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Artist Shanell Papp, "Homebody," 2005, installation. Photo by Mary-Anne McTrowe.
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"The University of Lethbridge"
The University of Lethbridge, designed by acclaimed Canadian architect Arthur Erickson. Photo courtesy Bernie Wirzba, University of Lethbridge.
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"Footnotes from the Underground"
Dan Wong, "Footnotes from the Underground," 2006, video projection installation.
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"Scenes from the House Dream, Kitchen"
David Hoffos, "Scenes from the House Dream, Kitchen," 2007, detail, mixed media installation with miniature model, video, audio. Image Courtesy the artist and TrepanierBaer.
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"I Was a Lady Sasquatch: Domesticity for the Endangered Species"
Mary-Anne McTrowe, "I Was a Lady Sasquatch: Domesticity for the Endangered Species," still.
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Artist Shanell Papp, "Homebody," 2005, installation. Photo by Mary-Anne McTrowe.
With a population just over 80,000, the Southern Alberta city of Lethbridge has a surprisingly strong creative lure.
By Katherine Wasiak
"Visual art here is no passing fancy," says Marilyn Smith about the city of Lethbridge, Alberta. Director of the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, one of a few institutions in the city devoted to contemporary art, Smith lived in Lethbridge in the early 1970s, and returned in 1995. She noticed a difference right away. "The community is more vital now, and has grown in the number of people involved (in art) and the depth of their commitment," she says.
Located along the Oldman River about two hours south of Calgary, Lethbridge's art community has deep roots and multiple branches. An intricate network of supports sustains and promotes the community, including a university with a strong art department, a nationally respected contemporary art gallery, a vigorous visiting artist program, and dynamic grass-roots groups, businesses and individuals.
There are many signs of this renewed community commitment. The Allied Arts Council has a new higher profile, the City of Lethbridge is purchasing public art, local architect John Savill supports two exhibition spaces in his office building, the Trianon and Petit-Trianon, and more artists are calling Lethbridge home. "Young artists see Lethbridge as a viable place to live and base an art practice," says artist Mary-Anne McTrowe.
Installation artist David Hoffos, whose own practice is gaining an increasingly international reputation, agrees. "Resources are readily available and Lethbridge is an affordable place to live and rent a studio," he says. With affordable rents, more artists can graduate from 'kitchen table' studios to larger spaces. "Space has an impact on the scale of your vision and production," Hoffos adds. He turned the main floor of a building that formerly housed a Chinese grocery into a studio and exhibition space.
Supportive mentors also make a difference. "As a student I was a technician for Janet Cardiff as she moved from photography to installation," says Hoffos. "That cross-pollination provides fertile ground when people are working in similar ways at the same time. We had a spirit of sharing and collaboration that was valuable as I developed as an artist." Hoffos now makes a point of mentoring others. "I like to put energy into younger artists so they can benefit from my experience," he says. The interactions also encourage him to continue evolving his art practice.
"After graduating from the University of Lethbridge, I moved closer to Toronto thinking I'd have more exposure to a professional art community," says Daniel Wong, who recently returned to Lethbridge after getting a Master's of Fine Arts from the University of Western Ontario. "I came to realize just how good I had it in Lethbridge."
Wong considers the small city a great place for artists. "The arts community is close-knit and supportive," he says. "The University and the Southern Alberta Art Gallery provide a constant influx of artists and new ideas."
Shanell Papp was born in Lethbridge and continues to call it home. "I feel no urge leave, right now" says Papp, who earned a BFA from the University of Lethbridge in 2006. "I've had great support from my art professors as a student and even after I graduated."
She's been involved with the Trapdoor artist run centre, working with artists including Jill Flaman, Mary-Anne McTrowe, Leila Armstrong, Chai Duncan and David Hoffos. Trap/door is one of several grass-roots organizations that have sprung up in the city, each filling a particular niche and adding to the richness of the art scene. Groups including Trap/door, Burning Ground, Gallery Potemkin, P2, and ( )ette Collective organize exhibitions, provide support, feedback, studio space and, in some cases, grants.
Papp was recently selected for the Gushul Studio Residency and Collaboration Project, a Trap/door initiative that brings together two artists in different media. The competition, funded by an Alberta Foundation for the Arts grant, is open to all Alberta artists and the award includes a one-month stay at the historic Gushul Studio in the Crowsnest Pass, art supplies, and an honourarium. "It's an exciting prospect to step away from work and family obligations, and have time to work on my art," Papp says. "Since my practice is extremely labour intensive, this is invaluable." Calgary artist Hye-Seung Jung was selected to share the studio with her. Papp is also in the group exhibition Moody Idols at the Helen Christou Gallery at the University of Lethbridge later this year.
Although geographically somewhat isolated, artists in Lethbridge have always forged links to the wider arts world. For many years the Lethbridge Sketch Club invited artists including A.Y. Jackson, Walter J. Phillips and H.G. Glyde to teach workshops. "Sketch Club members were serious about their art and the work they created was very good because they had good instruction," says curator Joan Stebbins, who curated an exhibition of work from the group's early years (1936 to 1950) at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery.
A.Y. Jackson often visited his brother who lived in the area, and made friends with local ranchers as he painted the southern Alberta prairie landscape. "Our landscape always elicits comment from visiting artists," says Stebbins. "It has long attracted artists from across Canada."
For 40 years, the University of Lethbridge has provided a solid pillar of support for the arts. Arthur Erickson designed the first building on campus, a spectacular landmark in the city that nestles into the river valley landscape around it. The University's Art Department has always attracted faculty who were also strong artists willing to share their expertise with the community. Janet Cardiff, who represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 2001, taught at the University from 1989 to 2000 and continues as an adjunct professor.
The University houses another unexpected treasure in its art collection, with more than 13,000 objects ranging from the 19th through the 21st century. It's one of the most significant holdings in any Canadian post-secondary institution, with work by artists including Henry Moore, Robert Rauschenberg, David Salle, Emily Carr and Arthur Lismer. Since the mid 1970s, the University has also operated its Visiting Artist Program, exposing students and the community to a range of artists, curators, designers, and architects. The program has in turn made artists from across Canada aware of the Lethbridge's art scene.
The list of visiting artists, which now numbers more than 55 a year, has included Christopher Pratt, Tony Scherman, Takao Tanabe, Althea Thauberger, Rebecca Belmore and Robert Davidson. "This program is wonderful and constantly exposes us to new ideas and a broad scope of artistic practices," says Shanell Papp.
For more than 30 years, right in the centre of the city the Southern Alberta Art Gallery has exhibited what the gallery describes as the 'art of the day.' Founding director Allan MacKay had a history of involvement with contemporary art and set the tone for the Gallery.
It's a myth that you must live in a large centre to have a successful art practice. "In reality if an artist's practice is successful, they'll get shown," says McTrowe. According to Daniel Wong, since the art world works by mail submissions, "I can live anywhere I want."