Harreson Tanner (left), Joyce Hartling and Donald Watt keep the art under wraps for Art Anonymous

Yukon visual artist Claire Strauss’ life changed forever when her partner James Kirby was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. Kirby dedicated his life to his craft and when news of his terminal illness came to light, the Yukon Artist Relief Fund Society was there to help.

Since its founding, the fund has relied on the proceeds of a crowd-sourced annual gala auction called Canvas Confidential, this year renamed Art Anonymous. Help from the fund allowed Kirby to pay his rent and pass away in dignity surrounded by those he loved. Strauss said the funds made the time between the diagnosis and passing of her partner easier, “Time changes when you’re in a position of treasuring each day. I needed to be off work and James was out of work for about three months.”

Despite the financial instability that often goes with a life in the arts, Strauss said Kirby — a jeweller among other things — felt fulfilled. “Being an artist was the right choice. He didn’t regret making the hard call,” said Strauss. “James described himself as a magician in disguise as an artist. People couldn’t get inside his head, and that was the point.”

Kirby passed on at his studio in Mary Lake, Whitehorse, surrounded by family at 8:14 p.m. October 31, 2017, on the date and time of his choosing. James was 55 years old.

Strauss sees the event as proof that artists in the Yukon are committed to each other. “Artists are active contributors for many organizations and for each other. The stereotype that artists need handouts is lifted by the very present strength of their ability to care for each other and others both spiritually through art and monetarily in a very needed way,” she said.

“Come to Art Anonymous! It’s a great deal as you will come home with a piece of art after having had a terrific evening out with fine food, drink, music and friendship. Plus, you’re helping others!” said Mary-Jane Warshawski, president of the Yukon Artist Relief Fund Society.

Warshawski said she’s been touched by some of the personal stories of Yukon artists like Strauss and Kirby who have benefited from the proceeds of the gala.

She said that the fund has been an overwhelming success for the community. “The life of an artist is hard. When this already hard path that they have chosen becomes insurmountable, the fund can really help … The feedback from artists has been absolutely touching.”

Warshawski said that attending the gala helps the community in a big way and she points out that guests also get amazing deals on quality local art while having a full night out.

“The event is so much fun! Think about what you would usually spend on an evening out and you’ll see what a great deal you’re getting. You get to eat, listen to music, be with friends, be around the really fun energy that goes with people scrambling for the art and the ultimate reveal. Plus, for the full ticket price you get to take home a piece of art. Considering the usual price of artwork, this is a great deal. So, at the end of the day you get to say, ‘Boy that was fun, let’s do it again and it was a good cause!’”

As a prolific patron of the arts in the Yukon, Warshawski has a deep appreciation for their struggles. “I am humbled by the work of artists. Their chosen profession is full of hardship. Their hearts and souls are drawn, painted and shaped into their chosen medium, then subject to our tastes and our criticisms. It’s a hard way to make a living … one without the social safety net that most of us have,” she said.

She reiterated that the application process for help from the fund is confidential, fair and that all proceeds are put into an account for the artists who are experiencing tragic and debilitating health concerns. Warshawski said it all started in July 2011 when she attended a benefit art event at Yukon Artists at Work along with Craig Hougen and Yukon sculptor and community organizer Harreson Tanner, who helped found the Artists at Work co-op in 2003.

“The artists had all contributed as one of their peers was suffering serious health issues. I was so touched by the artists’ generosity and I commented that there should be something more as it was so much to put on and advertise this show. Then Harreson came up with the Canvas Confidential idea and there was no looking back.”

She said that the first board members who brought the fundraiser idea to life by establishing the society, its mission and its guidelines also included Sally Sheppard, Jeanine Baker, Linda Leon, Steve Robertson and Patrick Royle.

“Artists are the hope in this community” said Yukon sculptor and vice chair of the gala, Harreson Tanner. “Artists in Yukon survive on one of the lowest annual average incomes in Canada. There is no social safety net for many of these people.” Tanner said that he’s proud of the level of community involvement. “Yukon is one of the most creative places in Canada. Perhaps a result of the unparalleled natural beauty here.”

He said that the spirit of comradery between local artists in the Yukon is impressive. The relief fund has existed for six years. “This is the first fund of its kind in Canada … It grew out of an obvious need for such a fund that became apparent after a number of fundraisers for individual artists in the co-op,” said Tanner.

The artwork will be set up Friday evening by a volunteer crew. Saturday at noon there will be a luncheon for the contributing artists.

Art Anonymous is a musical, culinary and visual gala. Over 50 pieces of art including paintings, sculptures and other visual work will be on display at the Old Fire Hall. The artists’ names are hidden from the bidders and the work is only signed underneath or on the back. Food is served by local chefs, and Whitehorse pianist Grant Simpson performs live.

According to the organizers, bidders arrive and have their names put into a hat. The first name drawn gets first choice of the 50-plus works of art. The second person gets his or her choice of the remaining pieces and on it goes until the last name is drawn. Then the names of the artists are revealed. “When you make your selection, it could be anybody. Some artists who usually do acrylic work will try their hand at watercolour to throw people off … It’s a buy-in for the visual arts community, too, since they contribute the works,” said Tanner. “At the beginning, guests have one hour to go around the room and put down their choices on a pad of paper. At the end, when a card is drawn, they have 60 seconds to pick their item of choice. It gets wild at the finish.”

Tickets are available at Arts Underground at 305 Main Street in Whitehorse. “Just for Fun” (no art) tickets will also be available. Doors open at 7 p.m. on Saturday May 12 to all ticket holders.

A mask of grief