Artist Suzy Birstein needs to think creatively about space because every inch counts in her pantry-sized studio. In one corner, there’s a desk sprinkled with her students’ creations: misshapen cats and princesses moulded by tiny fingers. In the other, a massive kiln is covered in fine dust.
Birstein, a Vancouver sculptor and painter, has used different rooms in her Kitsilano home for studio space since the ‘70s. When her son was born, the studio moved to the ground floor.
“I make this space versatile,” says Birstein. “Sometimes it changes three times in a day, from teaching kids to doing pottery to painting. I’m trying to do everything in this little, weensy space.”
This is common for Kitsilano artists who have to deal with rising housing costs and limited space.
But a city program that turns old park caretaker houses into studios has expanded this fall, opening up prime Kitsilano real estate without the hefty price-tag.
“That’s awesome,” says Birstein. “It’s nice that the city is starting to think about that.”
In October, the Vancouver park board turned seven more field houses into free studio space, including one in Kitsilano’s Hadden Park. Now, nine parks — two hosted pilots in earlier years — will house more than 30 artists for the next two and a half years.
This program is especially important for Kitsilano because there is limited working studio space in this area, says Scott Watson, acting head of UBC’s art history, visual art and theory department.
Open studio warehouses, like 1000 Parker St. in east Vancouver, don’t exist here. This meant many artists worked in other neighbourhoods — until now.
Hadden Park field house, a bit “rough”
On the tip of Kits Point, the Hadden Park field house feels like it’s surrounded by sea. It’s a one-bedroom bungalow with windows that stretch from wall to wall.
The house was built about 50 years ago. It’s been empty since the long-time caretaker left last year, and it’s a bit of a fixer-upper. There’s no toilet. There’s asbestos under the floors.
But that’s why architect and sculptor Rebecca Bayer likes it. She’s one of the five artists who beat out more than 100 applicants to use the space.
“I was really drawn to it initially,” says Bayer. “I mean, I know it’s rough. I find that kind of exciting that this space has something in it already.”
While the house is under renovation and won’t be officially open until January, Bayer and the other artists are brainstorming projects that will explore local history.
Before they were awarded the space, most of the artists were working out of their homes. Bayer says this new space encourages collaboration, and it will also affect her creative process.
“For years, I worked just at a desk in my apartment, but for me this means the work produced is limited in scale and is a bit insular,” says Bayer.
In exchange for space, the artists are responsible for 350 public hours annually to create free art that interacts with the neighbourhood, says Marie Lopes, an arts programmer with the city.
“It’s more of an in-kind exchange than it is a financial exchange,” say Lopes.
Artists priced out of areas they’ve helped create
While Vancouver has one of the highest concentrations of artists in Canada, they only make around $27,100 a year. An average rental in Kitsilano costs $1,041 a month, according to 2010 figures. An artist trying to buy a condo on Vancouver’s west side would have to have an income of $112,000, compared to the $86,000 needed on the east side.
Kitsilano wasn’t always this way. Back in the ‘60s, artists flocked to the area for the low rent and hippy vibe. But while artists find communities and create culture within them, this in turn attracts developers with deep pockets.
“Artists are often the avant-garde of gentrification,” says Watson.
Communal studio space connects artists
But while Vancouver’s field house experiment generates some praise, it’s nowhere near enough, say artists.
“It’s a good idea and it’s a beautiful location, but it needs to be a bigger space,” says Birstein.
While the city plans to further expand the field house program, she says there needs to be an emphasis on bigger, communal arts spaces in Kitsilano.
She wants to see a warehouse-type space made available, an area where artists can gather, collaborate and share their art with the community. Without it, she says many artists don’t have the chance to connect with one another, and this is vital to the creative process.
“We all want to interact with one another and need feedback and need support, and that’s what that kind of environment does. It’s inspiring.”
Park cabins a hidden refuge for artists : Meet Jack Darcus an artist and caretaker who has lived in a park for over 20 years.