The Birchwood Gallery in Yellowknife shows top-notch artists from all over Canada. It also shows the work of local high school students.
Yellowknife contrasts Whitehorse in interesting ways. It’s a northern capital of about the same size, so you can’t help compare.
It has high-rise buildings instead of mountains. It’s pretty much the end of the road, unlike us here with our Alaska Highway running through. We have the Yukon River running through, too, while Yellowknife perches on a rock by an enormous lake.
When I was there, it was relentlessly sunny, the same weather pattern, pretty much, for over two weeks, an unusual stability compared to our quick-change Whitehorse weather.
The other difference is the cost of housing. We think we have a housing boom. In Yellowknife, space costs about the same as Toronto or Vancouver. It boasts some of the most expensive trailers in Canada.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons art space is scarce in that city. On the performing arts end, the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre is the only year-round venue for the performing arts in the territory.
Inside Sir John Franklin High School, it has 313 seats and was built in 1984. It was packed for the local production of Cabaret when I was there. We have the modern Yukon Arts Centre and we also have The Guild.
Where we have a Class A public gallery, Yellowknife has a wood-panelled corridor in the museum that sometimes presents art shows. Its Aurora Art Society does not have a building, like our Arts Underground and even the Captain Martin House before that.
The Yellowknife Guild of Arts and Crafts is run entirely by volunteers. It has an educational mandate and an online gallery.
The Yellowknife Watercolour Society also runs the occasional workshop.
Rosalind Mercredi, who used to live in Faro, runs the Down to Earth Gallery, hoping to have it move more toward a cooperative organization and to eventually hand it off to the Art Society.
Maybe that’s part of the reason that the Birchwood Gallery takes on some of the tasks that are usually covered by public gallery space in other places. These include student shows, workshops for the community or even having a gallery that focuses on art unencumbered by giftware.
But I think it’s mostly just the personality of Anthony Watier – call him Tony – the gallery owner.
Ten years ago, Peter Bent and Dana Britton started the Birchwood Gallery. Bent was, and is, a picture framer certified by the Professional Picture Framers Association. Every five years he has to sit a three-and-a-half-hour exam to update his certification, which ensures up-to-date skills and knowledge of materials and conservation practices.
Five and a half years ago, Watier bought the business. He was in the process of starting his own gallery, when he started talking with Bent. Bent expressed a desire to concentrate on the framing side rather than the administrative work of running a gallery. Birchwood is the only establishment in the North with a Certified Picture Framer on staff.
Watier collected art from the time he moved to the North at the tender age of 19.
He spent much of his childhood in Europe, an “air force brat”. His English Mum gave him a framework for understanding the architecture and art in the national museums he marvelled at on tours during off times from Switzerland hockey tournaments.
After high school in Ontario, he came North with his buddy, Boyd Black.
The two young fellas were at the employment office, when “some guy” came in from Echo Bay Mines looking for labourers.
Watier trained as a loadmaster, building loads for a Lockheed Hercules C130 cargo aircraft, or Herc, building the Lupin Gold mine.
He also worked 15 years as the control systems operator for the diesel plant that generates power for the northern city. All the while, he collected art.
His collection includes Jim Shirley’s monoprints from his Matchbox Gallery in Rankin Inlet and pieces by Daphne Odgiq, whom he describes as “brilliant”. In her 80s, Odgiq is the only woman in the Woodlands School of the Indian Group of Seven.
He likes quality and he likes the stories he can tell about the artists who made the work. This is why he loves selling art.
Now he shows about 45 artists from all over Canada. He wants to give both his customers and the arts community the chance “to look at something they wouldn’t otherwise see.” He shows some local artists that are “just as competent”, placing them within this national context.
He offers workshops with the visiting artists to further what he brings into town with his gallery. I’ve never heard of a commercial gallery doing this before. It’s part of the way he gives back to the community as a business.
As of May, Birchwood had presented three school shows that year so far. There were two in April, one for the Catholic high school, St. Patrick’s, and one for Sir John Franklin, the public high school. The shows were one week apart.
They take down all the art in the gallery and fill it with the students’ 2- and 3-D work for a full-on, formal show.
Birchwood always hires a musician for its commercial openings. For the school shows, the school jazz band comes out. Birchwood advertises the show on its website.
The gallery puts in a lot of work to lose a commercial day. But Watier believes “it’s important to try to build credibility, self esteem and self recognition in kids, to support what the educational system’s doing from an art perspective.”
Watier thinks the Northwest Territories would benefit from more money invested in the arts … all of them. He feels they are neglected in the territory.
He himself has “never asked for money from the government, never would. I’m able to pick and choose work in here. I have to pick work that’s commercially viable. This is my livelihood.”
Watier loves best those “moments when people see a painting and they have to have it, they don’t care what it costs.
“I know they will see that work the same way 50 years from now. That painting has gone to a good home. You just get the shivers.”