As buzzwords go, it was a big one during a year most of us would rather forget: pivot. When the pandemic blindsided the planet in 2020, life instantly became all about doing things differently, with resistance to that not much of an option.
Work was suddenly something you did at home full time, getting together for drinks took place on Zoom, and actually leaving the house, condo, apartment, curbside camping van, or East Van garden-level suite was something only done out of desperate necessity.
Thankfully, that’s largely over now. Which explains why, this year, we’re back to the classic, pre-pandemic four-day format for the 26th Annual Eastside Culture Crawl. That’s right—starting today East Van art aficionados will be able to take in the work of over 425 artists in 68 buildings in the Eastside Arts District region, which is bounded by Victoria Drive, the Waterfront, 1st Avenue, and Columbia Street.
Here are three of those artists, each doing something wildly different, yet also having something in common in that they started out in life doing one thing, only to eventually realize they were meant to be doing something else. That “something” being the art they make today, and which you can ask them about this weekend when you make your post-pandemic return to one of Vancouver’s premiere, and most-loved, cultural events. See you on the streets of East Van.
Hope Forstenzer (at Mergatroid Building)
Sometimes we slowly become obsessed with what eventually becomes an all-consuming passion, and sometimes the love affair happens overnight. New York-raised, and now Vancouver-based Hope Forstenzer has zero trouble remembering how things shook down for her when it comes to working with glass. “It was very lightning-bolty,” she tells the Straight.
Before that life-shifting moment there were years spent exploring photography, film, multimedia performance art, and putting on avant-garde plays through a NYC theatre company she co-founded. Eventually, she learned that all the critical praise in the world doesn’t necessarily pay the bills, which led to complete burnout, and then a step back to a day job doing graphic design. While making rent was suddenly easier, Forstenzer quickly found herself bored, leading to her dabbling in pottery, and then looking for something more challenging.
“I lived down the street from UrbanGlass in Brooklyn, which was the one place in all of the city where you could take glass-blowing classes,” she recalls. “I walked in there, had time on my hands, signed up for a class, and the minute I started doing it I can still remember it, very clearly. It was like ‘Oh. I guess I’m doing this now.’ A year later I’d hauled my butt out to Seattle, and was trading my graphic design skills for classes and studio time.”
As Eastside Culture Crawl veterans know, few things attract a crowd like glass blowers in action at the Mergatroid Building on Vernon Drive. Forstenzer gets the appeal.
“When we have demos going at the Culture Crawl people are always super-interested in watching us,” she notes. “I think, for me, doing it is whatever it is that makes people enjoy watching it, turned up to 11. When I started messing with glass, I remember this feeling of ‘I’ve never seen or done anything like this.’ This is elemental, and intense. It’s almost like bringing something out of primordial ooze. The glass is like honey, and then turns into something, depending on what you do with it, this crazy, magma-like thing.”
The challenge of glassblowing is part of the attraction. Forstenzer—who spends part of her time in the studio teaching the craft to under-served youths in Vancouver—notes that getting started is relatively easy, but mastering things is an ongoing journey.
“To make something you’re going to be excited about, it’s literally five minutes,” she says. “You’re going to make a paper weight, and you’re going to be stoked about that paperweight. Then you’re going to make a glass and you’re not going to believe you made it out of glass. To the point where you’re actually making something where someone looks at it from the outside and goes ‘Well that’s well made’, depending on the person, to get really good at it, it does take years.”
Works you’ll see at the Crawl? Think neon-hued vases that look like Dr. Seuss extraterrestrials crafted from Jolly Ranchers and wing-themed sculptures conjured from delicate hot-sculpted glass. But where does Forstenzer see herself in her journey?
“I still don’t think that I’m really good at it,” she says with a laugh. “We’ll see how long it ultimately takes.”
Polly Almond (at Gore Studio)
The artist known as Polly Almond knows something about making sense of the world through art. Born and raised in Russia, the North Vancouver painter, poet, writer, and illustrator moved to Canada with her parents at age 18 back in 2000. All of those artistic pursuits were part of her childhood. Being uprooted and plunked down in the middle of a strange, confusing, and utterly alien place—Alberta—led her to think that maybe a more straight-ahead career made more sense.
Almond notes that her parents were engineers in Russia. After moving to Canada they found themselves making sandwiches for a living.
“In a foreign country everything seemed so unknown and so scary,” Almond recalls. “When it came to writing I felt like ‘You can only be a good writer if you’re born with that language, so, no, I’m not going to write in English.’ In terms of drawing and painting, it also felt less secure, so I put it on hold, and kept it as a little hobby of mine. I went to school to become a lawyer.”
Take a demanding job, and add kids and motherhood to the equation, and art took a complete back seat for Almond until the pandemic hit. “Covid really unleashed the artist in me,” she says. “Obviously the world changed—all the crazy schedules and the routines and all the obligations kind of quieted down for a little bit. That created a vacuum where I could receive everything that I wanted to get out of me. I started writing poetry and illustrating it with drawings. That felt like it wasn’t enough so I started painting. Ever since I let myself get back to art, I can’t stop. It’s taken over.”
Almonds paintings bridge different worlds. Consider the way that Lumberjack takes a decidedly Eastern European-looking worker with suspenders and a crude axe and then weaves a canoe and a straight-from-the-Great-White-North moose into the picture.
“That was my bridge between the Eastern European background that I come from, and the new country that is my country now,” Almond says.
In folk art-indebted works like Nostalgia and Village Girl there’s a symphony of imagery around the heads of the subjects--majestic swans and horses, drooping ferns, winding rivers, and towering mountains.
“I have a lot of drawings and paintings where there is a lot going on in the hair, or the head, or around the face,” Almond muses. “I don’t know if I have a well-explained formula around this, but it’s certainly a reflection of the fact that, at any given moment, we have so much happening in our heads. There’s this past, which defines us, there’s the present where we spend no time ever, and then there’s the what ifs and the future. That’s what I try to reflect in some of my art.
And in terms of what these images are, it’s also often a folk element and folk art. That’s definitely part of my DNA.”
Asked what she enjoys more these days—being a lawyer or making art—and Almond skillfully chooses to take the fifth. Instead, she allows that she couldn’t be looking forward more to connecting with people in person on the Culture Crawl, and not just because that hasn’t always been an option the past couple of years.
“The thing about the Culture Crawl is that you have all these hundreds, or maybe thousands, of people look at your art, interact with it, try to explain it, and ask you questions,” she marvels. “It makes your art alive in such an incredible way. Being an artist is so lonely—you’re stuck with your thoughts and trying to use the tools you have to make sense of the world. All of a sudden you have people validating what you’ve done and making you feel not alone in your experiences.
“It adds all these new meanings,” Almond continues. “I never knew how to talk about art until I was forced to. So it’s fascinating to have other people look at your art, and it’s very empowering to know your creations speak to others as well.”
Tess Paul (at Shady Acres Artist Studios)
As much as we might, hopefully, admire our parents, that doesn’t always mean that we want to be like them. That was, at least for a while, something that Vancouver-based, Kelowna-spawned painter Tess Paul thought a lot about.
“When I was very young, like four or five, I would always gravitate toward drawing and art, and it seemed like that was the logical progression,” she reminisces. “I did art honours in high school and won all these art awards. But my mom is an artist too, so I kind of didn’t want to do what she was doing. So I was like ‘I’ll do film and writing and movies ’cause that will be my thing, and I love movies.’ But then I got to film school and went on a few student sets and you’re there for 13 hours, you’re around people all day. I was like ‘This is not my lifestyle and what I want to do.’”
Also offputting was the idea that getting a film made usually means making all sorts of concessions.
“I also hate the dilution of an idea in film, where you have to rely on a lot of people to have your idea come to fruition. You kind of have to give up control in a lot of aspects, whereas with art it’s just me from beginning to end.”
Every artist is inspired by those who come before them, Paul being no exception. Today she specializes in colour-bombed, surreally fluid landscapes, where rivers look like flowing wax and skies melted crayons. For that she credits contemporary Canadian painter Kim Dorland, who views Canadian geography through a fluorescent, Day Glo lens.
“I’d abandoned painting for academia, and was totally immersed in academia and film and philosophy and writing,” Paul remembers. “I thought that was what I was going to do. Then I went to the Equinox Gallery with my mom and I saw Kim Dorland. I was like ‘Oh my god, I didn’t know that painting could be punk.’ His work to me is like what Kurt Cobain is to music. He did things so different and cool—I was like ‘Painting doesn’t have to be boring landscapes. It can be skulls in the clouds.’”
Being inspired to make art is one thing. Actually making it is another. Her film aspirations no longer a thing, Paul found herself working in retail when the pandemic hit. And then suddenly, she had time on her hands.
“I’m hesitant to talk about it because I know it was such a dark time for people,” Paul says. “But for me, I’d been locked into a 9-5 to make rent and live in the city. I was trying to save up money to take time off to get a creative pursuit going and I couldn’t. Then Covid happened and I was given a year to work on painting like a job--I did it every day for hours. It was like ‘If I’m not putting 40 hours a week into this then I’m wasting the time I’ve been given.’ I was laser-focused on not going back to a 9-5 job and that was a good push to work as hard as I did.”
When it was time to approach galleries, there was initial rejection, until she got a message that went “I’ve never seen anything about you online, but these paintings are kind of cool.”
The person who believed in her first before anyone else? Easy.
“The first time when I got into the galleries initially I didn’t honestly love my style,” Paul admits. “I showed it to my mom and she was like ‘I think these are good enough to apply.’ ”
Since then, Paul notes that her style continues to change to the point where her mom isn’t the only one who’s convinced she’s onto something.
“There was an evolution this past summer, to where I remember doing the first painting that I really liked. I think I cried. I had that moment where I got to the point of, finally, I’m so proud of this. That’s so exciting. I like my early pieces a lot—don’t get me wrong. But they were building up to the next thing. Which I guess everything is.”More