Road Trip: Postcards From Alberta's Badlands & Ghost Towns

This summer we decided to explore some of the off-the-beaten path places in southern Alberta. Our first adventure was to Drumheller (where we haven’t been for decades) and to some of the small town “main streets” along the way, as well as the Badlands.  

This road trip strengthen our resolve to think outside the “city.”

Public Art?

Public Art?

More public art?

More public art?

HOPE….found this book sculpture at the Salvation Army in Drumheller.

HOPE….found this book sculpture at the Salvation Army in Drumheller.

Everybody loves a train ride!

Everybody loves a train ride!

First Stop: Irricana (population 1,216) 

Its name is a contraction of the words “irrigation canals” which are found in the area.  Settlement dates back to 1909 and it was incorporated as a village on June 9, 1911, by which time it had a post office, hotel and general store operated by the Irricana Trading Company.  Today, though the store’s building is still standing, is abandoned and much of the Main Street consists of vacant lots making it look like a ghost-town. While there are some attempts to add some colour and charm with murals, it seems a bit futile.  

However, just outside of town on the highway #9, sits a fun installation of farm equipment mounted high up on posts promoting, Pioneer Acres, where I am told you will find a dozen buildings filled with unique exhibits and artifacts from the early prairie pioneers.  Too bad those buildings weren’t located in the town along Main Street. 

Link:Pioneer Acres https://www.pioneeracres.ab.ca

The Irricana Hotel a reminder of the community’s once bustling Main Street. Today “Old Smoky” stands guard. The plaque says the horse was fabricated by Kevan Leycraft and donated by Melvin Brown to commemorate his residence in Irricana since 1952. He passed away in 1997.

The Irricana Hotel a reminder of the community’s once bustling Main Street. Today “Old Smoky” stands guard. The plaque says the horse was fabricated by Kevan Leycraft and donated by Melvin Brown to commemorate his residence in Irricana since 1952. He passed away in 1997.

Main Street Irricana.

Main Street Irricana.

One of several large paintings attached to the sides buildings in downtown Irricana to add some colour and charm. These were done by artists Leona Fraser in 2009.

One of several large paintings attached to the sides buildings in downtown Irricana to add some colour and charm. These were done by artists Leona Fraser in 2009.

Second Stop:  Beiseker (population 819) 

Lying in a belt of rich black soil, Beiseker was developed as an agricultural service centre. It was founded by the Calgary Colonization Company, whose purpose was to promote settlement by demonstrating the grain-growing potential of the area. The village is named after Thomas Beiseker, a partner and vice president of the company. The surrounding area became known as "World Wheat King Capital" because of its ability to grow wheat. Today, a  small park at the end of main street tells the history of the town. It even has a tiny sod house that you can explore. 

The village began to grow in 1910 when the branch line of the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed. The Grand Trunk Pacific line - now owned by Canadian National Railway - was constructed in 1912 to the east of the central business district

With the construction and intersection of Highways 9, 72 and 806 being at the northeast edge of the village, Beiseker came to have a very favourable location in terms of road and rail access. Almost equidistant from Calgary and Drumheller, Beiseker began to emerge as a local service and trade centre for the surrounding rural agricultural area. 

Beiseker currently serves as a centre for local agricultural services including fertilizer, seed cleaning, and soil testing. There is a local UFA outlet, and a Canadian Malting Co. grain elevator serving farmers in the area. Local industries serve the oil patch.  

It is also home to the Canadian office of Lampson International, a large international company specializing in construction cranes and a biomedical incinerator which handles medical waste from hospitals in Alberta, Canada and internationally.  

Not unlike Irricana, wandering Beisker’s main street on a Saturday morning was akin to walking in a ghost town -  nobody on the streets, lots of the main street buildings are gone and those that remain look like they are struggling to survive.

Old and new, train station becomes City offices.

Old and new, train station becomes City offices.

It is hard to imagine that people actually lived year round in these tiny homes. Put the new “Tiny Homes” trend into perspective.

It is hard to imagine that people actually lived year round in these tiny homes. Put the new “Tiny Homes” trend into perspective.

If you wander around the residential streets your will find these fun gnome fire hydrants. We have seen these before in small Alberta towns. Not sure if this is an Alberta thing, prairie thing or small towns everywhere. They sure are fun.

If you wander around the residential streets your will find these fun gnome fire hydrants. We have seen these before in small Alberta towns. Not sure if this is an Alberta thing, prairie thing or small towns everywhere. They sure are fun.

We decided to have a coffee and pastry at Arcada Cafe….great cinnamon buns…and we almost missed the fact they have a vintage arcade room in the back. A must see for anyone into old arcade games.

We decided to have a coffee and pastry at Arcada Cafe….great cinnamon buns…and we almost missed the fact they have a vintage arcade room in the back. A must see for anyone into old arcade games.

Love the graphics on the old games….

Love the graphics on the old games….

Love the fun factor…

Love the fun factor…

Third Stop: Horseshoe Canyon Park 

 While not the Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Canyon sits just off Hwy 9, 17 km west of Drumheller in the Canadian Badlands. It is an eye-popping sight. Stand at the edge of this huge U-shaped canyon and try to imagine what it was like when the dinosaurs roamed a lush sub-tropical habitat some 70 million years ago. Today, marked trails guide your wandering down into the canyon to get a closer look at the different soils, rock formations and plants. There are even helicopter rides available on-site.  The park is free and there is lots of free parking. 

Horseshoe Canyon

Horseshoe Canyon

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Fourth Stop: Drumheller (population 7,982)

When we first moved to Alberta in the early ‘80s, Drumheller was best known as the home of the Drumheller Institution (aka prison). Opened in 1967 as a medium security facility, a minimum security facility was added in 1997. Today, it has a capacity of 704 (582 medium security and 122 minimum security). The Institution provides a stable economic and employment base for Drumheller and surrounding area. 

In the late 1980s, Drumheller became famous as a center for dinosaur tourism and research with the opening of the Tyrell Museum in 1985 (it subsequently received “Royal” status in 1990.  Located 6 km northwest from Drumheller, the museum is situated in the middle of the fossil-bearing strata of the Late Cretaceous Horseshoe Canyon Formationand holds 130,000 fossil specimens from the Alberta badlands, Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Devil's Coulee Dinosaur Egg Site.  In the first year it attracted over 500,000 visitors from over 100 countries. Today, it averages about 350,000 visitors annually. 

We opted to skip the museum (a new exhibition had just opened and it was a zoo) to flaneur downtown Drumheller. To our pleasant surprise, the downtown has several charming shops, restaurants - even a Saturday farmers’ market.  What impressed us most is how the city has capitalized on the dinosaur theme with fun creatures at every downtown corner making for great photo ops. We encounter several families exploring the downtown taking photos of the kids with the dinosaurs.

Love these fun cartoonish characters waiting for you to sit beside them. Perhaps cities take their public art programs too seriously. People just want to have fun….perhaps big cities take their public art too seriously?

Love these fun cartoonish characters waiting for you to sit beside them. Perhaps cities take their public art programs too seriously. People just want to have fun….perhaps big cities take their public art too seriously?

Downtown Drumheller has an eclectic collection of shops to explore.

Downtown Drumheller has an eclectic collection of shops to explore.

Treasure hunters will enjoy Drumheller’s downtown art galleries and antique stores.

Treasure hunters will enjoy Drumheller’s downtown art galleries and antique stores.

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Couldn’t resist one more postcard of the fun benches. I preferred these to the World’s largest dinosaur (86 ft high and 151 feet long) that is located a few blocks from downtown.

Couldn’t resist one more postcard of the fun benches. I preferred these to the World’s largest dinosaur (86 ft high and 151 feet long) that is located a few blocks from downtown.

There are dinosaurs everywhere you look in Dumheller.

There are dinosaurs everywhere you look in Dumheller.

Drumheller has preserved a sense of past in its downtown.

Drumheller has preserved a sense of past in its downtown.

How clever? All of the streets have not only old names but new dinosaur names. How fun!

How clever? All of the streets have not only old names but new dinosaur names. How fun!

Just outside of Drumheller on the way to Wayne is Asterroid a must stop for those who like ice cream. No road trip is complete with out an ice cream cone.

Just outside of Drumheller on the way to Wayne is Asterroid a must stop for those who like ice cream. No road trip is complete with out an ice cream cone.

 Fifth Stop: Wayne (population 40)

Wayne, located 10 km southeast of Drumheller was once a thriving coal mining town whose population is estimated to have reached a high of 10,000 in 1932. The last mine closed in 1957 and today it is home to about 40 diehard souls. Half the fun of visiting Wayne is navigating a winding road with 11 (no word of a lie)  one-lane bridges along a moon-like landscape to get there. 

In its heyday, Wayne had a school, hospital, hotel, theatre and several stores along its main street.  Today, all that remains is the Rosedeer Hotel which surprisingly still operates as a hotel and its Last Chance Saloon, now a popular watering hole for touring motorcycle groups.  The hotel has only 6 rooms, each with a different theme – Titanic, Golf, Harley, Miners, Honeymoon and Music Room.  

The Saloon often has live music and hosts the annual WayneStock music festival (this year’s festival is from August 30 to Sept 2, 2019).  While we were there the Maybellines were playing the afternoon set – it was magical. 

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Sixth Stop: East Coulee (population 148) 

We “passed” on stopping at the Hoodoos Park just east of Drumheller and proceeded directly to East Coulee and the Atlas Coal mine (a national historic site) site 16 km east of Drumheller. Once home to about 3,000 residents, its heyday was between 1920s and 1950s when, like Wayne, the coal mines were excavating hundreds of thousands of tons of coal.  Today, the old school has been converted into a museum which also hosts an annual spring music festival “SpringFest.”  Unfortunately we arrived just after 5 pm too late to get into the museum. 

The streets of East Coulee are lined with huge trees, giving it an oasis-like feeling compared to the barren surrounding landscape. The tiny miners’ homes are a reminder of how early pioneers lived in modest small homes, each probably housed six or more people.

Nothing is left of its main street except one large building that has been converted into a studio for the manufacturing of dinosaur-related items for museums, movie studios, parades and theme parks.  There is also a small gift shop with a lovely garden.  

Just across the river from East Coulee is The Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site that operated from 1936 to 1979. It is the most complete historic coal mine in Canada and is home to the country's last standing wooden coal tipple. In fact, it’s  the largest still standing in North America. Designated a Provincial Historic Resource in 1989, it achieved  National Historic Site of Canada status in 2002. 

Various guided tour options exist. You can take a train ride through the site, walk up the tipple or tour the 210 foot underground conveyor tunnel. The facilities are open to visitors from May to Thanksgiving weekend. 

With not enough time to do a tour (we arrived 20 minutes before closing) we instead walked up the dead end road west of the parking lot where we had heard there was an art installation.  Sure enough, at the end of the road, stood dozens of five foot tall tree limbs with alien head-like nobs stuck in the ground with rock piles at their base to help them stay standing. Many of the limbs had various small trinkets hanging or sitting on them, creating a somber, graveyard sense of place.  There is no markings or signs indicating who did them, why there are there, which only adds to the mystique. 

You can hardly see the homes for the trees and shrubs in East Coulee. It is like time has passed this community by.

You can hardly see the homes for the trees and shrubs in East Coulee. It is like time has passed this community by.

We were shocked to find a gift shop in East Coulee.

We were shocked to find a gift shop in East Coulee.

All aboard….

All aboard….

Railway bridge from Atlas Coal mine to East Coulee and beyond.

Railway bridge from Atlas Coal mine to East Coulee and beyond.

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Atlas Coal mine site

Atlas Coal mine site

There is lots of mine artifacts next to the parking lot with information panels.

There is lots of mine artifacts next to the parking lot with information panels.

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Loved this coal dust sand box….

Loved this coal dust sand box….

Public Art?

Public Art?

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Seventh Stop: Rosebud (population 87) 

It was founded in the 1885 by James Wishart, while following the Gleichen Trail with his family on their way to Montana. Arriving in the dark, they awoke the next  morning to discover the river valley covered by wild roses- Alberta’s official flower. Wishart then reportedly said, "Here's the promised land; we go no further." 

The beauty of the valley has attracted many people throughout the years, from nature lovers to artists. Notable Canadian artists A. Y. Jackson and H. G. Glyde, members of the Group of Seven, spent the summer of 1944 painting in the area. 

 Over the years, farming and coal mining have been the primary industries. In 1972, the Severn Creek School was shut down as part of an Alberta-wide education consolidating process, forcing local children to be bussed to Standard and Drumheller.  This resulted in the closure of  many local businesses and the hamlet population dropping to under a dozen people. 

But at Easter 1973, a group of young adults from Calgary brought about 40 teenagers out and camped in the then empty mercantile building. This pilot event initially evolved into a summer camp funded by a grant from the Alberta government and then later, Rosebud Camp of the Arts supported by Crescent Heights Baptist Church in Calgary. 

In 1977, a high school was founded using the old buildings of the town as classrooms and emphasizing practical visual, music and the performing arts in its curriculum. In the 1980s, Rosebud School of the Arts began to operate theatre, which eventually developed into Rosebud Theatre and the school shifted its emphasis to post-secondary education. 

Today, Rosebud Theatre runs as a fully professional company that offers programming year round and is a tourist attraction drawing patrons largely from Calgary and Drumheller.  It has a few shops, an art gallery and an excellent museum along its two main streets.  There were probably a dozen people wandering the streets while we were there. There are even an inn and bed & breakfast accommodations for those not wanting to drive home after the theatre. 

While tourism might save Rosebud, it can’t save every small town and village in Alberta. 

Link: Rosebud Theatre 

Link: The Hamlet of Rosebud 

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The old hotel is now the offices for the Rosebud Theatre.

The old hotel is now the offices for the Rosebud Theatre.

The Rosebud Museum/Library has an extensive collection of early 20th century artifacts documenting the life of the early prairie settlers. Admission is FREE.

The Rosebud Museum/Library has an extensive collection of early 20th century artifacts documenting the life of the early prairie settlers. Admission is FREE.

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In the Library…the tag reads “Tailored by Suzanne est. 1952. Dress donated by Minnie Neufeld (Ziegler). Worn during the time Minnie waitressed for the Carolina a well-known restaurant in downtown Calgary. Off duty standards for dress and behaviour were very strict. No gum chewing, spitting or swearing in public.

In the Library…the tag reads “Tailored by Suzanne est. 1952. Dress donated by Minnie Neufeld (Ziegler). Worn during the time Minnie waitressed for the Carolina a well-known restaurant in downtown Calgary. Off duty standards for dress and behaviour were very strict. No gum chewing, spitting or swearing in public.

While wandering the streets we found this house with an elaborate model railway in the front yard. The house next door was in the process of being remodelled to sell model railway pieces.

While wandering the streets we found this house with an elaborate model railway in the front yard. The house next door was in the process of being remodelled to sell model railway pieces.

Lesson Learned

On our way home, we chatted about how this road trip was a good reminder of how Alberta and the prairies have evolved over thousands of years from roaming dinosaurs, to nomadic indigenous people, to agricultural and resource pioneers (first coal, then oil and gas), to today’s corporate farming and resource development.  

It is good for us city folks to get out and explore the real towns and villages (not just the tourist attractions and tourist towns - aka Banff and Canmore) to get a better perspective of the world we share.  While much of the media attention these days is about the urbanization of Canada and decline of rural living, there are still a significant number of people living in rural Alberta communities - 656,048 according to 2016 Census of Canada.

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Everyday Life In Africa: Republic of Sierra Leone

We had a lot of surprises while traveling the countries on the west coast of Africa, and the vast majority were good surprises. Sierra Leone was a very nice surprise.

What I knew of Sierra Leone was mainly what I remembered from news reports of their civil war that was fought between three separate groups from 1991 to 2002.

The term ‘child soldier’ was coined as a result of the forced conscription of children as young as 8 years old into the military forces. The use of children in fighting was mainly by the RUF rebel group, but other groups were also guilty of using children.

Daniel’s Courtyard Neighbor, Makeni, Sierra Leone

Daniel’s Courtyard Neighbor, Makeni, Sierra Leone

Gold & Diamonds?

Sierra Leone has rebounded considerably since the end of the civil war, partly due to the resources of gold and diamonds. Unfortunate, the revenues from these two valuable resources leads to corruption where most of the profits generated from sales end up being grabbed by the ruling elite and their close business partners. 

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China has also played a major role in the economic rebound. The Chinese have built a good highway system, shipping ports, railroads and developed a huge iron ore mine. The normal way China finances these developments is to loan the money to the government and then take mineral resources as payment on the loans.

As we drove through the country, we saw numerous agricultural developments with Chinese names; probably also financed with the crops being used for payment.

The Ebola epidemic that ravaged parts of Africa from 2014 to 2016 infected over 28,000 people and resulted in 11,325 deaths in Sierra Leone alone. While riding in a taxi in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, the driver commented on a garbage dump that we were passing and called it ‘Ebola Central.’ Fortunately, the epidemic had been declared over before our trip.

In general, we were warmly welcomed and treated with great hospitality during our time in Sierra Leone. We were never treated badly or had any large amount of overt hostility directed at us in any of the countries we traveled through in Africa. In some cases, we were the subject of curiosity as most of these countries do not have any widespread tourism.

Anne Tapler White: Red Earth in Black & White

My “Red Earth in Black and White” project documents the everyday lives of the people of West Africa from Dakar, Senegal and carrying me down the west coast of Africa to Cape Town, South Africa. I have learned from my travels that we are all bound by common threads, joined together across distant lands. The photographs tell a story, becoming a frozen narrative capturing a fleeting moment. 

“My name is Daniel Conteh” is one such story. It begins in Makeni, Sierra Leone, late afternoon monsoon rains forced me to take shelter on a porch, where a family had set up a table selling soft drinks, beer and candy.

After purchasing something to drink I settled down on a bench for the rains to subside. But the rains were relentless and soon a boy named Daniel asked me to come off the porch into his home. The living area was crowded with people and I was introduced to Daniel’s mother, Grandmother, Aunt and siblings. A hall joined to an outer courtyard where neighbors sheltered from the rain. I was given permission to photograph the family and their neighbors. Daniel’s Grandmother told of her hip operation and lifted her dress to show the scar.

That chance encounter has left an indelible impression with me, especially that little boy who invited me into his home and who did not want his photo taken. But on the wall above his mother you will see that he had previously written “My name is Daniel Conteh” now for all the world to see.

Daniel’s Mother, Makeni, Sierra Leone

Daniel’s Mother, Makeni, Sierra Leone

Daniel’s Grandmother, Makeni, Sierra Leone

Daniel’s Grandmother, Makeni, Sierra Leone

Neighbors Sheltering from the Rain, Makeni, Sierra Leone

Neighbors Sheltering from the Rain, Makeni, Sierra Leone

Daniel’s Family, Makeni, Sierra Leone

Daniel’s Family, Makeni, Sierra Leone

Bob White’s Photos From Sierra Leone

We stopped along the road one day for a break on the edge of a village just as the local school was finishing for the day. We were quickly surrounded by about 100 curious students. They crowded around and some of our group who spoke French were able to converse and answer their questions. Nearly all the girls had intricately braided hair, and they were more than willing to pose for our pictures.

We stopped along the road one day for a break on the edge of a village just as the local school was finishing for the day. We were quickly surrounded by about 100 curious students. They crowded around and some of our group who spoke French were able to converse and answer their questions. Nearly all the girls had intricately braided hair, and they were more than willing to pose for our pictures.

Due to a mechanical breakdown on our truck, we spent nearly an entire day in the tiny village of Kambama. The people seem very accepting of us wandering around the village and taking pictures of their houses, school, and their activities. Most of the village is Christian and their children attend the small village school. These two boys were part of the Muslim minority and they receive instruction from an Imam who visits the village 1 or 2 days each week. They were proud to display their homework neatly written in Arabic.

Due to a mechanical breakdown on our truck, we spent nearly an entire day in the tiny village of Kambama. The people seem very accepting of us wandering around the village and taking pictures of their houses, school, and their activities. Most of the village is Christian and their children attend the small village school. These two boys were part of the Muslim minority and they receive instruction from an Imam who visits the village 1 or 2 days each week. They were proud to display their homework neatly written in Arabic.

This small church was built by freed slaves who returned to Sierra Leone. We were told the returned slaves were not well received by the local population and it took many years for them to successfully reintegrate into the local society.

This small church was built by freed slaves who returned to Sierra Leone. We were told the returned slaves were not well received by the local population and it took many years for them to successfully reintegrate into the local society.

One afternoon we were surprised to see a funeral party and pallbearers trooping down the beach to a small village that had no road access. At least two streams had to be forded by the group, that prevented many of the guests from getting to the village to attend the burial.

One afternoon we were surprised to see a funeral party and pallbearers trooping down the beach to a small village that had no road access. At least two streams had to be forded by the group, that prevented many of the guests from getting to the village to attend the burial.

Bure beach at sunset. Bure beach is a common destination for weekends and holidays for people living in nearby Freetown. There are a number of small hotels and scattered individual cottages along this stretch of fine sandy beach. We stayed at the pompously name Bure Beach Resort, it was not in the resort category by any standards. The corrugated iron roof over the lobby and dining area leaked so badly it was nearly as wet inside as in the afternoon downpour outside. The rooms were small and barren and the curtains on the windows had rotted to shreds. On the plus side, the plumbing mainly worked, the staff was amazingly accommodating and the meals were surprisingly good.

Bure beach at sunset. Bure beach is a common destination for weekends and holidays for people living in nearby Freetown. There are a number of small hotels and scattered individual cottages along this stretch of fine sandy beach. We stayed at the pompously name Bure Beach Resort, it was not in the resort category by any standards. The corrugated iron roof over the lobby and dining area leaked so badly it was nearly as wet inside as in the afternoon downpour outside. The rooms were small and barren and the curtains on the windows had rotted to shreds. On the plus side, the plumbing mainly worked, the staff was amazingly accommodating and the meals were surprisingly good.

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Window Licking Fun In Vancouver

Those of you who are regular readers of the Everyday Tourist blogs will know I love taking photos of urban street life in storefront windows. For me, it is the best format for “street photography” as I can be incognito.

I use the term “window licking” because it sounds a bit weird and fun at the same time. The term is from the French words for window shopping, which when translated literally into English is “window licking.”

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Window Licking History

“The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw an evolution in shopping spurred by a faster turnover of manufactured "fashionable" goods and an increase in department stores selling them. These shops pioneered new techniques of window display. Rather than piling their stock up - as had been common in markets and bazaars - they sold goods in mannered and self-conscious window displays, intended to sell nonessential goods.”

Link: Window Displays


There was a time when department stores would have full-time window dressers who like curators at a public art galleries, would research and carefully plan seasonal window displays to capture the pubilic’s imagination. To “wow” them to come into the store. This is still the case in fashion centres like New York, Paris, London and Milan, but not so much in places like Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg or Hamilton.

Selfridges in London has perhaps the most iconic storefront windows. Harry Selfridge the founder of one of the world’s signature department stores was adamant when designing his store in 1909 that it must have large windows facing the street. He even brought with him a widow dresser from the American department store Marshall Field’s which was noted for their window displays. Many of the early episodes of the TV show Mr. Selfridge focus on the importance of the windows as a means of attracting people into the store and the important role of the “window dresser” as part of the stores branding.

Today the use of street windows as a key marketing and sales tool has been forgotten by most retailers. As a result most “Main Street” experiences aren’t as much fun as they use to be.

Great cities are often defined by their great shopping or “High” streets. Places where the sidewalks are animated with people coming and going. Places, where the windows are carefully curated with art gallery-like exhibitions of objects. They can make a street become a tourist attraction.

Link: Video Selfridges Christmas window

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Vancouver Window Licking

I was pleasantly surprised to find the art of window dressing still very much alive in Vancouver, especially in the high end fashion shops along and near Alberni Street.

Link: Retailers Continue to descend on Vancouver’s Luxury Zone.

However, it wasn’t only Alberni Street. I found fun windows wherever I went from Strathcona to South Granville. Sure many of them were in upscale shops, but some of the more unique ones were in off the beaten path places like the BC Stamp Works. I found great windows in local grocery stores, as well as the Army & Navy store in New West.

Here are some of my favourite Vancouver windows….

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Last Word

In my opinion, cities today are placing too much attention (and money) on the design of the streetscape as a means of attracting people to their shopping streets. If landlords and retailer want to attract more people to visit their shops they would be far better off hiring a professional window dresser to create fun, funky and quirky windows on a regular basis - at least quarterly if not monthly.

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Rennie Museum: Dares to be different!

While most art museums allow you come and go as you wish, wandering the galleries at you own pace, this is not the case at the Rennie Museum in Vancouver. And that is a good thing. 

It is just one of ways the Rennie Museum dares to be different.

Catherine Opie, 700 Nimes Road exhibition

Catherine Opie, 700 Nimes Road exhibition

First off, the Rennie Museum isn’t a public art museum. It’s a private museum with rotating exhibitions from the extensive collection of international contemporary art of Vancouver art collector, Bob Rennie. Second, there is no curator of the exhibitions. Rather Rennie self-curates from his collection what pieces he wishes to exhibit.  Thirdly, the museum is only open on Saturdays and only to those making a reservation for one of the day’s tours. And it’s also always free! 

A bit elitist? Maybe? But, I love to explore off the beaten path places, which is the case for the Rennie given its unassuming location in Vancouver’s Chinatown - not exactly the place you would expect to find a contemporary art museum.  

Saturday tour at Rennie Museum.

Saturday tour at Rennie Museum.

Collecting

Spring 2019: Collected Works consists of four exhibitions featuring the works of four artists - Andrew Grassie, William E. Jones, Louise Lawler and Catherine Opie.  The common theme is portraying the spirit of collecting in our everyday lives.  There is also a secondary theme that speaks to the importance of objects to humans and how they often define a person. 

In the main floor gallery, hang four small scale paintings by Scottish painter Andrew Grassie that at first look like photographs because of their small size (25.7 x 33.3 cm)and life-like detail. 

On the opposite wall, is a selection of photographs by American artist Louise Lawler depicting art installed in various private and public settings, and which cleverly play off Grassie’s work, depicting art an art collector’s apartment and the same artworks in packing crates in a warehouse.

Personally, I related more to Lawler’s photos which seemed more intimate and voyeuristic compared to the rather mundane and esoteric Grassie paintings.

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Elizabeth Taylor

On the second floor are two other exhibition galleries and a video space.  The most interesting exhibition to me was that of American photographer Catherine Opie who was allowed access to Elizabeth Taylor’s home shortly before her passing.  The exhibition titled “700 Nimes Road (2010-2011)” (the title being Taylor’s home address) is an intimate portrait of Taylor’s life via the objects she collected and how she displayed them in her home.  Each photo is a vignette of Taylor’s everyday life, from her collection of shoes and cat, to her make-up table full of brushes.  Some reflect her glamorous life, but many are familiar things like photos of family and friends found in most homes. The twist being Taylor’s photos include people like Michael Jackson and one of the objects lying around is a letter from Paris Jackson.  Opie’s photos are a reminder not only of the importance of objects in everyone’s lives, but also how these objects document what is important to us and to some extent who we are. 

It was here I realized the value of our tour guide. A couple of Opie’s photographs of Taylor’s jewelry were very blurry, making me wonder why the artist kept these photos and why anyone would want to collect them.  I expect most visitors would have shaken their heads when they saw them and thought “anyone could do that!” and moved on quickly.  

However, our guide explained the works were intentionally out of focus as Opie wanted to convey that after a person dies, the memory of the person fades away; we lose focus and clarity of the them. How clever. I would never have figured that out.  It was just one of the many insights our guide provided during the tour.  It would have taken huge didactic panels to share all such insights.

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A complete list of the photos in the exhibition give you a sense of the objects Opie chose to photograph from everyday things to special mementos.

A complete list of the photos in the exhibition give you a sense of the objects Opie chose to photograph from everyday things to special mementos.

Alexander Iolas

In the second upper gallery was an exhibition of 22 photographs by American artist and filmmaker William E. Jones, depicting the Athens home of the iconic art dealer and collector Alexander Iolas, who had hoped one day it would become a museum.  The huge home housed over 10,000 ancient and contemporary artworks. However, the Greek government rejected the offer of his villa and collection and when he died in 1987 the collection was plundered, looted and the villa vandalized.  

Half of the Jones’ photos were taken in 1982 and half were taken in 2016 after Iolas had passed away and his home was in ruins. Jones’ photos successfully depict how Iolas lived an extraordinary life collecting and exhibiting the works of Duchamp, Warhol, Magritte, Ernst and sadly it all ended up in ruins. The exhibition also includes the 30-minute film “Fall into Ruin” (2017) which combines the photographs of Iolas’ home with shots of contemporary Athens and antiquities on display at the National Archaeological Museum, providing another layer of context of how art collections define time, place and person.  

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Art & Object

Also, in the large gallery with Jones’ photos is Louise Lawler’s huge black and white digital drawing titled “Pollock and Tureen” created in 2008.  The top of the piece is a computer-generated tracing of shapes of the paint drops of a Jackson Pollock drip painting creating a network of flowing lines and shapes that is both playful and perplexing.  At the bottom is an everyday tureen using the same technique which captures the shapes of light reflecting off the surface of the object. Together, it looks like an abstract still life - with the tureen sitting on a credenza with the Pollock painting on the wall behind.  It is impressive not only in size and simplicity of concept, but how it juxtapositions art and object. 

The piece exists as a digital file that can be printed on vinyl to any size for exhibition and then discarded at the end of the exhibition. In the Rennie Museum’s case the piece a humungous, I’d estimate it at 60’ by 30’. 

Sharing the gallery space with Jones’ photos of Iola’s 20thcentury masterpieces and century old antiquities, Lawler’s work reminds us of how modern artifacts have become much more disposable than those of previous generations. 

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Importance of a tour guide

Throughout the tour, our guide used the art to illustrate how almost all humans over time have been collectors of something and that on some level, we curate our own lives with the objects that we surround with. Whether it is collections of high-priced art or something as simple as a collection of seashells. She often posed open ended questions like: What do these objects say about us? What kind of portrait do they construct of their owners? We were left to ponder.

 Tour participants were asked to think about what happens to one’s objects when passes away.  Are they preciously packaged and sent off to high value auctions as was the case with Elizabeth Taylor's jewels? Or, do they become victims of carelessness and vandalism as was the case with Villa Iolas.  Or do they end up in thrift stores, garage sales and landfills?

Our tour guide, Fiorela Argueta who is currently finishing her BA in Art History at the University of British Columbia struck the right balance of enthusiasm and education. It was much better than reading dry didactic (and often too academic) information panels. 



Last Word

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I was told the reason the Rennie Museum is by tour only is that Bob Rennie wants people to have a thoughtful experience with the art and not just the quick “glance and go” experience so typical of many visitors to art galleries and museums.  I respect that.

Perhaps, “tour only” is something more galleries and museums should think about to create more value to their visitor experience.  Maybe instead of having somber-looking security guards positioned in every gallery, educators could be hired to give small group tours every 15 or 30 minutes and therefore no need for security.  Might commercial galleries benefit from at least offering to take visitors on a short say 5 minute, guided tour of the artworks rather than letting people aimlessly wander the gallery while they sit behind their desk? 

Spring 2019: Collected Works runs until June 15, 2019. The Rennie Museum is located in the Wing Sang Building, 51 East Pender Street, Vancouver. Expect your tour to last about an hour with time at the end to further explore the exhibitions and video on your own.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published by Galleries West Magazine.

If you like this blog, you might like these links:

Glenbow: Paul Hardy A Stroke of Genius

Staircases as art!

Montreal Museum of Modern Art: The Human Hand

 

 

Vancouver: Everyday Utopia In Black & White

For many, street photography MUST be in black and white. As someone who loves colour I find it hard to see streets as black and white. I find it hard to see anything as black and white.

For me, black and white photography always makes the street look more depressing, dark and sinister than I think they really are. However, for a challenge I thought I would create a black and white photo essay of the streets of Vancouver taken over 30 days at various times of the day and night.

I will let you decide if they are just as interesting, or more interesting, than the colour street photos I have used in a previous Vancouver blog Vancouver: Street Fun For Everyone

Tourists

Tourists

Balance

Balance

Explore

Explore

1997

1997

Ponder

Ponder

Inspire

Inspire

Strong

Strong

Twisted

Twisted

Ben

Ben

Moving

Moving

Wolf

Wolf

Jack

Jack

Sketch

Sketch

Window

Window

Friend

Friend

Shadow

Shadow

Face

Face

Galmour

Galmour

Suspended

Suspended

Pair

Pair

Want

Want

Need

Need

Crash

Crash

Stoop

Stoop

School

School

Tree

Tree

Branches

Branches

Bubbles

Bubbles

Garden

Garden

Triangle

Triangle

Wall

Wall

Steps

Steps

Love

Love

Passage

Passage

Reflections

Reflections

Totems

Totems

Arching

Arching

Arch

Arch

Collage

Collage

Baby

Baby

Balcony

Balcony

Escape

Escape

Sleep

Sleep

Sidewalk

Sidewalk

Dog

Dog

Alteration

Alteration

Fantasy

Fantasy

Don’t

Don’t

Colony

Colony

Metallica

Metallica

Blanket

Blanket

Safeway

Safeway

Alley

Alley

Revolution

Revolution

Silly

Silly

Scream

Scream

XXX

XXX

Stare

Stare

Cape

Cape

Bench

Bench

Notes

Notes

Exile

Exile

Hippy

Hippy

Nod

Nod

Utopia

Utopia

Juxtapositions

I have always loved the word juxtaposition. Not because of the meaning but just way it sounds. To me, it just sounds and looks like a fun word.

Juxtaposition is when two things are placed (or seen) close together with contrasting effect. When I was an art gallery curator I used the word a lot as in many cases contemporary art is about comparing and contrasting different things - reality vs imagination, good vs evil, man vs nature, rational vs irrational…

Rather than play games on my phone, I often use the Union app to experiment with the juxtaposition of two photos to create an fun or intriguing narrative.

This blog is a exhibition of some of my recent juxtaposition experiments. It is like a free exhibition that you can view anywhere you like, as often as you like.

Hope you enjoy…..

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If you like this blog, you will like these links:

Everyday Fun With Photos

Everyday Collage Fun

Double Exposure