Artists stoke creative fires behind industrial warehouse doors

Noel Hodnett’s paintings are in “every national collection” in his native South Africa, including the South African National Gallery. After he emigrated to Vancouver in 1997, he was represented by local galleries such as Elliott Louis and Buschlen Mowatt.

But he’s never been a fan of the gallery system, which typically takes 50 per cent of the sale price of a work of art. So for the last four years, he’s had his own gallery, hfa contemporary, at 1000 Parker St. in East Vancouver.

Finding it is a bit of a treasure hunt. 1000 Parker is a sprawling remnant of Vancouver’s industrial past, a labyrinth of wood, brick and cement buildings built between 1916 and the mid-1970s. It’s quirky – the entrance is on George Street, not Parker, and there are railway tracks between two wings – and is a strong contender for the funkiest building in Vancouver.

It was once a Woodward’s warehouse, but today it’s largely occupied by artists, who love the building for its open spaces, high ceilings, and cheap rent (about a buck per square foot).

Hodnett’s had a studio at 1000 Parker since he moved to Canada. He’s one of 200 to 300 artists who have space there. The building is home to painters, sculptors, photographers, potters and woodworkers, as well as one-offs – there’s an artist who identifies herself as a “master knitter,” producing elegant shawls subtly coloured with natural mushroom dyes and lichen.

It’s amazing stuff, and this weekend you can check it out at the 15th annual Eastside Culture Crawl.

Up to 400 artists are expected to open up their studios to the public in 70-odd buildings in East Vancouver this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There are studios in industrial buildings in Japantown, studios in houses in Strathcona, and studios in all sorts of buildings near Clark Drive.

An estimated 10,000 people now do the Crawl, which started off as the initiative of a small group of artists who simply wanted a little more exposure for their work.

It not only became a way for artists to meet the public, the Culture Crawl results in real commissions. Furniture maker Nick Vorstermans estimates 30 per cent of his income last year came from clients who met him at the Crawl.

“It’s pretty intense, pretty exciting,” says the 26-year-old, who works in studio 218 at 1000 Parker.

“There’s a lot of people coming though. It’s a great chance to show off your stuff and get people’s feedback. It’s pretty cool.”

Another furniture maker, Craig Pearce, signed up for the Crawl after he opened up the Union Wood Co. at 503 Railway in Japantown. Pearce makes beds, tables or what-have-you out of reclaimed wood and steel, and sells them through commissions. He was selling through a website and word-ofmouth, but decided to move to his new location because it offered him a chance to have a retail showroom in front and his shop in the back.

The showroom is in a dramatic open space with an 18-foot ceiling. Pearce’s furniture is displayed among antiques and collectibles he and partner Cara Donaldson have found around North America, from reproduction Edison light bulbs to vintage wooden theatre chairs and a 1969 Honda 350 motorcycle.

Donaldson thinks the Culture Crawl has helped to change the public perception of East Van, not to mention industrial strips like Railway Street.

“You can tell the city is moving east,” says Donaldson, 32. “The fact that we’re able to conduct a retail space this far east says a lot.”

One thousand Parker street is the perfect example. Until the Crawl, few people knew of the building, which was built in 1916 for the Restmore Furniture and Bedding company. It was built alongside a rail line that came in after the eastern end of False Creek was drained for railway lands. (False Creek used to run as far east as Clark Drive; the bend in the road along Prior/Venables by General Paint follows the contour of the original shoreline.)

The 1916 building is the threestorey wood structure at the western end of the site. You can still make out the “ghost sign” for Restmore Furniture on the exterior wall closest to the tracks, which doesn’t look like it’s been painted in decades.

It’s worthwhile taking a walk around the back of the building, because that’s where you find a cool space between the building’s three-and-four-storey wings where the old railway tracks can still be seen. It looks like an abandoned factory in the American rust belt.

Inside, however, 1000 Parker is abuzz with activity.

There are about 100 artists’ studios (often with multiple artists sharing the space), as well as warehouse space for non-art businesses.

Painter Corrinne Wolcoski has been renting a 350-square-foot space since July, part of a larger studio she shares with three other artists.

“There’s a lot of artists around, three really nice ones in this space,” says Wolcoski, 45. “It’s nice to not be isolated, to have some colleagues around to chitchat with, but not so many people it’s overwhelming and distracting.”

Wolcoski sells her landscapes at galleries in Vancouver, Whistler, Banff, Jasper and Victoria, but likes the Crawl because it gives her a chance to meet the public.

“It’s not necessarily about selling the work, it’s about meeting people and getting feedback from them,” she says.

“People do work just to sell [at the Crawl], little pieces. I think I tried to do that last year and I just can’t paint small. I thought ‘Forget it, I’ll just do what I do,’ and just enjoy meeting people.”

Julie Pongrac is the aforementioned “master knitter” in studio 424. “I’ve been knitting since I was five,” she laughs, “so that gives me 40-plus years.”

But she also has a PhD in pharmacology and toxicology (“you can understand why I’m interested in lichens”), and came to Vancouver to work in a lab at UBC.

“I occasionally do clinical trial work, but I’ve given up the academic side of my science life,” she says. “It really takes a full-time effort to be an artist. It’s a really tough business to be in, particularly in the recession.”

As such, the Culture Crawl provides welcome exposure to people who might be interested in her creations, which are delicate and beautiful, but also have a lot of thought behind them. The handspun, lichen-dyed shawl “is based on trying to get people to try to think about technology in terms of organisms” like lichens, which offer the natural “sensitivity and precision” of a man-made tool.

Her latest interest is volcanoes, a subject also being explored by Noel Hodnett in his new series of paintings, landscapes viewed from space. One features a squiggly red line surrounded by black – a fissure in the earth that shows molten lava coming out of a volcano.

“We’re looking at satellite kind of images – this is a volcanic flood,” explains Hodnett, 62.

Hodnett is relatively unknown in Canada, but has quite a resumé. He was the head of the painting and photography department at Rhodes University in South Africa, and has works in the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the Pretoria Art Museum, and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum in Port Elizabeth. He has a dealer in London and still sends work back to South Africa. But in Vancouver, he shows his work out of his studio and gallery in suite 320, with paintings priced from $6,000 to $40,000.

Hodnett clearly does not need to do the Culture Crawl – in fact, a mix-up meant he was left off this year’s pamphlet. But he’s still going to open his doors.

“The Crawl is a very interesting phenomenon for me,” he says. “In Vancouver, where do you get around 10,000 people over a weekend coming to look at art and culture?”

Hodnett won’t be just displaying paintings. For “a bit of fun” he obtained scans of vintage Vancouver panoramas and prints from the 1910s to 1940s, which he hand-tinted, digitally, like you would an old postcard.

He put a couple up at the last Crawl and people loved them, so he’s been printing them up on his Canon and HP printers and selling them. The metre-wide ones sell in print shops for about $50, but he’s done them as big as four metres for a corporate boardroom. One of his most arresting reprints is a drop-dead gorgeous photo of the Lions Gate Bridge.

“This photograph was taken around 1940 [in black and white],” he relates.

“I thought, ‘What colour was the Lions Gate Bridge?’ It was very interesting, because the Lions Gate Bridge was [originally] two colours, green with an orange suspension. Nowhere was there a [colour] photograph of that, but I found it on an old hand-coloured postcard.”

The photo has it all: a CP ferry going underneath the bridge, a float plane flying above it, and the subtly beautiful colour of a vintage postcard.

“It looks like it’s a real Kodachrome moment,” Hodnett says with a laugh.

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