When Christina Parker first started representing artists, her working space was portable. She had one client, Scott Goudie, who had called and asked her to take him on.
“I worked from a portfolio,” Parker explained. “I made appointments with corporations, to show the art, and they would buy it.” Next, Don Wright called, and she started working with him, too. A third contact was Geraldine Davis, a Toronto gallery owner whose artists included the printmaking group Swordstream Press. “So that gave me very diverse and contemporary work from across the country.” Parker was outgrowing her home-based, portfolio-carted business.
She needed a space.
“The beginning was Contemporary Graphics, number 47 Queen’s Rd. It was a very, very small gallery space, I think I had 400 sq ft. And it was a gallery that focused on original prints and works on paper. The very first exhibition in that gallery space was work from St. Michael’s Printshop. It opened Dec. 6, 1984. Printmaking was what was going on. That was the leading edge in St. John’s starting out in the early ’80s.”
That gallery on Queen’s Road was “the springboard” for organizing exhibitions that went beyond works on paper. After a couple of years with Contemporary Graphics, other work started coming into play.
This suited Parker’s goal, which from the very beginning was to organize interesting exhibitions.
After four years at Contemporary Graphics her aim was bigger than 400 sq. ft., and she was looking for another move. “And that was when I found Plank Road.
“I had always had this idea in my mind of combining art and architecture. The way things go, if you put the energy out there, something comes back, and I was invited by Beaton Sheppard to come and see a space (at) 7 Plank Rd. Philip Pratt was interested in putting together a group to go in that building. I walked into the ground floor, it was a garage, the tank shop, it was a grease pit, and I remember walking in and looking around and going, ‘Oh wow, this is exactly what I’m looking for!’ You could just see how it would be such a great environment for contemporary art. In the end there were seven of us that bought into that building.” That was in 1988. The Christina Parker Gallery (CPG) opened in 1989. Now Parker had 3,600 sq. ft., a new raft of invited artists and room to work and dream.
“You’re always in development, you’re always evolving as a gallery. That never stops. But that was a really exciting departure because now we had a wonderful space to show contemporary art, and could really showcase much larger scale work. And that’s when we began to show work by Pam Hall and Susan Wood and, of course, Scott was making much larger work then, much larger scale pastels and watercolours and mezzotints.”
The inaugural exhibition included about 40 artists, many of whom are still with her today, forming the gallery’s core.
“I’ve always looked for artists who were a good fit. And often it would turn out they would have a connection to Newfoundland in some way, and so it made sense, from a business point of view and from a connection to the place; the gallery artists have to work together, whether it’s a practice, or a connection to this place. I was most interested, too, in developing the contemporary art that originated out of here. That was my primary focus. And so often there were artists that were not from here that facilitated that happening.”
When Parker started out, the dominant media was printmaking.
“In the ’70s and early ’80s what we had that was really leading edge was St. Michael’s Printshop. There wasn’t a whole lot of painting. Not until after graduates started coming out of Grenfell, that was where we began to see an impact and a shift in practice, and people wanting to concentrate on being good painters. And sculpture became a little bit more present in the art practice. And also people were going off to art school further afield,’’ Parker said.
“It wasn’t just Grenfell. But Grenfell did make a huge impact in raising the bar of art practice in Newfoundland. You could see it very well by the mid-90s, with Grant Boland, Jennifer Pohl, Brad Reid, they were the early painters.”
Not co-incidentally, those three artists had a landmark show at the CPG titled “Wet Paint.”
But while the medium had switched gears, slightly, Parker said the market has always been present, and grows fairly steadily. “Newfoundlanders have always been great supporters of buying art locally. Even my colleagues in Halifax thought we had it way better here. You see a lot of original art in people’s homes. And people become repeat visitors, and then they tell their friends. And then I started doing the International Art Fair in 2001. And that was a really big leap forward, getting the artists from the gallery out to a whole new audience.” In fact, the CPG was the first gallery in Atlantic Canada to attend this event, held annually in Toronto.
“Collectors from outside the province are always interested in artists that are important, and established. That gives us the opportunity to show them artists who are starting to establish a track record. There has been a shift away from an exclusive interest in realism. I’ve always had a balance, showing work that was based in reality and work that was more abstract. My criteria is only that it’s good.”
And she shows her faith in these artists by organizing some significant “firsts” — those interesting exhibitions she mentioned. “Wet Paint” (2000), debuting a trio of impressive artists, was one.
“The Big Picture” (2007), the first all-photography show in a commercial gallery, was another and a third was “First” (1996), the inaugural exhibition ever organized in Newfoundland that included work from Innu and Inuit and Mi’kmaq and Métis people.
Besides such milestones, has anything simply surprised her? Parker laughs.
“I didn’t think I’d be here.”
Here is the CPG’s newest digs, almost 5,000 sq. ft. on Water Street at the foot of Hill o’ Chips. When the partnership behind 7 Plank Rd. decided to do something else with the building, Parker “nervously” began the search for new space. She did not think she’d find what she needed. But the new gallery is gorgeous.
Parker, with her daughter, interior designer Sarah Parker-Charles, and architect Kerry Gosse, who are both with PHB Group Inc., “specifically designed this configuration because I really want to come up with a space that would allow me to show really diverse work, while at the same time achieving intimate spaces. So we designed one really big gallery space. I wanted to continue developing multi-media space, so there’s a small room that could double as a multi-media room and a small room for small work. Then I wanted to include spaces that flow, that have a really relaxed and interesting flow through.”
“Atlanticus,” CPG’s opening show, with works from about 50 different artists, fills the walls and niches perfectly.
The exhibition runs throughout July and August, with new works being added in. Parker feels this is probably how she’ll continue to feature works — it probably won’t be done one show at a time.
This will help her figure out how best to use the space, and also allows her to continuously add to the gallery’s featured artists, which is an exciting, mysterious, something-in-your-gut process.
“You look towards a certain level of expertise. I’m interested in engaging with artists who I feel are going to be around for a long time. That’s who they are. They want to build. They’re serious. They’re here for the long haul. It’s all about the long haul.”