The Prairie Art Gallery: After the Fall

Historic building’s collapse is felt nationwide.
by Jody Farrell

Images of The Prairie Art Gallery collapse showing the destruction of the Central Gallery, photos by Wen-Shu HuangWhile Albertans have sometimes felt that national newspapers ignore much of what goes on west of Toronto, the airwaves and print media across Canada were all over the collapse of Grande Prairie’s historic Prairie Art Gallery building on Monday, March 19.

The demise of the Gallery, which was built in 1929, and designated a historic site in 1984, affected a lot of people. Though no one was hurt, staff, art lovers, and history buffs are grieving the loss of the dignified brick building that served initially as a high school and was used by the Grande Prairie Regional College before becoming home to the Gallery, whose Class A status allowed it to exhibit national and international artworks.

pag2.jpgWhen this magazine went to press in early April, it was still not clear exactly what had caused the building’s collapse. Investigations by structural engineers were underway. Grande Prairie had had over 200 centimetres of snow over the winter, and it was snowing that morning. Robert Steven, Director Curator at the Gallery since October, 2006, had come in just after 8 am on that day and noticed water on the floor in the Central Gallery on the building’s south side. Looking up, he saw a beam protruding through the ceiling.

Steven proceeded to make several calls, first to city officials and then to staff members, who were advised against coming in to work. He removed paintings currently on show and also notified Cygnet Playschool, which hosts morning and afternoon sessions in the Gallery basement, that the building was unsafe. Steven then posted danger signs at the Gallery entrance. Emergency crews were called in and measures taken to secure the area and neighbours. The Central Gallery, which now stood empty, had housed an exhibition by Calgary artist Terry Reynoldson. Adjoining galleries featured the works of Vancouver’s Michael Dowad and Edmonton’s Julian Forrest.

pag3.jpgShortly after 10 am, following the arrival of city emergency workers, the south rooftop and walls of The Prairie Art Gallery crumbled into ruins. Nobody was in the building at that time. Witnesses from adjacent buildings, some with tears in their eyes, filed into the street in disbelief. A steady parade of pedestrians and vehicles took in the wreckage.

The north side of The Prairie Art Gallery basement contained over 500 artworks that made up its Permanent Collection. Well-known regional and provincial artists including Euphemia McNaught, Thelma Manarey, John Snow and Allen Sapp had donated works to the Collection. In the days following the collapse plans were being made to move the artworks. Art conservator, Tara Fraser was contracted to assess them for possible damage. No matter what the decision, the heritage of the building will be honoured.

pag4.jpgIt remains unclear whether the building will be salvaged by the city or demolished. The municipality, province and Prairie Art Gallery board maintain that whatever the decision the historic quality of the building will be respected. Plans are still afoot to begin construction of a nearly $30 million Cultural Centre this spring. The project initially included an 8,000 square foot expansion of the former gallery, and the addition of a new, 37,400 square foot Grande Prairie Public Library. A 4,200 square foot community hall will connect the two centres. The plans are to continue with the project as scheduled.

The Prairie Art Gallery’s extensive programming, with its popular tour and hands-on art workshop for regional schools; summer camps; after school and evening art programs; the Alberta Foundation for the Arts’ Travelling Exhibition program, as well as its gift shop, resource materials and exhibitions for all ages, have all been put on hold as staff scramble to find means and locations to continue their work. Steven, whose quick-thinking prior to the collapse garnered praise across the country, was flown to Ottawa where the Canadian Museums Association honoured his actions.


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Three Peace Area Artists by Jody Farrell & Wendy Stefansson

http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/cherylbrown.jpg" alt="Cheryl Brown" align="right" height="217" width="250" /> Beadmaking: Cheryl Brown

Grande Prairie artist Cheryl Brown, widely known for her unique pottery and playful children’s furniture, says her recent passion for glass beadwork is partly fuelled by its immediacy. In no time, she fires up her small studio torch and taking a skinny glass rod from a well-organized assortment of materials, melts it into a bead. From there, she does all manner of pulling and prodding, using “stringers,” or thin, taffy-like wisps of glass to make dots and stripes to render the bead a tiny glass treasure. Further manipulation turns the beads into perfume bottles, witches’ brooms, and glass bobbles. Imaginative new creations appear to Brown in her many “bead dreams.”“It’s fun to watch,” she says of the process, in which the glass changes colours as it heats and cools. Future plans for the ever-inventive Brown include combining the beadwork with pottery.

http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/cherylbrown.jpg" alt="Jonathan Kostuk" align="left" height="300" width="180" />

Lampworking: Jonathan Kostuk

For Grande Prairie artist Jonathan Kostuk, “playing with fire” is admittedly part of the intrigue of lampwork. While this small-scale version of glassblowing, named for its original use of oil lamp and foot pump, has emerged as a leading artform, Kostuk only knows of a handful in Alberta who do the work, particularly using the plastic-glass medium borosilicate (Pyrex.) The artist works over a specialized torch, manipulating and blowing the molten material into finely crafted art including wine glasses, bottles, and pipes. Elaborate lampwork creations are listed online for thousands of dollars.The interactive process, with glass colours reacting differently to differing flames, demands constant movement and a keen sense of chemistry. Split-second decision-making and skill in using a myriad of special tools is required for turning and blowing the glass. “It’s like getting to make a little universe inside a bubble,” Kostuk says of his love of the work, which he currently does full-time. “It requires using both your brain and your emotions.”

http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/cherylbrown.jpg" alt="Geri France" align="right" height="237" width="250" /> Slumping and Fusing: Geri France

Peace River artist Geri France might be better known in some circles for her work in clay, but the kilns she uses for her pottery are also central to her practice as a glass artist. In them, France fuses together fragments of hand-cut glass, the heat causing the melded mass to slump into the clay or metal mould in which she has placed it. Many of the moulds are themselves Frances’ creations, creativity in one medium spilling over into another. The results are small sculptures or luminous and functional vessels; solid glass suspending bubbles of air, colour and light in elemental forms.Through years of trial and error the medium itself has been her best teacher. “The more you do it, the more predictable it becomes, but there are always surprises,” she says. Spurred on by the surprises France continues to try new things. “Even something that breaks in the kiln teaches me something that I didn’t know before.” She will look at it and think, “Here is a starting point for something totally original and new.”
11 years ago

Three Peace Area Artists by Jody Farrell & Wendy Stefansson

http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/cherylbrown.jpg" alt="Cheryl Brown" align="right" height="217" width="250" /> Beadmaking: Cheryl Brown

Grande Prairie artist Cheryl Brown, widely known for her unique pottery and playful children’s furniture, says her recent passion for glass beadwork is partly fuelled by its immediacy. In no time, she fires up her small studio torch and taking a skinny glass rod from a well-organized assortment of materials, melts it into a bead. From there, she does all manner of pulling and prodding, using “stringers,” or thin, taffy-like wisps of glass to make dots and stripes to render the bead a tiny glass treasure. Further manipulation turns the beads into perfume bottles, witches’ brooms, and glass bobbles. Imaginative new creations appear to Brown in her many “bead dreams.”“It’s fun to watch,” she says of the process, in which the glass changes colours as it heats and cools. Future plans for the ever-inventive Brown include combining the beadwork with pottery.

http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/cherylbrown.jpg" alt="Jonathan Kostuk" align="left" height="300" width="180" />

Lampworking: Jonathan Kostuk

For Grande Prairie artist Jonathan Kostuk, “playing with fire” is admittedly part of the intrigue of lampwork. While this small-scale version of glassblowing, named for its original use of oil lamp and foot pump, has emerged as a leading artform, Kostuk only knows of a handful in Alberta who do the work, particularly using the plastic-glass medium borosilicate (Pyrex.) The artist works over a specialized torch, manipulating and blowing the molten material into finely crafted art including wine glasses, bottles, and pipes. Elaborate lampwork creations are listed online for thousands of dollars.The interactive process, with glass colours reacting differently to differing flames, demands constant movement and a keen sense of chemistry. Split-second decision-making and skill in using a myriad of special tools is required for turning and blowing the glass. “It’s like getting to make a little universe inside a bubble,” Kostuk says of his love of the work, which he currently does full-time. “It requires using both your brain and your emotions.”

http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/cherylbrown.jpg" alt="Geri France" align="right" height="237" width="250" /> Slumping and Fusing: Geri France

Peace River artist Geri France might be better known in some circles for her work in clay, but the kilns she uses for her pottery are also central to her practice as a glass artist. In them, France fuses together fragments of hand-cut glass, the heat causing the melded mass to slump into the clay or metal mould in which she has placed it. Many of the moulds are themselves Frances’ creations, creativity in one medium spilling over into another. The results are small sculptures or luminous and functional vessels; solid glass suspending bubbles of air, colour and light in elemental forms.Through years of trial and error the medium itself has been her best teacher. “The more you do it, the more predictable it becomes, but there are always surprises,” she says. Spurred on by the surprises France continues to try new things. “Even something that breaks in the kiln teaches me something that I didn’t know before.” She will look at it and think, “Here is a starting point for something totally original and new.”
11 years ago

Three Peace Area Artists by Jody Farrell & Wendy Stefansson

http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/cherylbrown.jpg" alt="Cheryl Brown" align="right" height="217" width="250" /> Beadmaking: Cheryl Brown

Grande Prairie artist Cheryl Brown, widely known for her unique pottery and playful children’s furniture, says her recent passion for glass beadwork is partly fuelled by its immediacy. In no time, she fires up her small studio torch and taking a skinny glass rod from a well-organized assortment of materials, melts it into a bead. From there, she does all manner of pulling and prodding, using “stringers,” or thin, taffy-like wisps of glass to make dots and stripes to render the bead a tiny glass treasure. Further manipulation turns the beads into perfume bottles, witches’ brooms, and glass bobbles. Imaginative new creations appear to Brown in her many “bead dreams.”“It’s fun to watch,” she says of the process, in which the glass changes colours as it heats and cools. Future plans for the ever-inventive Brown include combining the beadwork with pottery.

http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/cherylbrown.jpg" alt="Jonathan Kostuk" align="left" height="300" width="180" />

Lampworking: Jonathan Kostuk

For Grande Prairie artist Jonathan Kostuk, “playing with fire” is admittedly part of the intrigue of lampwork. While this small-scale version of glassblowing, named for its original use of oil lamp and foot pump, has emerged as a leading artform, Kostuk only knows of a handful in Alberta who do the work, particularly using the plastic-glass medium borosilicate (Pyrex.) The artist works over a specialized torch, manipulating and blowing the molten material into finely crafted art including wine glasses, bottles, and pipes. Elaborate lampwork creations are listed online for thousands of dollars.The interactive process, with glass colours reacting differently to differing flames, demands constant movement and a keen sense of chemistry. Split-second decision-making and skill in using a myriad of special tools is required for turning and blowing the glass. “It’s like getting to make a little universe inside a bubble,” Kostuk says of his love of the work, which he currently does full-time. “It requires using both your brain and your emotions.”

http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/cherylbrown.jpg" alt="Geri France" align="right" height="237" width="250" /> Slumping and Fusing: Geri France

Peace River artist Geri France might be better known in some circles for her work in clay, but the kilns she uses for her pottery are also central to her practice as a glass artist. In them, France fuses together fragments of hand-cut glass, the heat causing the melded mass to slump into the clay or metal mould in which she has placed it. Many of the moulds are themselves Frances’ creations, creativity in one medium spilling over into another. The results are small sculptures or luminous and functional vessels; solid glass suspending bubbles of air, colour and light in elemental forms.Through years of trial and error the medium itself has been her best teacher. “The more you do it, the more predictable it becomes, but there are always surprises,” she says. Spurred on by the surprises France continues to try new things. “Even something that breaks in the kiln teaches me something that I didn’t know before.” She will look at it and think, “Here is a starting point for something totally original and new.”
11 years ago