Just like early spring flowers, cautious yet curious heads are popping up all over downtown Vancouver.
“It’s been so nice. The last couple of Saturdays, we’ve had a large amount of people walking around and coming in to look at art,” said Elizabeth Steinbaugh of Main Street’s Aurora Gallery. “Usually there’s nobody but us in here.”
People wandering indoors to gaze at art is a welcome step toward normal after the sparsest year in living memory for local galleries and the artists they exhibit. Gallery managers are making the most of it with warm, colorful, spring-themed exhibits of new works that look forward to a better world. Artists say they’re thrilled to have an outlet – and an audience – after a whole year of piling up canvases.
“I’ve never had so much studio time. It’s the only place I go,” said Portland artist Chas Martin.
“Painting is introspective,” said Vancouver artist Rachel Aponte. “For painters, (the pandemic) has been like the snow day that doesn’t go away.”
Martin contributed dark green and Aponte added blue and orange to “PRISM,” a 32-canvas kaleidoscope of colors and images that opened this month at Vancouver’s most experimental gallery, Art at the Cave. Cave gallery co-founder Anne John assigned specific hues to local artists and then organized the surprisingly diverse results into what feels like a walking tour of a rainbow.
“PRISM” also includes a display about famous artists who were colorblind as well as a spinnable color wheel, created by local sculptor Bill Leigh and painted by Trevor Thomas.
“I never finished a painting before COVID,” said Tuesday Kirby Kahl of Washougal. She started finishing them at last after being furloughed from her job as a climbing instructor and gym manager.
“Now I’ve been painting every day, all day,” said Kahl, whose “PRISM” offerings include a tuft of flowers in deep phthalo blue. “Cave has become a huge supporter of my work.”
Gallery director Sharon Svec said art sales at the Cave have remained strong throughout the pandemic.
“We are representing more artists and the work is higher-quality than ever,” John said. “Strange to say, it’s been fun.”
Up and away
Around the corner on Main and upstairs, you’re welcomed into the Phoenix Rising gallery by a little girl clutching a fistful of balloons that lift her into the blue sky.
“I just thought that was the most beautiful, hopeful image,” said gallery owner Malee Octavia of the painting by Andrei Engelman, a Portland artist who hails from the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan.
Phoenix Rising’s spring show is teeming with images of growth and change, from several surreal Engelman scenes to woodcut portraits by Portland’s Astrid Beatriz Furstner of the very real heroes and martyrs of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Octavia launched the sunny, big-windowed gallery months before the coronavirus pandemic stole all visitors away, she said. When galleries were forced into a complete shutdown for months, she used the downtime to renovate the space and network with local artists, as well as do her own art.
“I’m a hard worker, I guess,” she said. “The arts shouldn’t disappear when we are going through hard times. That’s when human beings need the arts the most.”
Framing the problem
Across the street on Main, the Aurora Gallery continues to feature works by its regular stable of 60 artists, including several new pieces by prizewinning local watercolorist Bev Jozwiak.
Many artists have been as prolific as ever during the pandemic, gallery owner Steinbaugh agreed, and their new works often get displayed on Aurora’s walls right away as well as blasted out in biweekly emails.
While it’s been great to see more visitors trickling in, Steinbaugh said, Aurora actually survives on its custom picture-framing business, not fine art sales.
“We’ve been holding our own,” Steighbaugh said. “We did a lot of curbside pickup for months, with one person at a time in the gallery.”
Steinbaugh has hosted First Friday events online, she said, but doesn’t expect a return to live First Fridays until the end of this year.
Meanwhile, Aurora will try two public calls for art, something it’s never done before. A July exhibit of “reclaimed canvases” will feature artworks on unconventional surfaces, and September will bring a textile-art show.
“So many are working at home on textiles, sewing and weaving,” Steinbaugh said. “Indoor crafts have gotten incredibly popular.”
Unframing the problem
Over in Camas, the Attic Gallery went the opposite way: It stopped offering custom framing, except for customers buying art, and remodeled the former Chinese restaurant next door into a special exhibit room.
“We had all these grand plans to turn it into a frame shop,” co-owner Maria Gonser said, “but this made us pause and rethink the whole business and what our focus is. It isn’t framing; it’s fine art. We turned that space into a beautiful exhibit space.”
Launched decades ago in Portland, the Attic Gallery exhibits such regionally and nationally recognized artists as Michael Ferguson, who paints glowing Northwest landscapes, and David Allen Dunlop, who starred in his own public television series. The March exhibit is a unique family tribute called “The Hamiltons,” featuring whimsical and comical paintings by Oregon artist Earl Hamilton as well as still-lifes, abstracts, portraits and even portrayals of fishing adventures by his late parents, George and Satsuko Hamilton.
Famous names have helped the gallery survive, Gonser said. So have virtual tours, Facebook live streams and an updated website.
“We had people ordering online and asking, ‘Can we have curbside pickup?’ ” Gonser said. “It wasn’t huge but it was enough to give us hope. It wasn’t a total dry spell.”
Anniversary to savor
The anchor of the Vancouver gallery scene, Art on the Boulevard, celebrates its 15th anniversary in April with a group show featuring nearly two dozen of its regular artists and a huge diversity of styles and subjects.
Art on the Boulevard has always relied on foot traffic from the Java House cafe and other businesses that share the Vancouver Marketplace courtyard on Evergreen – until it disappeared last year, gallery director Kevin Weaver said.
“Things have been quiet,” he said. “If you’re not in your office and you don’t wander over during lunch – that has such a big ripple effect.”
The irony about deserted art galleries, Weaver added, is that they’ve remained safe spaces precisely because they’re so sparsely visited, even without a pandemic.
“I always tell people, if you’re wanting to do something safe, come to a gallery,” he said. “It’s rare you run into anybody other than me here. Every once in a while you’ll have two groups but a lot of days, like today, not a single person.”
He said people who do stop in seem to savor the experience in a new and different way.
“Those who have bought work, you could tell, they really want to support the gallery and the artists and keep everyone going,” he said. “There have been some genuinely kind gestures by people. Especially in a year when things can be so depressing, things like that can reaffirm your belief.”