feature 249 

By Arthur Walker Since moving to Whistler in 1990, Christina Nick has held a variety of jobs, from loading up submarine sandwiches at the local sub shop to banging nails at the odd construction site. It's all been in the name of art. And a bit of skiing, of course. Nick is one of a handful of residents who are trying to make a go of it as artists in one of the most expensive communities in B.C. It's here that the saying "starving artist" rings especially true. Often working out of cramped quarters, facing stiff rents and minimum wage jobs, Whistler's underground visual arts community is doing its best to move above ground. But it hasn't been easy. For artists like Nick, the real challenge is finding a venue to display their labours of love. When Nick first set foot in Whistler five years ago there was only a small scattering of galleries and visual arts venues. In 1995, the number of galleries and opportunities for exposure have more than quadrupled. And while galleries like Made in Whistler, which currently features the work of some 75 local artists, have helped promote the resort's artistic endeavours, there is always room for more. At least according to Nick, whose work has appeared in virtually every gallery in the area. "We need people who believe in the arts in Whistler. What kind of support do we get here, other than the commercial galleries that are in town? I don't think that's enough. When I first moved here I was really psyched, I thought for sure something could happen, but I don't anymore." Nick and other artisans, including the likes of Donna Jane, Paul Waller, Janet Young and Allison Winslow, have staged three major exhibitions of local art over the years. Under the Artrageous banner, Nick and crew have forced local art out of the closet and into the foreground. Interest has been strong, but the struggle for space — free space — has led to the event's undoing. "We found that it was really difficult to get a venue, especially in Whistler. It is too expensive and because we were non-profit it was hard to get the money," says Nick. "We tried to look for a cheap venue but it wasn't in the best location." Although plans for a fourth Artrageous show are in limbo and many local artists are still struggling for recognition, the influx of new talent to the area continues to grow. Given the natural beauty of the surrounding region, Whistler is becoming a haven for a new wave of international artists. Sure, many of them are coming here to ski, board and bike, but they are also here to paint, pot and procure an artistic profession. Twenty-six year old Sean O'Keeffe left his Australian home more than a year ago to travel the globe. He found himself surrounded by the wilds of Whistler in September 1994. He came, he saw, he stayed. Although he initially came to ski, he has since networked with other artists on the local scene and is currently reviewing the possibility of focusing more of his time on his true passion, oil and acrylic painting. "I think the single biggest problem artists are facing in Whistler is the real estate is so expensive to rent," says O'Keeffe. "The luxury of having a spare room to work in is the biggest challenge." Fortunately, the young painter found accommodation that included a garage for storage of materials. He also found a "very supportive" environment of fellow artists. "It has been very encouraging, and that kind of compensates for some of the difficulties that you get trying to establish yourself physically in Whistler," he says. Hugh Kearney, described by Nick as "the best visual artist in Whistler," also came here to ski. After seven years, Kearney still manages to find the time to make tracks and hone his artistry, while paying his bills by working front desk at the Timberline Lodge. "The Beachcombers brought me up here," he says, with enthusiasm. "Relic's actually a neighbour." Kearney's work typically draws from the natural surroundings — the confrontation and hypocrisies between man and nature. Local sales of his work haven't been overwhelming, but he has developed a following, particularly outside of Whistler's borders. "I never really thought of Whistler as a market in itself, in the community of locals says Kearney. "I've been here for seven years and I feel like I've been on an island. There is no scene happening here." Not every Whistler artist falls under the starving artist label, or has limited success with the local market. Potter Vincent "Binty" Massey and landscape expressionist Isobel MacLaurin are two of the area's most established artists. MacLaurin arrived in Whistler with husband Don and family in 1962. A recent trip to Jackson Hole convinced her that there is a future for the visual arts in Whistler. If they can do it there, she says, it can happen here. "Being an artist here is just heaven." Whistler was Massey's first choice for skiing, second for career. Eleven years later the great grandson of actor Vincent Massey is selling more work than ever before, despite the obvious recreational distractions. "I've always been attached to the mountains," says Massey. "And I looked around at all the places to set up a pottery when I got out of art college, and I never saw anything that I really liked as far as people." That is, until he found Whistler. As for the current visual arts scene, Massey is not overly enthusiastic. Unlike a place like Nelson, B.C., where arts and culture have a dominant presence, Whistler's scene has remained for the most part underground and underdeveloped. "I don't really feel that I am in a community of artists," he says, adding that he is hopeful that will change, especially if the community can establish a cultural facility that equally embraces both performance and visual arts. "When I first came here 11 years ago there was one gallery," Massey recalls, "and there's eight galleries here now." Massey feels with that kind of growth in galleries the arts can stay alive.


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