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Small spaces making big splash on local art scene

St. John’s is lucky to have several gorgeously curated, established commercial art galleries on its downtown streets — let alone The Rooms, reconfiguring our skyline and the most significant public gallery east of Montreal.

Visual artist June Walker-Wilson is the owner/operator of Ultramarine art gallery on Duckworth Street.

But that’s not the whole parameter of the city’s exhibition scene. Small spaces and one-off happenings underscore the discipline’s durability and verve.

And we have examples of those, too — Louise Markus’s fall exhibition/concert/par-tay at an otherwise empty site on Duckworth Street and or Eastern Edge’s 24-hour Art Marathon being but two.

There were recently two small gallery spaces to be found downtown: Ultramarine and Gallery 24.

Ultramarine, named for the precious and fulsome colour, opened at 100 Duckworth St. in August 2012. With 500 square feet set off by a tall, narrow storefront window, it is both gallery and working space for owner/operator/visual artist June Walker-Wilson.

Walker-Wilson graduated from art school in 1999, and first rented studio space in the London Building. There she held occasional open studio days, “but it was quite hidden.” She exhibited with Five Island Gallery and another outlet in Ontario, but both closed.

“So I thought maybe I should just do it myself,” she said.

The works featured at Ultramarine are all her contemporary oil paintings (aside from a stand of figurines by her partner, J.C. Bear).

“It’s quite small, so my work is sufficient to fill the space.”

At the same time, she does want to open Ultramarine up to other artists. She has hosted a book launch, for example.

Traffic is slow in January, so she spent that time focused on creating work at her home studio. The first Wednesday in February, she put her sandwich board back out on the sidewalk and reopened. Clientele is a mix of walk-in tourists and customers who, over the past three years of operation, have become regulars.

Walker-Wilson’s inspiration is the natural world, and most of her work is in oil.

“The advantage of acrylic is it dries quickly. The disadvantage of acrylic is it dries quickly. When you’re trying to smoothly blend colour, oil works better. I’m patient enough.”

Colour is an essential compositional element for her, as is surface. She always works on panel, not paper or canvas, because it allows her to incorporate her interest in textiles–manipulated fabrics that bring it in a new, sculptural direction.

“I get a lot of satisfaction from creating three-dimensional, sculptural effects. And for the viewer, it changes as you move past it. People are intrigued by the texture. They’ve never seen anything like it.”

She paints from nature, but not en plein air.

“I like to paint winter, and winter things,” she said, indicating some fair-sized lustrous works of dripping crystalizing icicles, “and it’s not feasible to be outdoors.”

She has another series of bare trees, where she built the surface, including the tree trunks, before applying paint.

“What really captures me is how individual the trees are. They develop shapes and characteristics. I want to do a lot more.”

She is also working on new pieces of multi-toned abstractions of water.

Gallery 24, at 71 Casey St., opened in May 2015, with 800 square feet, including front gallery space and back office/storeroom, big windows and track lighting.

Owner/operator/visual artist Hillary Winter, who, incidentally, found the space on Kijiji, graduated from Grenfell Campus with a degree in visual arts in 2008.

Gallery 24’s motto is “Fine art. Daaaaamn fine,” and they put their money where their slogan is, with featured artists such as Candace Fulford (with her mod-art dollops), Tara Feener (“100 Days of Newfoundland”) and Ashley Smallwood (“Snack Paintings”).

“I started the gallery because there was a need for space for more emerging, non-traditional artists,” WInter explained. “It is still works on the wall, it’s still paintings in oil. What’s non-traditional is the subject matter.”

After graduating, Winter first worked with pickmeupartistcollective, which organized pop-ups, events in alternative space with temporary timelines, and also sat on the board of VANL/CARFAC. Through both organizations she saw the need for more commercial space for artists like her: just starting out, not established, but with passion, training and skill.

“It’s been really, really well-received. Every day I’m open I get contacted by an artist interested in the space. That we’re branded emerging gives them confidence. They’re comfortable approaching us.”

They’ve had about a dozen events, mostly opening for solo or group shows.

“The pattern I’ve noticed is people love the openings, but there’s not a whole lot of traffic outside of that. Our sales are through the website.”

So first on the 2016 to-do list is a renewed focus on the website, expanding the features and making them more interactive.

For example, the website will concentrate on selling original artworks (currently it offers both original and digital reproductions) and present “the original piece as if it was in front of you, a three-dimensional representation. You’ll see how it hangs on the wall, from all angles, high-res, the edges, up close details.”

The physical gallery is being phased out, but its mission continues on different platforms. Gallery 24 will organize pop-ups, one-night events at various spaces that are all vibe and butterfly-wing-temporality.

The gallery is in discussion with another entity for possible partnership in these. The idea at the moment is to have something monthly, focusing on the artwork, in intriguing spaces like Waterlily dance studio, where performers can interact with the works, and it all gets safely packed up at the end of the evening.

One more note: when it comes to downtown St. John’s, you don’t necessarily have to mosey into a gallery to find yourself amidst original local works. Several restaurants and coffehouses consider it part of their raison d’etre to integrate drawings, printings and paintings into their space. Next time you’re out for a meal, at, perhaps, Magnum and Steins or Bacalao, or having a latte at, say, Fixed, take a minute to have a gander at the walls. You may very well appreciate what you see.

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