On a purely practical level, the Yew WoodShop is a place for artists to share giant, top-grade tools. There’s a table saw that’s longer than a Ping-Pong table, and a high-tech CNC laser for intricate cutouts, for instance. They can also split the costs of the ventilation systems and divvy their large slabs of wood stored along the walls.
Woodworking, after all, requires a Class B artist-studio licence in this city—one reserved for the “dirtiest”, loudest, and hardest-to-house practices in a city where sky-high real estate has put space at a premium. But the collective model at the Yew is something all artists might look to as a way to survive here.
Step into the workshop at 1295 Frances Street, in an industrial section off Clark Drive, as tens of thousands of visitors will at the Eastside Culture Crawl this week, and you’ll see evidence of the unexpected side benefits of setting up a cooperative studio like this one. Sharing a space, wood artist Benjamin McLaughlin tells the Straight on a visit to the studio, has sparked ongoing collaborations between the artists and helped them to push their work into new realms.
“There’s been this cross-pollination of working together over the years, as your skills improve,” says the artist, sitting in the Yew’s showroom by some of his wildly unique sound-resonating wall hangings and tables. “We do share ideas quite a bit and brainstorm about how something could be done. At least half the work I create now in this space is with other designers.
“There’s this tendency within art and design that pieces in wood aren’t necessarily considered to be art. But if you look around, these are very uncommon objects—wood is just our paintbrush,” continues McLaughlin, an original member of the collective, who splits the space with lines like Ari Lazer’s Sacred Light Design Co., Willow & Stump Design Co., and Logan Gilday of OGA Design. “We all share a common goal of creating pieces with an archival quality to them.”
For McLaughlin, that means taking his percussive furnishings and artwork to more intricate lengths, mixing resonant red wood like padauk and bubinga with local salvaged hardwoods, in work whose delights go far beyond the visual.
“I believe natural sound can transform a space,” explains McLaughlin, who often hides little holders for drumsticks in his furnishings so you can strike them to make rhythms. “When I first heard ancient African instruments, the sound was so captivating.”
His studiomate Ari Lazer agrees that sharing the space has helped take his intricate, mandalalike wood pieces in new directions. At the Crawl, look for some of his hypnotic new wall mountings—laser-cut wheellike mobiles whose repeating patterns create different dazzling designs when they spin at varying speeds.
“I feel so deeply grateful to be sharing the space,” he tells the Straight from Bolivia, where he’s travelled for inspiration for his lighting and furnishings. “The artists and designers working out of there are really inspiring and deeply skilled in their own way....It’s been profound and it’s really improved my skills.
“So it’s finding affordable square footage where you can take on the projects that come your way,” he sums up. “And then in quieter ways you have the support you need to carry you through.
It’s not just woodworkers in the Eastside Culture Crawl who have turned to a communal model. Sculptor and multimedia artist Kim Cooper needs everything from welding to woodworking to casting and textile work for her large, organic forms, and she’s one of the founders of CoLab (Vancouver Community Laboratory) at 1907 Triumph Street. The vast space has 30 key holders and dozens more drop-ins at any given time.
“Everybody has a voice and everybody collectively makes decisions,” says Cooper over the phone, one of several like-minded artists who hunted long and hard for the right Class B space. “It allowed me to have an actual studio practice. I don’t know that I would have been able to have that to this degree.”
Though sharing the space and the tools is a bonus for tenants as diverse as metalwork-and-wood artist Mark Johnston, leather-shoe creator Love Jules, and colourful-recycled-material sculptor Ron Simmer, Cooper admits running a collective studio is work.
“When you’re already stretched on time,” she explains, “what we’ve set up is a volunteer-run organization, and we all have to contribute time.”
As at the Yew WoodShop, there are experiences of constant collaboration, though; often an artist will send a note out to the entire group asking about a design problem and seeking someone who has the knowledge or skill to help, Cooper says.
But she also raises another challenge that the Yew is sharing. CoLab has managed to secure a 10-year lease, but that comes with having to pay ever-increasing property taxes.
“We’re currently trying to get the nonprofit rate for property tax—it’s given to churches, and others get it,” she explains. “But most nonprofits don’t have the resources to fight for these things.”
For their part, McLaughlin’s group at the Yew report 30-percent property-tax increases in each of the past three years. By next year, he figures, his collective will be paying more for property tax than for rent. And there’s always the fear that if real-estate prices continue to climb, they’ll lose the space altogether.
“It’s interesting, because I personally believe artists and design reflect the culture of a place,” he reflects, “and as long as the powers that be don’t have an issue with real estate being our primary economic model, you’re pushing out the people that are the cultural fabric of your city.”
It’s a challenge the Eastside Culture Crawl Society will be all too aware of as artists open their studios for the event. Executive director Esther Rausenberg points out that this is the final year of the Crawl for the Glass Onion Studio, one of the event’s founders, as it’s been sold to a developer. She also hears stories of artists facing rents that are doubling or even tripling. So, although more than 70 thriving spaces will greet visitors this week, Rausenberg warns we’re at a crucial time. A new mayor has pledged to take on the housing crisis and promised tens of thousands of new spaces. And the Crawl society itself is engaged in a major study to track how many artist spaces it had 10 years ago and how many the East Side has today.
Collective studios like the Yew and CoLab, plus others like the Terminal City Glass Co-op, may be one of the keys to survival—and a structure that visual artists with less industrial practices might look to. “If you’re just one voice, it’s easy to dismiss; if you’re a group, you have a much stronger voice,” she asserts over the phone. “Politicians hear you, and I hope the politicians hear us more because I feel like we’re at a critical point here.”
And of course, just coming out to the Eastside Culture Crawl is a way of throwing your weight behind the city’s artists, and their right to have space in the city, as well. “If the public comes out and supports by buying art and taking part in the Crawl, it says ‘We like this and we want this and this is a part of being in Vancouver,’ ” Rausenberg says.
The Eastside Culture Crawl takes place from Thursday to Sunday (November 15 to 18).