Big spaces for big sculptures sculptures
Downtown studio ideal for five artists in the North Edmonton Sculpture Workshop
“Having a shared studio gives you so much more information to either take on board or disregard, whereas if you have a single studio, all you have is your own attention.”
Tucked away in downtown Edmonton, five metal sculptors — collectively known as the the North Edmonton Sculpture Workshop (NESW) — share a studio where their time and energy is passionately devoted to their art.
On first glance, the studio on 115th Street north of 105th Avenue appears to be a galvanized playground: a metallic junkyard filled with tangled heaps of metal of all descriptions, a few rogue beer bottles strewn about and an arsenal of rather scarylooking gear. There are oxy/ acetylene steel cutting rigs, a plasma metal cutting torch, air compressors, mig and stick welders, a bench grinder and assorted saws (band, table, scroll).
Ryan McCourt, one of the original founding members and owner of the 57-year-old building that NESW has occupied since 2007, is taking me on a tour. The other four members — Mark Bellows, Andrew French, Stephen Pardy and Rob Willms — are busy at their day jobs.
Stepping foot into an art studio is always thrilling; the perfect domain for a curious mind and wandering eye. Here, vision, skill and material collide and art emerges. Brewing suspense hangs in the air for one never really knows what will unfold.
The working space sprawls over 2,100 square feet but McCourt notes the “barriers are permeable,” pointing to French’s latest sculpture that has claimed the stairwell outside the studio domain, where the kitchen, bathroom and office resides.
“If the artist has the ego and will to take over other areas — good on them,” he smirks.
The actual studio is ideal for metal sculptors: cinder block walls, concrete floors and more importantly, 20-foot ceilings. McCourt was once forced to complete a sculpture of the same height in the alley outside his old studio because the ceilings were low. That’s when he realized that “the studio was smaller than his ambitions” and looked for a new space.
The challenges for working with metal are more complicated than the requirements for a painter. For example, the studio must be ground level for transporting artwork weighing upwards of a tonne.
A 10-foot by 14-foot sliding barn door opens into a 2,800-square-foot outdoor yard which acts as a storage area and a parking spot for the studio’s half-ton truck.
I spy a sculpture weighing in at 1,500 pounds and ask the obvious: “How do you move that?”
The answer is the rolling manual gantry with block and tackle chain hoists, custom designed and constructed by NESW. The sculpture is lifted with the gantry, wheeled across the floor to the sliding barn door and placed in the truck bed. Presto.
“It’s just another day at the office,” McCourt says nonnonchalantly.
My head swings from side- to-side attempting to take in the five individual work areas with a panoramic glance.
Bellows’ area is marked by a mound of spray paint cans and vivacious, origami-like sheet metal sculptures boosting smooth folds and curves created with the English wheel.
In contrast, French’s immense ( his sculpture at the Belgravia Arts Park weighs 7,000 pounds) and often brightly painted sculptures are assembled chunks of industrial scrap metal, the ragged cut-marks and thick, bubbly welds exposed to add texture to the composition.
The hefty folds and bends of Willms’ large-scale (one piece stands 14 feet tall), abstract steel sculptures are produced through foraging (heating hammering) and flaunt he calls “nature’s patina,” what the rest of us call
A stockpile of brass objects — animal figures, musical instruments,
— takes over Court’s corner, unearthed
14 feet tall), abstract sculptures are produced
foraging (heating and hammering) and flaunt what
“nature’s patina,” or the rest of us call rust. stockpile of brass found — animal figures, instruments, ornaments — takes over Mc
corner, unearthed treasures from thrift and antique stores that are cut, reconfigured and welded into sculptures inspired by mythical figures such as Ganesh, Medusa and Centaur.
Pardy’s area is equally distinctive, focusing on the human body and face. There is a pelvic girdle and a female head, the the teeth meticulously placed in the jaws of the skull before layering on the steel flesh, skin and hair.
The NESW moniker, a symbolic reference to the compass points, is a place where these artists are free to explore and let their creative juices flow. Here, metal is king and the chosen mode of expression — whether abstract or figurative, candy-coloured or rusted — rules.
“The goal is pretty modest really,” says McCourt, “it’s to be able to make what you want. Andy always says, ‘You can do anything here.’ ”
The studio is a haven, a refuge, for these artists to explore all things hard, shiny, malleable and fusible.
When I get together with all five members the next evening, the interview quickly becomes a cacophony of loud voices and laughter. Their enthusiasm for the studio and shared arrangement is obvious. Someone yells, “It’s fun.” McCourt says it is a “refuge from rules or censorship.”
Pardy likes “the freedom to come and go as you please.” French observes, “The grandness of the space is very rare and a pleasure to work in.”
They often work alone or with one or two others but on rare occasions all five are there together.
“Those moments are so productive,” says Willms, “to be able to work against each other. The sculptures themselves end up having this sort of fighting relationship with each other. This one needs more space while this little one needs to go back to the scrap pile because it is failing next to that big one.”
“Having a shared studio gives you so much more information to either take on board or disregard, whereas if you have a single studio, all you have is your own attention,” adds French.
“That’s how we grew up at university, being critical, visually, of each other’s objects,” says Bellows. “When we are all working together, the sculptures are better.”
The camaraderie is strong as is their deep appreciation for what they have.
Bellows sums it up: “Isn’t it wonderful to have a place to go when I want to?”
Common Sense Gallery (10546 115th St.), situated in the front part of the building, has held 29 exhibitions of local, national and international artists working in all media since 2008.
The NESW studio doors will be open to the public Friday night (Nov. 2) from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. during the opening of “Conversations,” a group exhibition of new pictures and sculptures by five Western Canadian artists at Common Sense Gallery.
For more information go to commonsensegallery.com or nesw.ca.
Additional studio photos at edmontonjournal.com/life.