Thursday, July 18, 2024
July 18, 2024

Archipelago exhibitions open in April on Salt Spring


ArtSpring Communications Manager

How does a distinct island environment shape the artists who live there, or rather, is it the artists themselves who shape their environment?” asks Salt Spring-based Richard Steel, co-curator of the new international exhibition Archipelago: Contemporary Art of the Salish Sea, set to open April 14 at Mahon Hall and April 21 at ArtSpring.

Renowned painter John Macdonald, part of the Archipelago: Contemporary Art of the Salish Sea exhibition opening at Mahon Hall in Ganges on April 14. (David Borrowman photo)

He goes on to muse, “And how does an international border then further influence two groups of islands and artists who are less than 30 kilometres apart?”

These questions and more inform the foundation of the compelling new art exhibition and cultural exchange between two of North America’s most fêted art communities: the Southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia and the San Juan Islands of Washington state. In terms of scale, cross-border and cross-community collaboration, it marks the first showing of this nature on Salt Spring and within the greater region.

Memorably packaged as “12 artists, six mediums, three exhibitions, two countries, one sea,” the descriptor aptly captures the premise of the show. Twelve artists — six representing the Southern Gulf Islands and six from the San Juans — were meticulously curated by Steel and Patrick McCallum from Salt Spring Island, along with Peter Lane of San Juan Island. The 12 artists will be expressing their signature — often boundary-pushing — work across six mediums: sculpture/installation, glass, painting, photography, printmaking and tapestry/textiles.

“A lot of what we see with the Salish Sea artists is similar to what happened with 19th-century artist colonies in France and Denmark, eventually leading to American colonies like Woodstock in New York and Taos, New Mexico,” explains McCallum. “Artists seek out peace and quiet away from urban noise, and I think that’s what makes our region so rich with artists and creativity.”

The three venues and two countries include Salt Spring Arts hosting at Mahon Hall and ArtSpring with overlapping Canadian and American exhibitions respectively in April and May. The artists and works of the Southern Gulf Islands will then journey to the San Juan Islands Museum of Art this fall.

The one common lens is the Salish Sea. A shared body of water. A shared sense of place and spirit, tempo and lifestyle, nature and time — both now and historically. Steeped in this mutual sensibility, organizers have asked how individual experiences, politics or national identities play a role within the work. How do artists from the same geographical area creatively interpret the world around them, and why?

It is these potential commonalities and contrasts that spark conversation, a robust dialogue that Yael Wand, executive director of Salt Spring Arts, is keen to engage in.

“Those of us who live on islands have chosen to be a bit more distant, a bit more insular, if only by the separation of water. We do have to work a little harder to find new ways to expand our perspectives and seek out new ideas,” says Wand. “Art is the perfect catalyst for starting conversations, taking down walls and connecting with neighbours down the street or across the sea. Our communities need that connection now more than ever.”

Themes of isolation and connection also played out in the development of the exhibition. The concept for the cross-border Salish Sea collaboration has been years in the making, starting with Barbara Cox, an advisor to the San Juan Islands Museum of Art, wanting to explore a cultural exchange as she had once organized between Seattle and South America. Personal visits and interest between Cox, Salt Spring Arts and ArtSpring date back to early 2020, just prior to COVID being declared in March. With that, lockdowns, travel restrictions and isolation would prove to become major hurdles. Zoom meetings, provisional bookings and hope kept organizers afloat through 2021, but it became clear the opening they planned for 2022 was impossible. All parties and artists are now thrilled 2023 has finally allowed their efforts to be staged for the public.

Anna Gustafson in her Salt Spring studio. She is one of six artists representing the Southern Gulf Islands in Archipelago: Contemporary Art of the Salish Sea. (Sophia Burke photo)

None of this would have been possible without the spirit of cooperation between the major art organizations, and it remains a rare but encouraging example of mutual collaboration in a sector where that is not always the case.

“In the past few years, ArtSpring and Salt Spring Arts have found ways to connect and collaborate. Archipelago is very much a product of that,” Wand explains. “We are learning from one another. Our organizations have different histories and unique strengths, but in finding and flexing our shared creative muscles, the public will truly benefit from an expanded, enriched experience.”

“ArtSpring is welcoming the opportunity to present its first international visual art exhibition of San Juan artists and be part of the larger story that is Archipelago,” says Howard Jang, executive and artistic director of ArtSpring. “For us to extend beyond our reputation in the performing arts and to collaborate with such close creative neighbours and partners like Salt Spring Arts, it strengthens our island’s reputation and that of our whole community as being champions of arts and culture at a larger scale.”

What can people expect?

“All 12 artists differ widely in age, medium, background, ancestry and the scale of their work, yet all have forged a voice that makes them both individually unique, while still responding to their distinct geographical area,” explains Steel.

The exhibition includes massive, tempestuous paintings by Canadian John Macdonald and the visceral, provocative brushstrokes of American RaVae Luckhart; bold, spiritual landscapes by American painter Joe Miller and alternative landscapes of the mind captured by Canadian photographer Sam Montalbetti; haunting images from Canadian fabric artist Joanna Rogers and American printmaker Glenn Hendrick.

Many artists have chosen to make bold and beautifully crafted statements on the vulnerability of our environment, like Canadian tapestry artist Jane Kidd and installation artist Anna Gustafson, along with American photographer Danielle Dean. The voices of Indigenous artists are present in the exquisitely rendered glassworks of American Raven Skyriver and the nature-inspired carvings of Canadian Salish artist TEMOSENG Chazz Elliott. The list is rounded out by celebrated American sculptor in stone Tom Small, renowned for his skill and sensitive use of materials.

Lopez Island glass artist Raven Skyriver, who is one of six San Juan Islands artists in the Archipelago exhibition. (Peter Kuhnline photo)

The Archipelago exhibition opens with the Southern Gulf Islands artists at Mahon Hall on April 14 with a public opening reception. The exhibition, which runs to April 30, is complemented by a solid schedule of additional programming, including artist talks and a screening of Fellowship of the Sea, a short film and panel about the Salt Spring women called the Seals, who swim in the ocean year-round.

ArtSpring’s showcase of the San Juan exhibit kicks off with its opening reception April 21, with San Juan artists, museum board and dignitaries in attendance, as well as local artists and community members. On Saturday, April 22, ArtSpring hosts an artist panel at 10:30 a.m. and Salt Spring Arts hosts the second artist panel at 2 p.m., each with a mix of local and visiting American artists.

“I’m particularly looking forward to the panels,” says Wand. “To me, that’s a unique chance for audiences to listen in on how the artists relate, what are they experiencing and seeing in one another’s works. That’s the exciting thing — we don’t know where this Archipelago conversation will take us.”

ArtSpring’s exhibit continues through May 24. Organizers suggest that for the most complete experience, visitors plan to take in both exhibits either individually or during the time Mahon Hall and ArtSpring overlap from April 21 to April 30.

Pieces will be available for sale with many works of specific interest to collectors across North America.

“With the islands having one of the highest number of artists per capita in the greater region, the art is both intimate and grand,” concludes show co-curator Lane of the San Juan Islands Museum of Art. “Visitors will be surprised and inspired.”

The above article was first published in the March/April 2023 edition of Aqua – Gulf Islands Living magazine.

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