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Inside the Gushul Studio and Cottage in Blairmore, Alberta.
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"Toni Onley Artists’ Project"
Artists Caroline Anders and Paula Scott working in the studio at the 2011 Toni Onley Artists’ Project. PHOTO: Barbara Lougheed.
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Medalta’s historic beehive kilns and the rugged cliffs of the South Saskatchewan River in Medicine Hat, Alberta.
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Inside the Gushul Studio and Cottage in Blairmore, Alberta.
GREAT ESCAPES: INSIDE SEVEN SERENE ARTISTS’ RETREATS
BY Portia Priegert
WHAT: Gushul Studio and Cottage
WHERE: Blairmore, Alberta
The mining town of Blairmore in the Crowsnest Pass is the site of the Gushul Studio and Cottage, a residency program for artists and writers operated by the University of Lethbridge. Based in the former home of a pioneer photographer, Thomas Gushul, the program has hosted some 200 artists since 1988. “We don’t often turn people away,” says Don Gill, the professor who heads the committee that oversees the Gushul. “We’re trying to increase the number of submissions we get. I don’t think it’s that well known.”
While some residencies offer artists intense urban stimulation and the chance to build their networks, Gushul’s rural setting has few distractions. “It’s a place you can go without having to worry about other things,” says Gill. “You can focus on your work specifically. You can walk out of the cottage and go hiking without having to drive anywhere. If your work deals with the outdoors or with ecological concerns or that sort of thing, you’d be quite happy at the Gushul.”
Thomas Gushul, who emigrated from the Ukraine in 1906, moved the studio from an abandoned town in 1918. He worked in the studio for decades with his wife, Lena, documenting the region’s spectacular landscape as well as its people and the mining industry. Gushul died in 1962 and his collection of 18,000 negatives and prints is now housed at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.
Lethbridge artist Shanell Papp counts herself lucky to have done a 2007 residency, with funding from the Trap/door artist-run centre in Lethbridge. Papp worked on a large-scale embroidered image of two skeletons, and constructed miniature houses from plaid shirts. Both projects reflected her interest in the region’s colourful history, which has seen everything from rumrunners and mining disasters to a town council with Communist leanings. “The whole Crowsnest Pass is soaking in this fantastic history and the town is old and charming,” says Papp. “The beauty of the location is that it’s historically rich and untouched, to a certain extent. You completely feel free to discover and explore things for yourself.”
The studio, built in 1902, has been upgraded in recent years. It typically hosts 12 visual artists a year, although artists sometimes stay longer than a month. Repeat visits are not uncommon. The Gushul is open to professional artists in any medium and has hosted painters, printmakers, photographers and writers. Although many are from Western Canada, a few have come from Europe and the United States. The fee for visual artists is $750 per month, although Gill says work is underway to provide more subsidized spots, including one this year for an indigenous artist from Australia.
WHAT: Medalta International Artists in Residence
WHERE: Medicine Hat, Alberta
Potter Jim Etzkorn had such a good time last year at the Medalta International Artists in Residence Program that he bought a house and moved permanently to Medicine Hat. “I had just gone through a relationship break-up and was looking for a place to work,” says Etzkorn. “It’s a really amazing place … it’s the only thing like it in Canada.”
The residency program operates out of the 150-acre Historic Clay District, which once housed some of Canada’s most important clay factories. The district includes a working museum, an education centre, gallery space and a new 12,000-square-foot ceramics studio for residencies. “The idea is to have artists who are used to working in their own studio space at home, or in different facilities, coming to a new environment,” says Jenn Demke-Lange, the program’s acting artistic director. “They can get new inspiration from the environment here.”
Etzkorn, who creates functional pots, made many friends in the community during his yearlong residency, and says the area’s prairie landscape reminds him of his childhood in Kansas. An added bonus — the Medalta community allows him to stay current. “A lot of really good artists come through, so you have a pulse on what’s happening in the contemporary scene,” says Etzkorn, who works part-time making historical replicas for the museum gift shop as he sets up his home studio.
Medalta isn’t just for clay veterans. It also offers shorter residencies that are open to emerging artists. “I was a guy they took a chance on,” says Sam Hammer, a biology professor from Boston who spent a month at Medalta last summer creating non-figurative sculpture. “You’d think people would poke fun, but they’re kind.” Hammer, who’s been working with clay for three years, says one draw is the broad range of technical equipment, including several types of kilns. Another is working with so many experienced artists. “I’m picking up a lot of tips. On any given day, we’re all back and forth about what we’re doing.”
The clay industry began in Medicine Hat in the early 1900s, to take advantage of easy access to the CPR, cheap natural gas to fuel kilns, and ample clay along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River. Companies such as Medalta Potteries, Hycroft China, National Porcelain and Alberta Clay Products produced everything from brick and tile to sewer pipe. But a changing business climate — particularly the ready supply of cheap plastics and stiff overseas competition — sent the industry into a downward spiral in the 1950s. By the 1980s, most factories had closed.
The residency program began over a decade ago, but expanded in 2009 to year-round programming. It can accommodate up to 18 artists at a time and offers special month-long summer residencies led by well-known figures from the clay world. Last summer the program featured Josh DeWeese, a professor at Montana State University, and Sukjin Choi, a Korean-born artist and educator now working in Virginia.
WHAT: Toni Onley Artists’ Project
WHERE: Wells, B.C.
Annerose Georgeson has returned several times to Wells, B.C., to work with mentoring artists at the Toni Onley Artists’ Project for Professional and Emerging Artists. Georgeson, a painter who focuses on the region’s changing forests, is grateful to have worked with artists like David Alexander and Lyndal Osborne. “Becoming familiar with the artwork of such brilliant Canadian artists is an important benefit of the project,” she says. Nora Curiston, an artist from Grand Forks, B.C., also praises the mentors, saying they challenged her to push boundaries. “Both mentors were extremely supportive, but Peter von Tiesenhausen, in particular, encouraged me to work at what truly interested me.”
The Artists’ Project is different from a typical residency, because of the educational opportunity provided by the two mentors. It’s also more communal — some 20 artists work together in shared studios in the community’s elementary school. Georgeson, who lives in Vanderhoof, B.C., says the project helps artists from smaller communities counter cultural isolation. “Four or five artists work side by side in each room, sharing techniques, working practices and experiences, as well as the joys and frustrations,” she says. “I think the Artists’ Project is especially welcome in Northern B.C. It’s one of the only opportunities for regional artists.”
The Artists’ Project runs for eight days each July, at a cost of $890, with scholarships available. Artists usually stay in hotels, pitch tents at a campground or board with local residents.
Wells, a former gold-mining town with some 200 year-round residents, has an old-fashioned feel to it, with brightly painted houses dating from the 1930s. You can walk across town in about 20 minutes. “There’s a real sense of community,” says Julie Fowler, who manages Island Mountain Arts, the artist-run centre that has organized the Artists’ Project for the last decade. “We’re never going to have a Walmart in Wells. It’s all small businesses run by people you know.”
The town is on the western slopes of the Cariboo Mountain Range, about an hour’s drive from Quesnel and two-and-a-half hours from Prince George. Some 100,000 visitors pass through Wells each year en route to the historic museum town of Barkerville, eight kilometers down the highway. Another draw is the provincial wilderness park at Bowron Lake, a popular destination for canoeing, and Wells is working to capitalize on that tourist influx by marketing the arts.
The town is home to about a dozen serious visual artists as well as musicians and other creative people, drawn in part by some of the province’s most affordable real estate. Island Mountain Arts is a key cultural driver. It operates one of the town’s four galleries and hosts workshops on everything from blues guitar to creative writing. For the last eight years, it’s also organized the ArtsWells Festival of All Things Arts, which attracts music lovers from around the province on the August long weekend.
WHAT: Emma Lake Kenderdine Campus
WHERE: Emma Lake, Saskatchewan
Opened in 1935 as an adjunct to fine arts at the University of Saskatchewan, this retreat has a storied history in the province’s art scene. Residencies are offered in for-credit courses, and community workshops, in multiple disciplines of fine art and craft. Artists’ workshops bring together emerging and senior artists in a collaborative environment.
WHAT: The Arctic Circle
WHERE: International territory, ten degrees from the North Pole
Organized by the not-for-profit The Farm, Inc. and funded by international arts organizations, this expedition-style residency gathers contemporary artists, scientists and innovators on-board a traditionally rigged, ice-class sailing vessel in the High Arctic. Work produced here travels on an international exhibition tour following each expedition.
WHAT: Deep Bay Artists’ Residency
WHERE: Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba
In a renovated Parks Canada cabin in the woods, this two-week residency has been attracting artists in all disciplines, as well as arts administrators on retreat since 2006. Administered by the Manitoba Arts Council.
WHAT: Leighton Artists Colony
WHERE: The Banff Centre, Banff, Alberta
Built in 1985 as a series of eight small studios in a secluded wooded setting, each one was designed by an individual Canadian architect. Open to visual artists in all media, writers, composers, musicians, and other artists, residents have accommodation and meals provided by The Banff Centre.