Patrons at the Courtyard Cafe in Qualicum Beach enjoy coffee and conversation under a portion of the Paint Pals gallery that went up on the cafe walls in late 2014

THURSDAY SPOTLIGHT: Artists battle unexposed images

The second of a three-part series by reporter J.R. Rardon about the changing face of art sales in Parksville Qualicum Beach

Meryl Tryon still recalls the woman who came into her business last year and stopped in front of a painting of a red bird. The customer wandered from wall to wall, considering the other paintings on display.

“She kept coming back to that red bird, though,” said Tryon. “Finally, she said, ‘I’ve got to have it.'”

When the customer paid for the painting and returned to the street, she did not emerge from an art gallery. Her red bird was perched in the Courtyard Cafe in downtown Qualicum Beach. And Tryon did not receive a dime in commission.

Her cafe “gallery” is the result of a partnership with the Paint Pals, a group of 13 local artists who provide art for her walls and rotate the selection of paintings every six months.

The symbiotic relationship is just one of the collaborative approaches mid-Island artists are using to get their work into the public eye and, ideally, into its homes.

The Paint Pals. The Silk Worm silk-painting club. Arrowsmith Potters Guild. The Beachcombers Painters Group of Craig Bay. These artists and many more are finding willing partners in coffee shops and restaurants, theatre and hotel lobbies, any place they can find that most elusive of commodities — exposure.

And that exposure is critical whether you’re a recent art student trying to sell your first painting or a world-renowned carver whose works can command six-figure prices.

“Selling art is more like fishing than hunting,” said Shane Wilson, a Nanoose Bay antler carver. “You’re dangling your stuff out there and hoping for a bite, rather than stalking and targeting a demographic.”

Wilson has boasted a website since 1997 and recently managed to land a multi-page feature spread in Arabella, a Canadian magazine of art, architecture and design. His work has been featured three times on the cover of Ice Floe, a literary journal of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. He was not paid a fee for the use of his images, but considers it a form of in-kind promotion.

“I’m actually quite happy to share it for free, because it’s another path that can lead to something else,” he said. “I’m amazed at how many people share photos of my work, through sites like Pinterest, Facebook, Flickr. They don’t buy anything, but they spread the love.”

Wilson’s sculpture studio is part of the Nanoose Bay Studio Tour, a joint effort by a dozen separate studios that opens each of them to the public at Thanksgiving, at Christmas and once in a spring event. The individual studios are either open regular hours or by appointment, but by combining for these public tours, they all see a boost in turnout.

One of the stops, which is already a double studio made up of Dave Kasprick’s Red Cod Forge metal sculpture and his wife Debra’s Affinity Stone Jewellery, further teamed up with other artisans to showcase the work of seven different participants during the most recent Christmas tour.

In a similar show of combining forces, a pair of regional arts societies have established multi-use facilities centred around art, but with other activities designed to draw traffic.

The Old School House Arts Centre in Qualicum Beach was established by a society of artists, patrons and supporters who battled to save the former Qualicum Beach School from demolition and turned it into a gallery complete with working studios, a gift shop and regular music concerts.

The Oceanside Community Arts Council operates Parksville’s McMillan Arts Centre in a similar fashion.

During a recent reception at The MAC, Janice Austin sat in one of the gallery rooms, surrounded by works of members.

“Say somebody’s coming to a concert on Friday night, and they come in here for coffee at intermission,” Austin said while sweeping her arm to indicate the paintings and photos. “What do they see?”

The MAC has also teamed with Café Adagio in Parksville for its Members Out and About program, with the café displaying the work of a different artist in monthly exhibits.

As non-profit societies, neither OCAC nor TOSH rely on the sales of art to remain in business. While they may feature exhibits of internationally juried and award-winning professional artists, those exhibits are interspersed with showings for members of all abilities, or for collectives like Beachcomer Painters, who are making their first appearance at The MAC this month.

“I’m pleased out of my little old mind,” Beachcomber Carole Ortner said after addressing a large audience at the exhibit opening reception on Saturday.

Margery Blom, who manages the Members’ Gallery at The MAC and who is a member of the Canadian Federation of Artists, said there is a clear distinction between types of artists offering their work for sale.

“It depends if you need to sell art to make a living or if you do it as a hobby,” said Blom, who took a teaching job to be able to afford her art habit. She wound up with a teaching career and only began painting prolifically after her retirement. “I have a pension, so I don’t need to sell art to live.”

Those who do can still try the traditional avenue of a commercial gallery, which has no room for the kind of sentimentality that opens a society exhibit to students and amateurs.

As one commercial gallery operator noted, “We’re not a museum. It has to be commercially viable.”

Even then, as Blom and others know well, there is no sure path to sales of art.

“I’ve shipped to the Canadian Federation of Artists’ gallery on Granville Island for their members’ show, but nothing (I sent) was selling,” she said. “So I looked up online to see what was selling. They would have 80 pieces in the show, and they sold three.

“It’s about being out there and getting exposure. And even then, you might not sell.”

Next week: Art takes a road trip on the information superhighway.

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