The Thomas Gushul Residency May 2013

Posted on May 7, 2014 in Residencies

During the last four years I’ve been fortunate enough to have completed three artist’s residencies (I have a very understanding wife and daughter). Two of these were fellowships at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in the west of Ireland. In May 2013 I spent a month at the Thomas Gushul Studio in Blairmore, Alberta.

This is a brief description of my time spent in the Crowsnest Pass . What I accomplished during the residency will take some time to resolve and will only be fully revealed in the work that lies ahead. Instead I’ve tried to include some explanation of my own methods as well as some of the discoveries I made.

At first glance the two residencies mentioned above might seem very different but there are also similarities. Both are situated in more remote, sparsely populated areas, surrounded by rugged and beautiful scenery. Both are located in small communities that have enjoyed more prosperous times and struggle to maintain their former grandeur. This is an important point. While there are all sorts of great residencies (both urban and rural) available to artists, these two are successful because of their location. As a painter who is particularly interested in aspects of human habitation and landscape the relative isolation is an important ingredient. If you have the discipline to work independently then a residency like Ballinglen or Gushul is an ideal place to do it. 

After I was accepted at the Gushul I checked out the space online and read the resource material provided by the Gushul Studio program. This was a change from anticipating what I could manage to bring on an international flight. With the experience of the two previous residencies in mind I eventually crammed a vehicle full of canvases, paints, paper, more than two bottles of red wine and a bicycle. There’s always something you think you can’t live without and sometimes it only get’s really interesting when you have to improvise. 

It’s not often you get the chance to work in a registered historical building but that’s exactly the case with the Gushul Studio. Thomas Gushul came to Canada in 1906 from the Ukraine, first working in the Crowsnest Pass as a miner and then as one of Alberta’s foremost photographers until his death in 1962. The studio building has an interesting provenance. It was built in 1902 and moved to Blairmore from the abandon mining town of Lille in 1918. With the exception of an additional upstairs loft, the floor plan remains unchanged and includes the original floorboards, and the magnificent wall of window on the north side of the studio. Now maintained by the University of Lethbridge the studio is well-equipped with easels, work tables, and all the required living amenities.

Getting started in a new workspace and environment can be intimidating. I’m sure different artists will develop their own strategies to deal with the awkward first steps. In the true Irish fashion my solution is often to “give it a lash” (not to be mistaken for the equally popular “go on the lash”), bringing some unresolved idea or piece of work with me from the studio to launch into immediately. I try to remain philosophical about the value of these early attempts in the long run – they may prove of little value or may change completely. However, they rarely lead nowhere and for me they are a good way of beginning while I work out the best strategies for the use of space and build a routine.

Arriving with a specific project in mind is equally valid but my own practice is bound up with location. An essential part of the experience lies in the exploration and immersion in a new environment. It’s amazing what you can discover on foot and on a bike (I find it hard to think of doing a residency without one). I gathered information by taking a slightly different route every time I went anywhere in the Pass – whether it was to the Stone’s Throw Cafe, the wonderful TrueValue Hardware (source of almost anything), or somewhere further afield. Both residencies I’ve been on have had a wealth of written information about the local area available (usually supplemented by other residents). I poured over it and planned different excursions depending on the weather, the stage of a painting, or my own mood.

In a typical day (if there is such a thing) I got up and ventured downstairs into the studio – immediately confronted by yesterday’s efforts. Living in such close proximity to the work took some getting used to. At Ballinglen the walk to the Foundation studios from the stone cottages at the top of the village was an essential part of my routine. Here I had to plan escapes to clear my head. After breakfast and coffee I would begin working often painting or drawing until mid-afternoon. The afternoons and early evenings were usually spent out and about before returning to the studio and more work. Sometimes I would simply go for a run or bike ride and in the last week of May I became a part-time regular at the Crowsnest Pass outdoor swimming pool. 

During my time at the Gushul Studio I visited all of the communities in the Pass from Hillcrest to Coleman. With the exception of Blairmore most commercial businesses have relocated along Highway 3, which cuts through the pass connecting it with BC’s East Kootenays and Columbia Valley. Sadly, they are not immune from the ‘exit strategy’ that has left many of Alberta’s small town main streets clinging to life. A few remaining stores mingle with old signs and empty store fronts and there is a strong ghost-town atmosphere. 

I also managed a gruelling, wet, muddy, but fascinating trip to the abandoned townsite of Lille. The north rim trail above the Frank Slide became my regular running route. Another highlight was a bike ride south towards the Castle Mountain area on one of the most stunningly beautiful secondary highways in the province. Two places I visited stand out and I returned to them repeatedly either in person or on paper and canvas. 

The Greenhill Mine is separated from Blairmore by Highway 3. A few buildings are visible from the highway but most of the site is hidden a short distance beyond the road on a rise of Bluff Mountain. The mine, which was the main reason for Blairmore’s early existence, is revealed in a site strewn with old buildings and equipment including a snowshed, lamp house and dynamite shed, drag chains, hoist mechanisms, chains and coal dust. I can’t entirely explain its attraction – all I know is I felt its presence and I’m sure it will continue to inform my work in the months and years to come. I spent hours walking around the site, sometimes taking photographs, sometimes filling sketchbooks, sometimes just breathing it in.

Fan House 98 has a more personal connection. My father-in-law, Ed Jackson, was born in Coleman. For the first seven years of his life he lived in a small house perched on the side of a mountain above York Creek where his father operated the fan house that provided critical ventilation for the International Coal & Coke Company Mine. While I was there Ed and his brother Kenny, both now in their 80s, came down for the weekend. Even though the terrain must have changed greatly we were able to find the fan house, much of which is still intact. No sign of the house remains and although there are happy memories of childhood it must have been a hard and isolated existence interrupted by long trips down into town once or twice a week. Without the noise of passing ATV’s on the road below it’s still a lifetime away. 

Several months later I’ve pushed ahead with more drawings deliberately distancing myself from the work completed on site. I have only recently begun to sift through the notes, sketchbooks, charcoal drawings, and paintings and I’m starting to realize the true value of the experience. Only starting . . .

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