Haven for Craft, City of Glass
Montreal, the largest primarily French-speaking city after Paris, is one of the most vibrant multicultural cities in North America. Montreal's unique linguistic history contributes hugely to its cosmopolitanism. Its cultural life is rich and layered, and its museums and galleries have achieved international renown. Among its many attractions, the city is also a magnet for craft artists pursuing cutting-edge work.
Vanessa Yanow, a glass and textile artist-designer, jeweler, painter and sculptor knows the city's craft landscape like the back of her hand. "Montreal fosters the birth of fine craft artists," claims Yanow, citing the post-secondary educational system, known as CEGEP, which is unique to Quebec and is an interim zone between high school and university. It offers a great many art and trade-based programs and, because it is basically free, it allows a broad cross section of the population to get an education in glass, ceramics, textiles, woodworking, welding and the like. The city's focus on teaching the trades and fine craft facilitates a more financially secure future for such workers and results in a milieu hospitable to aspiring artists.
The city offers generous funding for emerging artists and, more particularly, for young entrepreneurs working in craft art, thus encouraging artists to stay once they've launched their careers. Quebec's parental insurance plan, the practice of offering maternity and paternity leave to the self-employed, also enables the arts as a viable career choice. Whenever Montreal and Quebec craft artists exhibit elsewhere in Canada, Yanow points out, they are singled out. "There is an indescribable creativity to the work that is distinctly theirs," she says. This might have to do with an indigenous love for craft art on the Francophone side going back centuries. In any case, it signals a surpassing ingenuity at work in artistic production here.
The many artist-friendly neighborhoods in Montreal include the Plateau Mont-Royal, Mile-End and the Park Extension districts, to name a few. Since 2001, Yanow has managed the Long Haul, an artist collective in the Park Extension. It provides affordable studio spaces and has hosted events from puppet shows and film screenings to craft art exhibits, open studios and auctions-a microcosm of Montreal's art and craft scene.
"Montrealers are stylish, proud of their city and have a strong will to support local talent," says Meghan Price, a textile artist known for going beyond construction techniques into potent "thoughtscapes." She's also an educator who received a degree in textile construction from the Montreal Centre for Contemporary Textiles, headed by the distinguished Louise Lemieux Bérubé, and an MFA from Concordia University. Price takes note of the Society for Arts and Technology, a transdisciplinary organization dedicated to research, production and education in the field of digital culture, and praises the "[email protected]" as "a new tradition in holiday craft shows, consistently presenting fresh, edgy and sophisticated productions."
Another important educational venue, the Visual Arts Centre, started out as the Potters' Club over 60 years ago, and its ceramics department is still going strong, teaching the basic techniques but also encouraging students to test the limits of ceramic art. The centre's fine and applied arts department offers drawing, painting, sculpture, calligraphy, collage and decorative arts, with jewelry experiencing a renewal of interest over the last five years.
"Each year in [the centre's] McClure Gallery, we feature at least one craft exhibition," notes its director/curator Victoria LeBlanc. "We don't make huge distinctions between art and craft. This year, for instance, we'll feature an artist who uses clay as an effective mediator between our conceptions of nature and culture, creating landscapes of light and materiality-work that is both beautifully crafted and intellectually rigorous."
As for glass education, Espace Verre has played a crucial role in the nurturing of the Montreal glass art community for a quarter century. Housed in a former firehouse, Espace Verre offers workshops in different glass techniques and maintains an exhibition program. Its ongoing mission is to develop and promote Quebec glassblowers, and this it has done with resonant success.
Glass is indeed the medium of the moment as Montreal celebrates 2010 as the Year of Glass. Viewed through four principal themes-art, architecture, history and science-glass, in its myriad uses and manifestations, will be the subject of numerous exhibitions and conferences, as well as a professional congress bringing together artists from around the globe. All told, there will be over 100 "City of Glass" events taking place at 40 locations, including 23 museums. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has weighed in with the recent "Tiffany Glass" and "Studio Glass: Anna and Joe Mendel Collection," now on view, representing the gift of a hundred contemporary glass pieces to the museum by local collectors. "It's a great donation for the museum and for Montreal," says the museum's contemporary decorative arts curator, Diane Charbonneau. "We are the only institution in Canada that has this varied a collection by both international and Canadian artists."
If Montreal craft artists have thrived, it is in no small measure because of a support system that includes both craft galleries and contemporary art galleries, such as Art Mûr, that have made a commitment to contemporary craft as well. Coinciding with the City of Glass events, a recent show there, "Red-Hot," presented seven young artists, all demonstrating the diversity of glass work with their idiosyncratic visions. Currently showing are works by Tyler Rock and Julia Reimer and, in the fall, the neon artist Orest Tataryn.
For Art Mûr, says its spokesperson, Ève De Garie-Lamanque, the best contemporary art is a rubric under which you find the most arresting craft art. "Why wouldn't a contemporary art gallery be interested in showing what was (or is still considered) to be craft?" she explains, pointing out that galleries and museums show, for instance, quilts by Barbara Todd and Joyce Wieland. "Many artists also integrate techniques or materials that have traditionally been associated with craft into their work, such as Cal Lane, who manually cuts out lace patterns onto existing steel structures, or Nadia Myre, a Native artist who may use traditional beading to convey her very contemporary concerns."
The ever-expanding cluster of fine craft galleries in the city also includes Royer Boutique, Crea Gallery, Opaline, Centre Materia and Option Art Studio.
In the area of contemporary jewelry, one of the exceptional venues is Galerie Noel Guyomarc'h, opened in 1996, which promotes international work and local talent such as Barbara Stutman, Josée Desjardins, Silvie Altschuler and Gabrielle Desmarais.
And one of the most prominent, and venerable, of spaces is Galerie Elena Lee, which represents more than 60 artists, both Canadian and international, some working only in glass, others in sundry mixed media. "When we started out in 1976," owner Elena Lee says, "it was pretty much a tabula rasa, and now we have glass all over the city in this Year of Glass." She adds, "I felt privileged that I was in the right place at the right time. It was a real struggle, although the public in Montreal has always been very receptive. We support strongly experimental work rather than purely commercial-work that has content and is not just pretty."
One Elena Lee artist is Carole Frève, a graduate in 1996 of the three-year glass program at Espace Verre. Shown regularly at sofa Chicago and New York, her work demonstrates a high level of formal invention, especially her use of copper electroplated onto glass surfaces. "What I think about Montreal is what a craft oasis it is," says Frève. "Speaking French, we came up here without constraints on what we could do, and by the time we exhibited internationally, we had already found our own path. There is an abiding sense of freedom here. I came to Montreal to study, the low cost of living allowed me to dedicate myself to my art and I decided to stay because of the sense of possibility. Springtime is very special here."
Elaborating on the feelings this city provokes, Meghan Price says, "To me, Montreal feels like an island in the middle of a continent. There is a strong sense of independence. As a Montrealer, I am part of a unique, vibrant and complicated culture that is both marginal and international. This is a good place to live a creative life."
James D. Campbell, a Montreal writer and independent curator, is the author of numerous books, catalogs and magazine articles.