Art Alchemy shows 250 square feet of art

Nov 19, 2018

By George Le Masurier

Art Alchemy, the Comox Valley art collective born out of a desire for more places to see local art, will hang its eighth annual Square Foot Art show this weekend

This article was updated Nov. 20 to include a quote from painter Sofie Skapski

H elen Utsal came to the Comox Valley to paint. She pictured a place “riddled with artists” and wanted to become part of the cultural scene that, she assumed, would have an abundance of public places to see the art created here.

She found something quite different when she arrived. There was, in fact, an abundance of artists working in a variety of mediums. But they mostly worked in isolation from each other, at home and in small out-of-the-way studios, and they all had little visibility in the community.

“It was and still is a struggle for local artists to get their work shown,” Utsal told Decafnation. “There’s just not many places to see art.”

So Utsal began forming the idea of a Comox Valley collective of artists who would create their own gallery and studio space, and share overhead costs.

She rekindled a plan by fellow artists Lucy Schappy and Jennifer Weber to take a chance on renting a space for a studio and gallery. They found a small space in Comox, but it fell through when the physiotherapists that owned the building decided to expand their own office.

Undaunted, Utsal formed the West Coast Art Collective during the winter of 2010-2011 with other nine Comox Valley artists who shared the dream of making local art more visible. The collective staged their first exhibition — a selection of 12-inch by 12-inch canvases they called The Square Foot Show — in June of 2011 at the now-defunct Purple Onion cafe in Comox.

Two years later, Utsal, Shappy, Weber and two new artists, Stacey Wright and Guillermo Mier, found the perfect space at 10th Street in Courtenay, above United Floors. It’s bright, has high ceilings and big windows and is large enough for all nine artists to have both studio and gallery space. They named the new endeavor Art Alchemy.

The artists at Art Alchemy have changed over the years, but the goal of having a place for artists to share their creative vibe and camaraderie has remained a constant.

And so has the Square Foot Show.

The nine current artists of Art Alchemy will be joined this weekend by 38 other mostly Comox Valley artists for the eighth annual Square Foot Show. (Friday, Nov. 23 from 7 pm to 10 pm, and Saturday and Sunday, from 11 am to 5 pm.)

Art Alchemy artists:  Mary Gorman,Shea Kottila, Sharon Lalonde, Larissa McLean, Nancy Randall Burger, Sofie Skapski, Helen Utsal, Nicolette Valikoski, Maggie Ziegler

It’s the first year the show has been juried and that submissions were accepted through a digital process.

“The whole purpose is to support artists and encourage them,” Utsal said.

Most serious art buyers have traditionally lived in larger cities, where cultural demands are greater.

“The Comox Valley is not a prime market,” Utsal said, noting that most local professional artists — those who support themselves through their art — sell to buyers in Vancouver, Toronto and internationally. “But that’s changing. Our population of art collectors is growing.”

Twenty-five artists have passed through the collective in its first seven years. Artists will rent space for two or three years and then move on, creating their own studios or moving from the area.

Sofie Skapski, one of the current artists at Art Alchemy, describes the experience like this: “I love our studio space here at Art Alchemy because of the openness and the wonderful light. It is important to me to work within a group because working alone in a studio can be isolating. Here we have camaraderie – we inspire each other in a supportive atmosphere but at the same time still maintain our privacy in our own personal spaces.

As the only remaining founder of the collective, Utsal has assumed the role of Art Alchemy’s principal artist, which means she takes on most of its administrative chores, like organizing the exhibitions. But it’s made easy by the “generous cooperative spirit we value and encourage.”

“Everyone pipes up, we’re all protective of the vibe,” she said.

This weekend’s Square Foot show is one of two exhibitions staged annually by Art Alchemy. They have another proprietary show in June that coincides with the Valley-wide art studio tour. And Art Alchemy artists also display their work at the Comox Valley Airport from May through October each year.

The Art Alchemy studio gallery is open to the public at 362C 10th Street in Courtenay. It’s open to the public from 11 am to 5 pm on Saturdays, or “whenever the door is open.”



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