COVER STORY: Creative Collective
As the parade of feather-topped folks descended on Waterfront Park for last month’s Caribbean Days Festival, a decidedly smaller and less adorned group emerged from North Vancouver's Café for Contemporary Art and readied themselves for an interview.
A chance introduction over drinks between café owner Tyler Russell and Prince Hubertus of Hohenlohe-Langenburg had sparked the meeting. Hohenlohe, a descendant of German nobility, was filming a documentary on global do-it-yourself art scenes and asked Russell if he could profile his café and some of the artists that had exhibited there.
Jumping at the opportunity, Russell immediately gathered the troops. Adrian Boston, curator of multiple shows at the café, Dusty Hagerud, artist and gallery technician at West Van's Ferry Building Gallery and filmmaker Mark O’Krafka joined Russell and Hohenlohe’s entourage for the chat.
Leaning on a fence overlooking Burrard Inlet, each participant was asked the standard, run-of-the-mill inquiries about their interests and their contributions to the café’s gallery space. But, more importantly, the interviewees also spoke about the artistic community they’ve become a part of, and the importance of gathering with local, like-minded people.
“After I came back from Asia, I drove around looking for a place and this was the last place I saw," Russell tells The Outlook, with a smile.
“I wanted to create a neighbourhood-based space for contemporary art, where the art wouldn’t be mandated by bureaucratic or market forces. There are important conversations [through art] that need to be had, but if that community function is beholden to something then you’re going to have a conflict of agendas.”
Before opening the café, a high-ceilinged joint with the requisite mismatched chairs and youthful staff, two-and-a-half years ago, Russell graduated from Tokyo National University with a degree in “cutting edge artistic expression” and worked for years in both Korea and Japan on large-scale contemporary art projects.
He helped, for instance, facilitate spectacle-like endeavours, co-ordinating one exhibition of nearly 100 artists that included 40 hours of video. It was a curator’s dream, he admits, but the type of show that, due to its size, engages the public in only a cursory manner. Such a massive undertaking contrasted, both in character and scale, to the art camps he worked at prior to attending school. While working as a coordinator of international relations in Nakatsue, Japan, a tiny village with a population of about 1,400, Russell ran camps for local kids.
In conjunction with that initiative, he also facilitated a “Picnic on the Ocean” between a Korean and a Japanese artist on disputed waters between the two countries. Both ventures, says Russell, instilled in him an early desire to seek out “village sensibilities” in the relationship between art and the public. Connecting, in an intimate and immediate way, was a powerful tool and a lesson Russell quickly catalogued for future work.
And according to Dusty Hagerud, Russell hasn’t strayed far from those past inspirations, as a desire to engage with the community is very much alive at the café.
“The café gives you the chance to get gritty, get real,” says Hagerud, a 2009 Leo Award winner for best production design for a short drama.
“It gives you opportunity to do insanely awesome things, not seen in this city at all.”
Hagerud, a Lower Lonsdale resident and graduate of Capilano University’s IDEA program, is currently planning a puppet festival and a pre-Vancouver International Film Festival event scheduled for the café in the fall.
He’s been working at West Vancouver’s Ferry Building Gallery since 2003, the same year he moved to LoLo. When he first got to town, Hagerud says, he found North Van a bit sleepy. But the neighbourhood’s changing, he adds, and its evolution shares a similar spirit with the emerging arts scene.
“The demographic keeps evolving. The community is much more rich and colourful. People seem to think of the North Shore as a privileged place, but I think that’s changing as well,” says Hagerud.
“Is North Van cool? I think so, it’s getting there. But you have to know where to look.”
Arts in Ambleside
West of the Lions Gate Bridge, a similar transformation is planned for the beachside community of Ambleside, albeit one still very much in the conceptual stage and not yet enjoying the fruits of any developing scene.
The hope, says West Vancouver Mayor Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, is to make the neighbourhood “a contemporary place to live” with a mix of housing forms and a thriving retail and arts base.
Sites earmarked for redevelopment are the south side of the 1300-block of Marine Drive, the Safeway plot and the northern portion of Marine Drive between 14th and 15th streets. With the redesign, says Goldsmith-Jones, will come a rejuvenated commercial strip, giving residents a place to interact.
“We have to attract ourselves first,” says Goldsmith-Jones.
“You see it in Dundarave and you see it in Caulfeild, the support of the immediate local economy. With that comes social expectations and a commitment to community building.”
Any amount of change in West Vancouver, as is the case across the North Shore, remains a cautious enterprise, she adds, but by choosing to redevelop only three parcels of the area, Goldsmith-Jones believes Ambleside will retain its natural village aesthetic.
Goldsmith-Jones has put a lot of stock behind the oft-discussed project, calling it the “reason she ran for mayor in 2006." Upon completion, she says, AmblesideNow will breathe much-needed life into the area.
The process has been a slow one for some, and fast for others, Goldsmith-Jones admits, but says she expects council to make “significant decisions” in the fall concerning the roll-out of the redesign.
Council will also look at plans for an arts precinct, developed by the Arts in Ambleside Commission, planned for Argyle Avenue at that time.
Those designs, which include new gallery and education spaces on the Ferry Building site, have also caught the ire of some residents.
“All the work is about capturing a small piece of the feeling of the Harmony Arts Festival,” she says.
“When we had the Best of the West event during the Harmony Arts Festival people came from all over the region. The setting [the pier at the foot of 14th Street] was fantastic, the reviews outstanding and the feel was exciting. That's what I think people want to see more of in West Van.”
For an emerging artist like Mark O'Krafka, the Café for Contemporary Art offers valuable gallery space to show his work and engage with the public.
When the filmmaker moved to Pemberton three years ago, he used to get his coffee from the Pony Espresso. A part-time musician, O’Krafka says he was drawn to a 72-year-old, blues-playing, cowboy hat-sporting, First Nations man named Tip-Ta, strumming a guitar on a nearby picnic table.
So, O’Krafka introduced himself and the two bonded over the blues. Over the next year, they would bump into each other in front of the coffee shop and catch up when they had time. One day, Tip-Ta opened up about his life in the area, how things have changed and what he’s doing to keep his culture alive. The stories resonated with O’Krafka.
Eventually, the two left the confines of the picnic table and started jamming over at O’Krafka’s place. In the midst of one such meeting, O’Krafka decided to shoot some footage of Tip-Ta. As soon as the camera started rolling, he knew he wanted more than a snapshot of one jam session. He wanted to make a film. Luckily, so did Tip-Ta, who agreed to the project straight away to “keep his culture’s legacy going.”
Fast forward to this past November and Tip-Ta’s in North Van — where O’Krafka now calls home — attending the premiere of an early cut of the film, “Tip’s Blue’s,” at Russell’s café.
Tip-Ta treated the crowd to a few tunes and some traditional stories before the show and O’Krafka says Tip-Ta was happy with what he saw.
The film is still a work in progress, O’Krafka adds, but the plan is to produce “Tip’s Blues” as a feature film. Financing the project, however, has proven difficult. There are grants available to independent filmmakers, but O’Krafka is wary of the sometimes-challenging expectations that come along with using other people’s money.
“I don’t know if I want to subject this film to guidelines that may be restrictive,” he says.
“This is a film that needs to be told the right way. It may not be a super hero story, but it has to be told.”
Until then, O’Krafka says he’ll be hanging out at the café with the rest of the crew.
“All the conversations I’ve had with the people I’ve met at this place has affected my work considerably,” he says.
“It’s changed my perspective on the type of work I want to do.”