More than just a pit stop between Edmonton and Calgary, a weekend visit to Red Deer yielded a new appreciation in the form of out-of-the way galleries.
Frequent collaborator (and Vue’s concurrent Queermonton columnist) Ted Kerr and I first hit up the Red Deer Museum and Gallery, which was a strange mixture of community art, historic pioneer antiques, and an excellent, but small, permanent collection of Inuit art. The desk belonging to the first mayor of Red Deer was there (and for sale), along with a corner of ordinary photographs representing work from the nearby Women’s Correctional Facility. A heavy folksy beaver-felt installation and a restored floor plan of a pioneer’s single storey one bedroom were some of Ted’s favourites, while computer print outs of salon-style art were a shared fascination. Noted were the price tags on nearly every single item, listed at potentially just above cost, and this farmer’s market value of art turned out to be a consistent theme throughout the rest of the day.
Photo credit: Ted Kerr, 2008
A stroll down Ross Street in search of the Harris-Warke Gallery resulted in a perusal of a kitchen-gadgets/gift shop called Sunworks, which evidently held the gallery in the back of its store. Named after the owners of the building, who once ran the upstairs space as an arts venue, the Harris-Warke Gallery was certainly a beautiful little area currently showcasing ceramic works by local artist Michele Dupas and poems by Glynis Wilson Boultbee. Miniature installations of playground dunes, void of children, played up the central theme of women who have chosen not to have children. Awkward, but a clear stance taken against an issue that is perhaps still pressing within this community, the works do modernize a tradition of folk narrative.
Popping our heads into the Allied Arts Council and Gallery across the street and in the back of a shopping centre, it was a slightly depressing space with little light and not enough art. On to Gallery IS, which held works by the likes of Vivienne Bennett and Ash Shumba, the gallery—or store—had a front display case that warded us off at first. But walking through, the backdoor of the gallery led us to the front door of The Velvet Olive, a tiny hole-in-the-wall bar and BBQ joint that was not surprisingly once owned by Harris and Warke. Rumoured to once be the almost gay bar, it has since been sold to be a seemingly high-end, but neighbourhood mixed-nuts on every table and prepare-your-own-burger-buns type of local gallery/bar/music venue.
But the ultimate destination was the Bilton Centre for Contemporary Art, a new space dedicated to regional as well as national and international artists. Just north of the river and serendipitously missing the turn-off back over the bridge, we found the gallery as it was just beginning to take down an exhibit by Ontario visual artist Sara Graham. New bright works of neon yellow and strong dark lines of reconfigured urban design cut a sharp traffic line all the way around the room. Opening just in the last year, this tiny contemporary art space seemingly in the middle of nowhere was suddenly filled by two carloads of visitors taking a lunch break from the Alberta Media Arts Alliance conference plus two random walk-ins.
One of the small joys of galleries in the region is that you’re usually the only one in the room. The rare exception falls on opening nights, but for the most part, we are spoiled in certain ways by the lack of security guards and not having to fall in line with the shuffle of visitors. There is a privateness to the experience shared between you and the art, between you and the gallery, and standing amidst friends from both Edmonton and Calgary inside the Bilton in Red Deer, the lived realization settled in that art only becomes a destination point for those who actually want it.
*First published in Vue Weekly, May 15 - 21, 2008