Camettes went around with a hand-stitched “Contemporary Art” banner that they held up in front the facades of certain buildings so that their signs were transformed to read “Contemporary Art Museum.” The results are documented in photographs. “We’ve also made uniforms which we plan on embellishing further, but are a good start to our organization,” says Smith. “Working without a fixed venue, we plan on building more of a travelling act. Our process at the moment is the collaborative building of a league of museum representatives to do good deeds in the service of contemporary art. We plan on making a Camettes guidebook and a travelling museum case fitted with research materials, as well as continuing to perform hopeful acts throughout Calgary.”

The status quo is also the target of active artist collectives and galleries like Arbor Lake Sghool, Pith Gallery, Straw Gallery and the Bakery, which rents studios and issues a biannual publication entitled Fresh Bread. Arbor Lake Sghool was founded in a suburban house in northwest Calgary in 2003 by brothers John and Andrew Frosst, who own the house, Scott Rogers, Wayne Garrett and Caitlind Brown. Its mandate, according to its website, is to create “bodies of work which defy popular institutional themes and incite panic amongst busybody neighbours.” It continues, “The Arbour Lake Sghool aligns itself with a certain disobedient spirit which seeks to dissect the world it lives in, while presenting possible alternatives.”

In one of its most effective projects, 2008’s Harvest, the collective tore up the front lawn in the spring, planted barley, tended it all summer and harvested it by hand in September. The height of the crop caused consternation among neighbours and the city got into the act, forced to consider under which regulation the collective could be told it must mow. Arbor Lake Sghool took it to arbitration and made it to harvest time. In 2009, the collective also took part in the Leona Drive Project in a Toronto suburb. They are less active lately, doing only one show a year. For summer 2011, they will participate in “The Farm Show” at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery.

John Frosst, who is 30 and graduated from the University of Calgary in sculpture, is more engaged now by the two-year-old Pith Gallery, where he is a co-founder, and by his adjacent and brand new Frosst Books, Calgary’s sole bookshop dedicated to art and architecture. At the back of the building, there are 11 studios, which are rented at affordable rates. Pith’s most unusual circumstance, however, is that it was created in an old bottle depot in Inglewood because of the community’s desire to clean up the street, where drugs were often being sold. “It was the community asking for change and artists bringing it,” Frosst says. “Our model was just to not be like the other artist-run centres in town.”

The rubric “artist-run centre,” in fact, now has two meanings in Calgary: one suggesting the old ARCs, which are considered to be institutionalized, and one suggesting these newer, less formal spaces, which are considered to be just the opposite. “The bulk of the artist-run centres are government-funded, well-established and fairly bureaucratic in their operations,” says Frosst. “I don’t want to be critical of them because they do a good job. But I also thought it was time for Calgary to have something else, a non-juried, curated art gallery that is not government supported and is really community driven.”

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