Recently, an unlikely group of people sat around a table in Octopus Studios at 393 Powell Street, discussing their work and shared artistic headquarters. Among those present were a pro wrestler, a university administration assistant, and a game designer—as well as a couple of jacket-sporting Chihuahuas. A scene out of the homogenous sitcom world of Friends, this was not.
But in the cutthroat world of Vancouver artist studios, where space is at a premium, diverse groups of individuals who might never cross paths otherwise are sharing close quarters—and making it work.
“As artists, it’s tough to get your stuff out there and it’s tough to find affordable space,” notes part-time painter Travis Watters, who has rented a studio at Octopus for the last six months. A tanned, beefy guy who also makes a living as a pro wrestler under the stage name Ladies Choice (slogan: “the man with the plan and the golden tan”), he quietly sips a cup of tea as he describes his experiences of working in the Vancouver art world. “We’ve got to have strength in numbers,” he continues. “And it’s good people here, you know? It’s nice to have a kind of a space where you can meet and see other people’s work.”
Watters is one of the 12 artists at Octopus Studios who will be participating in this weekend’s Eastside Culture Crawl. But as Beata Kacy, the part-time multimedia artist and full-time software designer who runs the studio with her partner, leathersmith Nik Palmer, explains, there are 18 individuals in total working in the 3,000-square-foot space.
“We started five years ago with eight—that’s why we called it Octopus,” notes the Poland-born artist, who works in jewellery, textiles, and photography. “But then the recession was kind of happening and we noticed that people started asking if they could share spaces with other people to cut the cost. So most of the time we do have spaces with two people.”
According to Jeffrey Boone, executive director of the Crawl, the days of the solitary artist working in a spacious, light-filled studio are fast becoming history in Vancouver. “There’s been so much change, and there’s pressure on real estate in the city from every sector,” he observes. “As always, artists kind of get into the cheapest available real estate, and that is the stuff that’s being bought and flipped.…We keep hearing of people who are sort of subletting space in order to, I guess, reduce their own costs or to make ends meet.”
Wanting a space of her own to work in is what spurred Kacy into taking over the small building that became Octopus Studios, and while she initially worried about her ability to fill it, she’s found it to be in great demand from artists such as Luchia Feman, who joined the studio six months ago.
Feman, a painter working in a variety of materials, says she was forced out of her space at Georgia Jackson Studios at 505 East Georgia due to a renoviction.
“It was a great studio, but we had to move,” she recalls. “I looked at, I think, five other places.…And I came here and Beata said, ‘Oh, you know, it’s first come, first serve, we don’t get into this process.’ And I was like, ‘Right on!’ I don’t want to have anything to do with these elitist groups who are checking you out and seeing if they like you or if they want to be with you. I just want to be able to do my thing and basically be left alone, you know?”
Another Renoviction is what spurred the creation of the Red Door Studio, in suite 230 of the Mergatroid Building at 975 Vernon Drive. When the 30 artists at 190 Prior (formerly 901 Main Street) were forced out of their studios in 2009 to make way for development, some formed a cooperative and settled in Portside Studios at 150 McLean. Others, including painter and ceramicist Suzan Marczak, made other plans.
Luchia Feman’s Gangster everybody knows your name.
Instead of joining Portside, Marczak teamed up with another former 190 Prior painter, Lisa Ochowycz, to take over a 2,000-square-foot studio space. Today, there are seven artists in the Red Door Studio, working in disciplines as varied as painting, mixed-media, and bookbinding.
“I prefer a shared studio,” Marczak insists. “This is my full-time job. If I was in my own studio I would never see another human being, you know? I like having people around.”
And while it may sound cramped, she notes that in reality, it rarely is. “The thing about a shared studio is that it’s very rare that everybody is in here at once.…For the most part, there’s going to be maybe one or two other people. And a lot of times there isn’t anybody else.”
Unlike the first-come-first-serve system at Octopus, Red Door takes a much less casual attitude toward choosing new studio mates. “Definitely, we interview,” says Marczak. “And the last person we had in, we interviewed her, and then we had a session where we made sure everybody could meet her beforehand to see if they were all okay with it. So yeah, you have to try to be careful with that. It needs to be agreed upon.”
The studio is also being run as a women-only space for the time being. “It really changes the feel of everything once you start having a mixed studio,” Marczak explains. “It becomes a very different studio. So we decided to keep it like this.”
Cimarron Knight, a mixed-media artist working in various forms, including photography, wood, painting, and performance art, occupies the studio space directly facing Marczak. She was one of the first artists to join Red Door when it opened about a year and a half ago. “I’ve had studios where I’ve worked in isolation,,” she notes. “In a shared studio space you get that sense of community and comradeship. I prefer it.”
Despite Octopus Studios and Red Door Studio being managed in very different ways, artists in both spaces insist there has been little to no friction between studio mates. Both studios have strict rules barring the use of toxic chemicals such as solvents, though Octopus does allow oil paints. Neither specifically requires that artists use headphones to listen to music, but everyone is expected to be mindful of the comfort of others.
About the only issue at Red Door, says Marczak, is a breaker that blows if she’s got her halogen lights on when Ochowycz plugs in her kettle. At Octopus, a trigger-happy security system has necessitated a more stringent system to deal with false alarms, but apart from that, it’s run smoothly. For the most part, say the artists, sharing creative space with others has made for a wider network, a greater sense of camaraderie, and a more affordable studio. And as real estate in the city continues to rise, more and more working artists will seek out these types of arrangements.
Even the Culture Crawl itself is looking to develop a permanent, shared studio space at some point in the future, and has received municipal grants to undertake feasibility studies to investigate how it might be done. “Maybe I’m being naive, but I think it’s possible,” says Boone. “We all love art and it has to be made somewhere.”
The Eastside Culture Crawl runs at various venues from Friday to Sunday (November 18 to 20).