Calgary has a lot going for it. One thing that many may not realize – even those like us who love the visual arts – is the Burns Visual Arts Society (BVAS). Established in 1979, it is the oldest, continuously operating artists’ cooperative in Canada with a mandate focused solely on providing affordable working studio space to professional artists.
The current members are currently celebrating their 35th anniversary with a multi-media exhibition, “Still Burning,” at New Urban's PASSAGE, a contemporary art space in the off the beaten path Dominion Bridge Building in Ramsay (803-24 Avenue SE). Just opened today, the exhibition runs until January 15, 2015 and offers up an excellent full-colour catalogue with essays by curator Colleen Sharpe for just $20.
The exhibition includes the work of 20 artists and includes everything from painting (including one which is best viewed while lying flat on the floor – not to worry - blankets and pillows provided) to a wonderful steel wire figure drawing by Bev Tosh.
For me, one of the highlights was Shona Rae’s “Barbie Beast Wall Sconces” that integrated a found small animal skull, bear fur, wood, lamp and sterling silver cast doll parts. I loved the shamanistic good vs. evil playfulness of the piece, with one being black and the other white.
I was also attracted to the late Elizabeth Clark’s eight-foot dress made out of copper pot scrubbers and wire with its humorous title, “Chore Girl.” Sharpe’s essay tells the haunting story of Clark, in 2008, writing on the studio’s white board “I just wanted to let you know I was here.” The following day, she passed away suddenly.
For Brenda, three works captured her imagination. Cecilia Gossen’s sculpture “Duet” which was inspired by the arches of the churches on a pilgrimage made by the artist to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It appealed to Brenda's love of simplicity and shape.
Jane Packham’s assemblage “ICON II – Daniel’s REFUGE,” inspired by the Old Testament story of Daniel whose prophecies got him thrown in the lion’s den where God saved him from certain death, appealed to her fascination for and love of creating narrative vignettes using found objects.
It was also lust when it came to Kim Bruce’s piece which consisted of three floating book shelves, each crowded with a series of encaustic, paperback-sized books shaped into letters that spelled out three works - Knowledge Empowers Absolutely - the title of the piece. It made her “top three” because of her love of typography.
BVAS was formed in February 1979 in Calgary by a group of artists who had studios in the Burns Building on Macleod Trail at 8th Avenue SW. Facing eviction due to the development of the entire block into the performing arts centre, the artists secured the upper floors of the Neilson Building (the first three floors were built in 1903 while the top two floors were added on in 1910) one block west on Stephen Avenue as their new space.
After flourishing on Stephen Avenue for the next 19 years, it, for a second time was faced with the need to find a new home. This time, the City’s plans for the convention centre’s expansion meant the block they were on was being redeveloped.
So, once again, in 2000, BVAS packed up and moved to Ramsay which has become a haven for Calgary’s creative community. Their current home consists of the entire two floors of a building at 828 – 24th Ave SE.
For 35 years, the BVAS has been home to painters, sculptors, photographers, jewellers, installation artists and conceptual creators. By providing affordable studio space in a safe, stable environment, it has been and continues to be a creative incubator that nurtures artists and enables them to play a significant role in the evolution of Calgary as a major cultural centre.
Over 150 artists have called BVAS home at some point; several have become significant players on the national and international stage. Some alumni include: include: Dennis Burton, Mark Dicey, Greg Edmonson, Marjan Eggermont, Ron Kanashiro, Ron Moppett, Arthur Nishimura, Bill Rodgers, Naboru Sawai and Bev Tosh.
Members of the Burns Visual Arts Society have taken an important leadership role in the Calgary arts community. Eleven years ago, members Cecilia Gossen and Celia Meade conceived the East Side Studio Crawl, an arts festival that has since become an annual civic arts event created to highlight and spotlight the talents of artists working in the communities of Ramsey and Inglewood. During the Crawl, artists open their studios to the public, providing a behind-the-scenes adventure through this colourful, rising art district. The reputation of the East Side Studio Crawl and its attendance continues to grow each year.
BVAS also hosts several yearly events such as the Studio Stomp in early summer, Alberta Culture Days and a Gem Event in late fall.
In 2012, member Shona Rae received “Best in Show in Superstition,” a national juried art exhibition in Toronto while another member, Louise Chong won the Niche 2008 Students’ Awards in Philadelphia.
As well, Bev Tosh’s many awards include the Alberta Centennial Medal, the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the Alberta College of Art and Design, the Royal Academy of Arts (RCA) designation and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
Today, twenty visual artists – from new graduates to seasoned veterans - work in the BVAS’ studios.
By Richard White, September 19, 2014