Eastside culture crawls strongly toward 20th anniversary

The annual Eastside Culture Crawl has risen from humble beginnings to become an artistic force of outreach and collaboration

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      It’s a visual-arts festival that has grown to become one of Western Canada’s largest, but ask Richard Tetrault about the first-ever Eastside Culture Crawl, and he’ll admit that its founding members “didn’t always have such grand schemes”.

      “It was a very humble beginning,” says the artist and board member, who officially dubbed the event ‘the Crawl’ back in 1997. (He’s also responsible for the fest’s crow symbol; see sidebar next page.)

      “We did not project such a resounding response, or even expect it to keep going every year,” he says. “It was very pragmatic.” Back then, Tetrault tells the Straight, the event involved just 45 artists in three buildings.

      Seated at the table in the Crawl’s head office at 1000 Parker Street, he’s joined by his partner and the event’s executive director, Esther Rausenberg, as well as sculptor Roy Mackey and ceramist Heather Dahl (of dahlhaus ceramics), both of whom have been participants in the Crawl for more than 10 years.

      Tetrault and Rausenberg have helped to oversee the iconic event since the very beginning.

      “It started off as a very ad hoc group of people who wanted to invite the public into their studios,” recalls Rausenberg. “It was volunteer-driven, and coordinated primarily by artists. Eventually, we had a volunteer coordinator, but the artists did most of the work.”

      As the coordinator of Paneficio Studios back in the mid-’90s, Rausenberg connected with her counterparts at the Parker Street and Glass Onion studios for the inaugural Crawl in 1997, which she estimates drew close to 1,000 people—a far cry from the 25,000-plus it brings to the ’hood these days.

      When the Crawl became a registered nonprofit society in 2003, it began to take on a new purpose.

      “We had to prove to the federal government that, one, we were a professional arts organization, and two, that our charitable cause was to promote the visual arts to the public,” Rausenberg says, explaining that the Crawl’s board of governors worked to bolster the festival’s lineup of events with outreach programming.

      This gave rise to Studio 101, a program that facilitates art workshops for inner-city schoolchildren. It, and other outreach programs, continue today.

      Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, the festival will host more than 500 artists this weekend in over 80 different buildings and studios.

      The visual-arts, craft, and design festival will feature a mix of both internationally renowned and emerging painters, sculptors, photographers, potters, weavers, printmakers, glassblowers, furniture makers, and designers, who, from Thursday to Sunday (November 17 to 20), will open up their studios to Vancouver’s vast community of art enthusiasts.

      Sculptor Roy Mackey’s Naked Man.

      But for the artists involved, the Crawl has become much more than an opportunity to showcase their work.

      Dahl says that, above all, it’s provided her with an annual benchmark that spurs momentum for the rest of the year.

      “In the early years, it really helped me define what kind of work I was making, and people’s responses to it,” she says. “I learned what sold well, what people were excited about, what my price range was, and what kind of work I wanted to produce—it’s been a good check-in with people in Vancouver.”

      What’s exciting to both first-time and returning attendees, in Dahl’s mind, is the opportunity not just to see artists’ work, but to meet them and discover the inner workings of a studio.

      “In a gallery setting, you’re pretty removed from the ‘making of’, and I think that’s what’s interesting for the public: to see where it’s made, to get a glimpse into your life as an artist, and to find out what you’re thinking about when you’re making the work.”

      Mackey, a participant since 1999, says he likes to think of the Crawl as “Face-to-Facebook”.

      “Facebook is the casual kind of connection where you have 500 friends and maybe talk to one or two of them regularly, but at the Culture Crawl, it’s real-world, real-time, so it really is a huge bonus,” he says.

      “At a gallery, you don’t get to know the depth behind the work, and the Crawl really does reveal that. Especially if you’re visiting a live/work studio, because then you see the inside of the artist’s fridge,” says Mackey, laughing.

      Thanks to the Crawl, all three artists say they’ve been able to establish valuable connections with interior designers, curators, gallerists, writers, and movie-industry professionals. Rausenberg says she knows of many participants who’ve received exposure in art-and-design publications after being discovered at the Crawl.

      Tetrault says the Crawl also acts as a springboard for creative projects. “There’s a lot of cross-pollination going on between artists. Creatively, it broadens the spectrum of possibility,” he says.

      Serene vase by Heather Dahl of dahlhaus ceramics.
      Joey Armstrong

      To celebrate 20 years of the Crawl, Rausenberg and team have organized an exciting lineup of commemorative events. This year’s juried exhibit, As the Crow Flies, showcases the work of 70 Crawl artists (with the display continuing at the Cultch and the Firehall Arts Centre).

      For her, these exhibits are a strong indication of how the Crawl enables artists to access grant funding, which often requires them to have experience participating in such exhibits.

      Rausenberg says this year’s lineup of events also allows for art that might not have a commercial end.

      “Things like the SnackArt vending machine and the True Confessions installation are engaging people, attracting them, and telling them about the art-making process,” Rausenberg says.

      The vending machine created by the SnackArt Collective dispenses “snack-size” digital photographs printed in limited editions, while True Confessions, an installation by Kate MacDonald, takes anonymous secrets written on coloured message pads and strings them up in the Hamilton Bank Building.

      “We really want to encourage those activities to happen, because a lot of artists, no matter what they do, will always want to do some piece of work that simply inspires them or challenges them, that perhaps doesn’t have a for-sale sticker on it.”

      After two decades, the event has evolved from a volunteer-driven art show into a weekend-long hive of creative exchange. For Tetrault, defining the Crawl in a word isn’t difficult.

      “For me, it’s all about inclusivity,” he says. (Though applicants must meet criteria, anyone with a working studio within the East Van area bound by Columbia Street, East 1st Avenue, Victoria Drive, and the waterfront can take part.) “It’s a connecting point between the maker and the public.”

      “It started off as exposure, but it’s evolved to a shared experience,” adds Mackey. “Before, I was anxious about getting my work out there for people to see, but now I find myself asking, ‘How can I make this an experience for them?’ I want it to be memorable.”

      For Rausenberg, the combination of location and inspiration is what makes the Crawl so remarkable.

      “It’s a truly unique opportunity for the public to connect and engage with artists, and for artists to engage with the public,” she says. “The confluence you find in this geographic area that is so unique to Canada has brought this amazing creative output that you just don’t see anywhere else.”

      The Eastside Culture Crawl takes place in buildings throughout East Van from Thursday to Sunday (November 17 to 20). For more info, visit www.culturecrawl.ca/.