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value added art

The art of adding value in Whistler Local artists are ready to take a bigger role in town By Stephen Vogler The big push in B.C.’s resource economy these days is toward value-added. You know, instead of shipping out all those raw logs, minerals and fish to the U.S., Europe and Asia, start creating things with them. Things like houses, boats, furniture, smoked salmon, jewelry, maybe even art? Come to think of it, artists might be the ultimate value added workers. After all, they start with virtually nothing and create something. They work with the most basic elements — form, shape, colour, sound, word — and create highly polished works. One would think, then, that in B.C.’s changing economy, artists would occupy a revered position, providing an example for workers in other fields and being highly paid to boot! One might also think that Whistler, a place where rich tourists file through by the thousands, would offer an ideal environment in which artists could ply their trade. Not so! In fact, the relationship between Whistler’s artists and its economy is an extremely tenuous one. Hugh Kearney has lived in the valley for eight years, and, when things are going well, makes his living selling his original paintings. "Part of the problem in Whistler is that we’re based on the ski industry and the skier population," Kearney says from his home studio in Emerald Estates, "and I don’t know too many people who would spend a couple of grand on art instead of a snowboard or a snowmobile. So that’s where our history comes from, that’s the local population, the ones that have been shaping, somewhat, the community that’s developing. I’ve seen some positive things happening lately, but Whistler’s got a long way to go." It’s the input from further afield that Kearney sees as having a positive effect on Whistler’s arts scene — the people moving here from larger centres, or who build second homes here, that have been more exposed to art. From working at the now-closed Shepard Gallery which carried his work, Kearney also discovered that visiting Americans are much more adventurous art buyers than Canadians. "They’re just more knowledgeable, more exposed to contemporary art. I found that Canadians, if they’re going to buy art, it’s got to be the names." Christina Nick is another local painter and sculptor who works out of her home studio in Whistler’s artsiest subdivision, Emerald Estates. Because the going belief is that the big names will sell, it can be very hard for local artists to even get their work shown in Whistler’s galleries. "What happens is that the gallery owners have to pay a premium for their space and therefore they don’t push the local artists because it’s a bit of a gamble, and they have to pay their rent so they go for an artist who’s better known," she says. While Nick has shown and sold her work through local galleries on occasion, she doesn’t have a regular venue where the visiting public can view her current work. For little-known contemporary artists whose work is more challenging than pretty landscapes or florals, finding a gallery to carry their work is a difficult proposition. Kearney believes it doesn’t have to be that way. In the final months before the Shepard Gallery closed, the owner decided to go solely with contemporary artists. "At the very end of the last year we were just making a last run of it, so we had all contemporary stuff, and I was selling tons," Kearney says. "We were all selling enough to keep the gallery going. We were doing better than we’d done ever before. So it proves that if we had that gallery in the Chateau we could have kept it going." And why did the gallery close down? "That’s a sad story," Kearney says with a laugh. "The fur store wanted to expand." One of Kearney’s last tasks at the Shepard was to phone Vancouver artist Gloria Massen, whose paintings of wolves had been selling well at the gallery, to tell her they were closing down because the fur store was encroaching on their space. The irony regarding our relationship to wildlife notwithstanding, the example of commercial interests overriding art in the valley is a poignant one. While Whistler isn’t the only place with an underdeveloped sense of the arts, the void seems exceptionally glaring when contrasted with the highly developed commercial economy in the village. And the aspirations of becoming a centre for arts, which occasionally crop up at townhall meetings and in planning visions, help only to underscore the pathetic current state the arts. "It’s a bottom-line town," says Stewart Glen, owner of Stewpendous Productions and director of the soon to open post-modern version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at the new AlpenRock House. "To me, the creativity is actually trying to get this community off its ass as much as getting my actors in the right spot on stage under the right light," he says. After running into insurmountable obstacles trying to produce live theatre in Whistler a few years ago, Glen moved to Vancouver, where he promptly produced three plays, garnering a total of nine Jesse nominations. But Glen is committed to getting a live theatre production off the ground in Whistler. "I’ve realized for me it’s the process of working with the actors, of trying to produce in a non-productive town. I’m taking on a very hard project and persevering because I’ve been so obsessed by it over the last 15 years, and I’m so close to it now, I feel like I’m on the verge." One of the big problems Glen has run into with Romeo and Juliet has been trying to organize a cast and crew who are generally holding down two or three jobs in order to pay the rent. "I’ve lost a bunch of key people that just haven’t been able to balance off the volunteer time versus their real Whistler life," he says. "Everybody’s lives are hectic up here. What it has proven to me is that I can produce amazing sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat theatre for our international audience if I can pay the actors to be my employees. I’ve discovered a true cast of talent up here, so I’m thrilled with that." Glen admits that it’s a common practise among those in the performing arts to subsidize their theatre "habit" by temporarily selling their souls and working in the film and television industries. "Any actor worth his salt would much rather be doing Chekhov than Disney," he says. But if Disney can pay the bills and be a powerful force in our global economy, what can Chekhov, or any other art of real depth, do for us? Perhaps what artists do is articulate the unarticulated for us. They give form and line to those murky depths that lie within each of us, that haunt us and yearn for expression. They plumb the bottom of humanity’s ocean, the collective sub-conscious that connects us all. Not only that, they paint some pretty nice pictures, spin some rip-roaring tales and play a jig for us on the fiddle. We tend to forget how many things in our lives originally stem from the work of artists. "Pretty well everything that we use has been designed, and not necessarily just for function," says Kearney. "There’s tons of aesthetics in all our design, and all that design basically goes right back to artists, because that’s what artists do: they’re searching for new ideas and designs and concepts which eventually get boiled down to a tea pot or a television. And that’s just visual arts." Artists also work with elements in their environment, placing them before us so we can see our world in new, refreshing ways. "I mine the area for all aspects of my art," says Kearney as he points around his studio. "That piece behind you is a fern, and its drawn on Japanese paper, which relates somewhat to our position here in Whistler, and I got the book from the dump, but the imagery and the colours directly relate to Whistler, the place." Kearney did a series of works in which he soaked paper for two weeks in a local ditch full of leaching iron before painting on it; he incorporates bark and branches into some works; whisky jacks and other local birds are recurring images; he has done a series of nudes, drawing with coffee from a straw. Christina Nick also works with the natural resources of the area. "For sculpture I use things I find and scrap steel, it’s all recycled stuff," she says. Through the technique of mono-printing she is able to directly incorporate the shapes and forms of life in the valley into her work. "That’s the way I use the things around me — I’ll print plants and animals and whatever for my paintings and drawings." Paul Waller, another local artist, has done a number of commissioned murals around town. "A lot of the commercial work I do relates to localities, specific locations and activities around Whistler, even local mythology," he says. "If you look at primitive art, they all derive the shapes in their art from the landscape around them." But Waller has found an unwillingness among many local businesses to work with local artists. One establishment opening in the village, he says, is hiring a muralist from Toronto to paint mountains. "I’ve heard of that so many times," he says. "It’s getting easier, but it’s taking people a few years to realize that they’re getting work at the same level (locally) that they’re getting in the city. What we’ll get if we keep hiring artists from out of town is art that is counter-productive, art that does not reflect the place." Glen has come across the same way of thinking when, in the midst of producing Romeo and Juliet, he discovered that the local arts council was looking into bringing in another Shakespeare company. Meanwhile, local artists are constantly asked to paint murals, sing songs or write columns for free or next to nothing. While all members of society are occasionally called upon to donate their skills and time for a good cause, for some reason artists receive that call a lot more often than plumbers, realtors or waiters. "I think they assume, which is probably true, that what artists are doing is something that’s innate to their being, kind of like breathing," reflects Nick. "So they don’t think that it’s anything too extraordinary asking you to do it for them for free. I find what they usually say is, ‘Can you do this mural for me, it’ll be great exposure?’ when in reality, actually it’s not the greatest exposure, it’s just a mural that I’ve spent a lot of time on. So in the end you just have to realize that time is money and you just have to charge for your time." Waller finds that people who want art work done for them often don’t have the money at the time. "Why don’t they budget one season ahead," he wonders, "so the artist can be painting and eating at the same time." In Winnipeg, where I’m finishing writing this article, the arts occupy a much more permanent position in society. A modern dance company is housed across the street from where I’m staying in a large stone building which was once a church. Concerts occur on a regular basis at various outdoor stages and band-shells throughout the city. The artists I’ve spoken with are still living by the seat of their pants, but they seem to have a sense of confidence that there is enough support out there somewhere to keep them going. In Whistler, we’re still much more of a frontier — a place where art and artists are undervalued or seen as having little value. The fact that any remain at all is testament to their courage or stupidity, or just to their love of the valley itself. The prevailing thought these days is that artists should embrace the business world, finding ways to market their skills within the commercial economy. While that might help to bring the work of artists into the framework of the mainstream economy, it might be just as important for them to stand their ground and wait for society to discover the truer, deeper value in what they’re doing. After all, they’re already used to starving, and it’s only a matter of time before people realize that a society without art is nothing more than a shallow reflection of our wants — a narcissistic gaze into a shop window. In places like Whistler, it’s hard to say why the value of art, and the artists who create it, is so overlooked. "If you go to Europe," says Kearney, "the artists are respected — you see shows going on all over the place, all the time — art is just part of life." Perhaps in Whistler, and in many places in B.C., we just don’t have enough faith in human ingenuity and imagination to embrace what artists do — to recognize the value they add to society. Instead, we watch vast amounts of natural resources roll away down our highways, and we feel a little perplexed by it all, shy, separated, insecure of our place in the world, wondering what exactly we’re missing.