DTES Sm’Arts shows artists taking work to next level

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      That Haisla Collins’s swirling, colourful screenprints are hanging on a gallery wall this week is just a small indication of her success story over the past year. Her fusions of traditional Native and contemporary designs—from ravens to stars—are featured in an exhibit at Gallery Gachet celebrating Vancouver Foundation’s DTES Small Arts Grants program. Armed with one of 67 grants handed out in 2011, she bought a screen printer and the tools she needed to create her work at a Downtown Eastside studio. That simple purchase has led directly to jobs running art workshops at the Carnegie Community Centre and Oppenheimer Park, and most recently, the Raven’s Eye Mentorship Program for aboriginal artists at the Raven’s Eye Studio on East Hastings.

      “Before, I had been temping, working concessions stands here and there, and I managed to stay off welfare but I was not making a lot of money,” the young artist explains, standing amid the busy opening of the exhibit, called DTES Sm’Arts, marking the year-end of the grants project. “When I was starting out, it was hand to mouth—day-to-day survival—and now I have three art-related jobs. So, yes, this grant has made a huge difference.“

      For each of the past two years, the Vancouver Foundation has handed out $500 to $1,000 to Downtown Eastside artists. The program, which has just been renewed for next year, filled a gap in the funding process and has had vivid results—all on view at Gachet.

      “At the Vancouver Foundation, we weren’t funding individual artists and there was nowhere for them to go,” says Meriko Kubota, manager of grants and community initiatives at the VF, adding that a visual artist has to exhibit numerous times to qualify for an individual grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. “There was also a report in 2006 that showed Downtown Eastside was the postal code with the most practising artists. So this was all about, ‘How do we support artists to be viable income earners?’”

      The people are chosen for the grants through an application process that includes a peer review by a Carnegie Centre committee of artists and residents. And the openness of the mandate has allowed for a striking array of media, created by artists who range from just starting out to the more established.

      At the Gachet show, some, but by no means all, of the pieces have a recognizable place in the Downtown Eastside. “Cowboy Mike” Voscamp used part of the grant to create a large-format ink-jet print of one of the intricately detailed illustrations he has made over the years on napkins at a DTES coffee shop. It depicts two men pushing carts in front of a tent in a city park. In another framed illustration on paper, a binner displays his finds. Or there’s On Her Own, Luchia Feman’s exploration of what it’s like to be a woman alone in Gastown—a large, vertical painting of her subject from the back, a shadowy figure set against the night sky.

      The ways the grants have been used are just as diverse. For art-doll and fabric-collage artist Diane Wood, it was being able to purchase her own power tools. “I bought a power drill, a power sander, clamps—so I don’t have to borrow somebody else’s anymore,” she says. The results are evident: for the first time, she’s worked found objects into her sewn art dolls, from the sanded and painted twigs on the elaborate Louis the Sun King to the wooden spoon that serves as the head for her Marie Antoinette.

      For more established painter Robi Smith, the grant has helped her turn her large, glossy canvases depicting fish swimming through intensely blue seas into more saleable $40 prints. And that in turn has allowed her to continue to research and render the silvery, little-known sealife of our local waters, like the opah and lantern fish on her paintings in the Gachet show. “The ocean is full of mysterious creatures that don’t end up in the supermarket,” she says.

      The subjects and the stories are all different, from painters to doll-makers, but the diversity reflects the richness behind the stereotypes about the Downtown Eastside. And that’s the beauty of the program, Kubota says: “Basically the model we used was, with this grant: how will it take you to the next level?” It seems that with the small arts grants in this neighbourhood, at least, a little can go a long way.

      DTES Sm’Arts is at Gallery Gachet until Sunday (June 3).