Connecting with the Local Art Scene

by Isabella Ranallo | 02.08.22 | Arts, Features

In a world of two-day Amazon shipping, it’s easy to become disconnected from one’s own community. There’s a growing emphasis on supporting local businesses, and an achievable first step could be to take time to discover and support local artists. However, it can be a struggle to determine how to connect or reconnect with Vancouver […]
Artzi Stuff Illustration by Malcolm Simard

In a world of two-day Amazon shipping, it’s easy to become disconnected from one’s own community.

There’s a growing emphasis on supporting local businesses, and an achievable first step could be to take time to discover and support local artists. However, it can be a struggle to determine how to connect or reconnect with Vancouver Island’s art scene.

Artzi Stuff is a good place to start. 

Located in downtown Nanaimo on Church Street, Artzi Stuff offers arts and crafts ranging from pottery, scarves, glasswork, metalwork, and jewelry; all made by local artists.

Owner Tanya Streeter said the vision of Artzi Stuff has always been “to represent local, handmade art.” In the 13 years the shop has been open, she has not strayed from that vision.

For a time, Streeter hosted open houses at her studio in the wintertime and would invite fellow artists to sell their work there. She enjoyed the one or two days hosting her “mini store,” but always felt a bit sad to give the collections back to their individual creators at the end of the event.

Streeter is an artist herself, making silk scarves and screen-printed shirts. While she sold them in other people’s stores for a long time, she always kept an eye out for a crafts store in Nanaimo, but one never came up. 

“So eventually I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll do it myself,’” Streeter said.

Artzi Stuff opened in the Old City Quarter in 2008. At first, there were about eight featured artists, as Streeter had only a six-week turnaround to fix up the place, get her business license, find interested artists, and make her own items to sell. 

In just a few months, the number of featured artists rose to 40.

Streeter said that the current premises in the New City Quarter, which she moved to in 2013, is about double the size of her first shop and can hold the wares of around 65 artists.

“[It’s] a lot of people to interact with,” she noted. “I kind of have relationships with all the people and have to keep in touch about how things are going, [especially if] more stuff needs to come in.”

This can make it difficult for new artists to find an opening at Artzi Stuff.

“People don’t usually [leave], and I’m reluctant to let people go, too, because I get to know them,” Streeter said. “So it’s hard to make space for something new. It has to be small, or the timing has to be right.”

Streeter assesses the shop’s wares every January—what’s been selling, what hasn’t been—and makes changes accordingly.

“There’s no shortage of good artists who want to sell here because there’s not a lot of places to sell, especially with COVID,” she said. “People need the stores even more to market their work.”

Streeter also said that there has been a noticeable lack of VIU students in her usual clientele. 

“I’m not sure if they haven’t discovered downtown, but I don’t feel like there’s a lot of student-aged people down here,” she said. “I do get some younger people, and they’re interested, but it doesn’t seem like enough.”

She’s noticed a lot of international students and tourists visiting her shop and wonders if it has to do with the phenomenon of locals tending not to visit the tourist attractions in their hometown.

Streeter hopes more VIU students will come to the store. “I’m not sure if they know how awesome downtown is,” she said.

Her advice to students hoping to get more involved in the local art scene would be to check out the Nanaimo Arts Council’s activities, although she acknowledges that these activities tend to attract an older crowd. 

She suggests The Vault Café, “where the cool kids go.” It’s a hub for music, art, and theatre, with lots of activities and opportunities to meet new people. There’s also the Nanaimo Artwalk every December and the street fair returning this summer. Both take place in the downtown area. 

Streeter also had some realistic, yet assuring advice for aspiring artists.

“I think that if you want to work in the arts, you just have to be committed,” she said. “After thirteen years, I feel like I’m making real money, finally! If I’d quit at five [years], when it was really hard, I wouldn’t be here.”

Streeter is aware of the impact and responsibility Artzi Stuff gives her.

“Before, maybe I thought I was doing it to make myself a job, but now I write cheques to all these people,” Streeter said. “It’s an important business that generates a lot of income for the community.”

Katherine Moore, the artist behind Strange Bird Studio, is one of the featured artists at Artzi Stuff and has been selling her glasswork since the shop opened in 2008 and has been working with glass for 25 years. Moore primarily works with fused glass, though she paints with acrylics as well. She’s also a photographer and uses her images as reference pieces for her artwork.

“Most of my glasswork is mounted on wood cradles, or in custom-made wooden frames that allow me to paint the frame to enhance the glass work,” she explained. 

Networking with other artists and shop owners in the community eventually led Moore to Artzi Stuff and four other stores across Vancouver Island that stock her artwork. She also sells directly to clients. 

“I struggled with the decision to take the leap into selling my glasswork and artwork,” she admitted. “I worried that selling my artwork would take it from a passion to something mundane, but thankfully I still love what I do.”

She’s currently working on several pieces for the Ladysmith Waterfront Gallery’s Fine Craft show in May. Submissions remain open until April 15, and Moore encourages hopeful artists to check it out. She’s also been invited to participate in a gallery show in the summer.

Moore’s advice to student artists would be to get involved.

“The artists in your community are going to be some of your best resources for information, mentoring, and cheerlead[ing]. Go to artist talks as the world opens up again, or join them online. Listening to other artists talk about how they work and where they find inspiration can be incredibly educational and motivating.”

But artistically-inclined students needn’t commute downtown to start supporting local artists. VIU has plenty of aspiring student artists with art for sale. 

Alex Waite is a fourth-year Visual Arts student who works primarily in watercolour, but also pen and ink, acrylic, and collage.

“Art is just something I was always doing as a kid,” she said. “I started to get more serious about it in high school when I found it was a way to express myself.”

Waite said her time spent studying art over the past few years has significantly helped to develop her distinctive style. 

She started selling some of her “more artisanal work” just over a year ago, including West Coast-inspired jewelry, through her Instagram page and the occasional market.

“I really don’t sell a lot of my paintings,” she said. Instead, she focuses on the love of the craft and building her portfolio. 

“Art is still a way that I express myself or get out emotions, so a lot of my paintings are very personal,” she said.

Waite has been working on a series of ocean-inspired paintings since the start of last semester and plans to have some of the larger watercolour pieces on display as part of her final grad show at the View Gallery in April.

She has some great advice for fellow student artists: “Word of mouth is very important. Don’t be afraid to tell everyone ‘Hello, I’m an artist!’ Document your work often and show it off. Take pride in your work and be confident.” 

Olivia Haysey is a fifth-year Psychology major with a Visual Arts minor. She works with oil paint and ink, but says her ceramics courses have moved clay higher up on her list of favourites.

For Haysey, art is a family affair. Her mother studied visual art at Camosun College, and was always making art when Haysey was a child. Her mother would let her help with her projects, but Haysey said she’s learned a lot in her university courses and has grown into her own artist. 

Haysey used to shy away from sharing her art, but then a friend convinced her into showcasing her work at the VIU art club’s annual ‘Progressions’ art show. 

“This experience was really helpful in showing me that people liked my artwork, and let me see that visual art could be more than my hobby,” Haysey said.

One of Haysey’s favourite pieces is a Kingfisher oil painting, because of the technical skill involved. 

“I love the water bubbles, and the bright reds and blues I was able to incorporate,” she said. “It also reminds me of home as I made the river rocks a deep red as a nod to some of the beautiful red algae that covers the coast around Port Hardy Bay.”

Her artwork is rich with creatures and characters that have made great stickers. She accepts commissions and takes questions through Instagram.

“A lot of my art, when not based on West Coast animals, is inspired by music, movies, and a lot of fairytales I read and watched as a kid,” Haysey explained. “I hope that in the future I’m able to create a series of works that really brings people into my world of books and media, combined with our beautiful surroundings.”

Haysey has done several commissions, including high school graduation murals, custom shoes, and contributions to the VIU Arts Club’s winter art sale.

She said the VIU Arts Club is also great for students to connect with the art scene on campus. The club alerts members to upcoming art shows, and how they can submit their art. 

Haysey’s enjoyed taking a variety of art classes, from drop-in pottery at Beban Park to workshops at the Lost Arts Club, which offers “classes in everything you can imagine.” 

She also named the Gallery Merrick and the Nanaimo Art Gallery (both located downtown on Commercial Street) as “spaces to talk to like-minded people and learn new skills, or tips and tricks in [skills] you’ve already begun to learn.”

Haysey’s advice for artists is to “try not to undervalue the time and supplies that went into your work [and] the amount of skill you have that’s taken a long time to practice and build upon.” 

She’s found it helpful to have items for sale at different price points, ranging from original paintings to prints or stickers in order to make art more accessible to a larger audience.

“I’m hoping to have prints done and accept custom work when this semester is up, so I’m looking forward to that,” she said. 

Her final piece of advice would be to send that email if you’re curious about a potential business opportunity or connection. 

“While sometimes there’s no response, other times people are more than happy that you’re taking an interest in something they’re passionate about and are very willing to help,” she said.

At a glance, it seems overwhelming; however, there are many openings for VIU students to get more involved with their local art scene.

Even though the ethical motives behind supporting local artists are incentive enough, the quality of the one-of-a-kind art you will find is equally rewarding.

Isabella Ranallo is a third-year Creative Writing student at VIU. She's loved storytelling ever since she stole a sheet of her mother's office paper at age four to write the first page of a story about ten kids stranded on a desert island. Her short story, "The Journal," was published in VIRL and Rebel Mountain Press' In Our Own Teen Voice 2019. These days, she spends her free time scribbling away in Moleskine notebooks or searching for cat-inspired stationery.

"Streeter hopes more VIU students will come to the store. “I’m not sure if they know how awesome downtown is,” she said."
"The VIU Arts Club is also great for students to connect with the art scene on campus."

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