Amidst the flurry of shoppers along Robson Street on Wednesday afternoon sit street carvers Dennis Rose and Chris Turo. Each man meticulously begins to carve a new piece of art to be added to the foldable display table. Each swift stroke of the knife adds another wood shaving to the growing pile at their feet. The two artists find wood such as red cedar across British Columbia, transforming it into feathers, pendants and sculptures.
A similar scene plays out in Gastown. Alex Mountain hunches over his own soon-to-be wooden feather, carefully carving. A similar pile of shavings at his feet and the same smell of freshly cut wood.
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I recently visited several art galleries in Vancouver as part of Bright Light, a collaboration of 14 art organizations in the Downtown Eastside. Apart from gallery exhibits, this public art project also included other mediums of art such as performances. It was commissioned for the Winter Games and the Paralympics. It was on an exploration of street art when I met Rose, Turo and Mountain.
I wondered about this concept of public art, and other art forms in general, that aren’t seen in galleries. I thought about the artists who don’t have someone to commission their work and perhaps like it better that way. In the wake of recent artist funding cuts, the amount of artists who exhibit outside of galleries might increase. This train of thought inevitably lead to the ongoing and not-yet-exhausted discussion about the artist’s role in society: Is it the preserver of history? Mirror of society? Communicator of societal issues?
Each of the three First Nations carvers exhibited in a gallery at one point, but all prefer the freedom of the streets.
Rose said galleries were too restrictive so he moved to the streets nearly 16 years ago. He tells me he enjoys the interaction, where customers see the artistic process. People request what they want in the morning, check on it in the afternoon and take it home in the evening.
Mountain shared similar sentiments, resenting the control of the galleries. He learned how to carve from merely watching his father and has been doing it for 28 years (18 of which have been on the streets). He likes meeting his customers and interacting with them.
My previous thoughts came to mind and I wondered why they did what they did. None really knew the answer.
“I don’t know, I just have fun with it,” Mountain said. “It keeps me busy I guess.”
Perhaps it might actually be that simple.