Denisa Kraus
The Navaigator

From left: Photographer Gouzales and the gallery owner Russ Morland at Scratch the Surface opening. Photo by Denisa Kraus

What comes to mind when we imagine Nanaimo’s arts scene? Skillful murals of Vancouver Island’s wildlife and marine world? Driftwood sculpture and nature-inspired artisanal fare? The underground arts of Nanaimo has yet another reason to celebrate its slow but steady growth, as Electric Umbrella, the tattoo studio and a gallery for local underground art, celebrates its second anniversary in November.

Electric Umbrella focuses mainly on younger local artists, but occasionally branches out to the mainland or brings alternative art from the U.S. Each month, the gallery showcases a different artist, with show openings taking place on the last Saturday of the month.

Russ Morland is a painter, tattoo artist, and the owner of Electric Umbrella, where he works with his apprentice Dan Bacharach. He says the artists exhibiting at his gallery are usually VIU’s art and design students, or people from Nanaimo’s graffiti and skateboarding scene, and artists from around Vancouver Island he finds personal interest in. What these artists have in common is the engagement in the local underground scene, and work in graffiti, illustration, and photography.

“I’m trying to get that sort of art brought to Nanaimo in a place to be shown, because there’s nowhere else for it right now,” he says. “I am trying to bring in a different scene.”

“I felt there was absolutely nobody doing what I did,” he says. “I’ve been here for 14 years now. When I first got here, I used to show at the city gallery and was probably the most different artist there.”

Morland says that for a long time, he did not meet anybody with a similar artistic attitude. He knew about the strong graffiti culture and the notorious IEK crew, who marked trains travelling across the continent, but he did not feel the presence of any substantial art scene.

“There were some abstract paintings in the galleries, landscapes, watercolour paintings of the harbour, and typical fare you’d expect from certain generations; and that’s fine, it has its place. But I felt like we needed something different to freshen the scene. Some of the murals around town are beautiful, but it’s only one style. Why aren’t we showing every style and every aspect of the arts here?”

Paint and Skate brought an opportunity for other artists to participate in wall painting. Photo courtesy of Russ Morland

Morland says there seems to be a lot of outsourcing of established artists instead of giving a chance to emerging artists.

“This city is always trying to find its cultural identity. They are missing this whole group that could be incorporated almost for free,” Morland says. “The youth and their art is the most exciting thing about Nanaimo. There is that spark. Those kids are hungry. They want to do stuff. And it’s exciting to be able to tap into that.”

One of the possible projects could be finding unused spaces around Nanaimo and letting young artists brighten them up with murals, which, as Morland says, would be beneficial for both sides.

“If we can get young people to stay here and get involved in the art scene, it’ll be better for your economy,” he says.

Morland, 37, is an accomplished artist with his own brand, LURK. He says he always wanted to have his own studio, because tattooing is a great way to make money while still doing art, but he also wanted a space to show his artwork. It blossomed into the idea of offering a place for other artists to showcase their work. When he opened the gallery, he started noticing how many young artists were interested in participating in local culture, but he says it is a very slow process.

“It takes a lot of time to get the public to understand what this scene is all about,” he says.

“People may get a little intimidated by the tattoo side of Electric Umbrella, and the older generation of visitors who come through the gallery recognize the art as novel, and they acquaint it, but do not necessarily appreciate it. That’s probably the way it’s always going to be, but I think it’s getting better as younger people are really stoked about what we do.”

Morland says the artists usually contact him through social media, by word of mouth, or via common friends. The gallery has held about 24 art shows so far and is fully booked for the next year.

“We are going to be booking into 2015 soon,” Morland says, adding that can be a challenge because “most people don’t even know where they are going to be in 2015.”

The full schedule and the number of artists seeking to showcase, speaks of the local interest in alternative culture, and Morland’s current agenda now involves reaching out to the city council for support and collaboration. He also hopes to make a better relationship with the Downtown Nanaimo Business Improvement Association (DNBIA).

He says he would welcome more substantial attention from the city and the DNBIA regarding the social and cultural events he hosts at the Electric Umbrella. He hopes that making stronger ties with the city council could help the public notice how the young generation’s art makes Nanaimo a vibrant city, and even a cultural hot spot.

“We get cruise ships coming to town, and a lot of the passengers go through our gallery and are quite impressed. But we are not on any brochure that would say ‘go check out that place.’ Hopefully that will happen in the future.”

Electric Umbrella also engages in various charity activities. Recycled Radness, an art sale event hosted by the gallery, helped raise money for the local hospital. Morland would like to hold similar events on a regular basis, but, as he says, he needs to find the best and most suitable platform, because selling art for charity can be a challenging task in Nanaimo.

Aside from charity, Morland has organized and participated in cultural events such as the Paint & Skate street festival in summer 2011. Morland had an 18 foot wide skate ramp brought to downtown Nanaimo, painted it in his signature style, and invited both professional and amateur artists and skateboarders from the island and Vancouver, as well as from the U.S., to take part in the festival. He says he wanted to create a skateable art piece to showcase his and other artists’ work and skills, as well as to demonstrate the connection between skateboarding and art. He believes that despite skateboarding being considered a sport, it is artistic in its essence.

“Skateboarding is extremely creative,” he says. “Skateboarders use their environment in a much more creative way than an average person does.  You use handrails to walk down stairs, but a skateboarder sees the trick he can do on it.”

“I remember reading an interview with one of the major architects in London who started to do architecture that was skateable,” Morland says. “He thought it was really awesome that people were using those big grey ugly buildings as something creative.”

“On the flipside, skateboarding tends to be illegal, but you’ve got this awesome, positive thing being done on buildings that would never be used for anything else than whatever business they do inside them. So I think it is an art. It’s not like soccer, where you have to follow certain rules and score points. In skateboarding, you can make up tricks if you want, or not do any tricks if you don’t feel like it. There are no rules there, and that freedom has an art form to it.”

PMorland’s art on the skate ramp at the Paint and Skate street festival in August 2011. Photo courtesy of Russ Morland

Morland compares the freedom in skateboarding to the one of hip hop culture or graffiti art.

“There is no real pleasure in it other than your own. If I go out and land a trick down some stairs, and I’m on my own, I do it only for myself.  If somebody paints a mural on a wall in the middle of nowhere, he does it only for himself, and maybe his friends. It’s not like somebody will come up to him and say ‘here’s a thousand dollar cheque for your awesome art piece.’ A lot of times the wall just gets painted over.”

Morland had been working in skate shops and painting until he took an apprentice job at the Black & Blue Tattoo studio in Nanaimo. His career took off rapidly, and after ten years and thousands of tattoos done, he now remembers most of his clients by tattoo rather than name, unless it is a big piece that required multiple sessions. He explains that some bigger sleeve or back pieces take up to 30 hours, and when done by a two-hour session once a month, the work spreads out over a long period of time.

“Clients become friends, because you see them so many times and spend so much time with them. They trust you and let you into their lives.” He says he’s had clients getting so many hours of work done they went through break ups or had babies during the time. “You end up being there through the process,” he says.

Morland plans to stay in Nanaimo for a while to pay off the business loan and find someone to fill his space so he can pass Electric Umbrella to his crew.

“I’ve got a big project coming up that is really going to change the whole game for me. But until that project is physically in my hands, I’m not going to get too excited. Part of me wants to go to bigger cities and immerse in the scene there. Another part wants to get a property somewhere in Cedar, have a farm, and not be around people at all.”

Morland says that as the art world is getting increasingly influenced by social media, the business side of his art no longer depends purely on art shows.

“I can make more sales through Facebook or Instagram sometimes than at art shows. It works this way for most artists. The situation is changing this way.”

Morland, however, believes the existence of a physical gallery plays an important role as a social agent and a support for the beginning artists.  Even when Electric Umbrella went through drier seasons and struggled with low gallery attendance, Morland prompted the business to carry on and only focus on the things to improve instead of mistakes.

“The way I move in life is always forward,” he says. I never go sideways or look back. It’s always forward.”

He hopes to push his artwork in the same direction and reach the point when he will only tattoo two or three days a week, concentrate  more on painting, and spend time travelling. He is drawn to the idea of doing a travelling art show around Europe in the future, but he is also considering various opportunities to establish himself here and continue helping make local culture better and cultivate the ground for young, emerging artists.

“If I ever leave or just fizzle away and become unimportant at some point, those kids will be able to take that spot and foundation and do it themselves. That’s how culture is created. People move aside and let the kids take over. Then they will step aside and let the new kids take over after them. That’s how it should be done.”

The next art show, Scratch the Surface, will present Rigo Gonzales and his skateboard photography. The opening party took place on Saturday, October 26.