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Memories of Artfest: 1992 – 1995

Twenty years later, local artist Margaret Rodgers links up with Steven Frank to remember when Durham Artfest infused downtown Oshawa with creativity, collaboration–and a little controversy too.

All images courtesy Steven Frank, unless otherwise stated.

"A lamentable wealth of untenanted properties, in combination with dedicated organizers and an enormous amount of artistic talent and energy, all provided a perfect storm. Artists and landlords gained exposure, but the biggest beneficiary was the city itself." – Margaret Rodgers

This fall marks twenty years since Artfest, Oshawa’s amazing fortnight-long exhibition of art in various downtown locales. During four Septembers, from 1992 through 1995, the project turned Oshawa’s inner core into a must-see destination for art lovers. Empty stores, offices and industrial spaces were transformed into galleries, spruced up, and suggesting the possibility for urban renewal.

Steven Frank proposed the idea at "Focus on the Future," a business improvement forum. (That era's version of the present-day Art of Transition projects run by Durham Tourism.) His familiarity with the real estate market opened many landlords’ doors. His partner was Gary Greenwood, a recent émigré from the Toronto art scene, who brought experience working with alternatives to traditional gallery venues. The 1990s recession had wreaked havoc on many businesses, so there was plenty of available space.

Media co-operated, especially The Oshawa Times, which, until 1994, published a profile of each artist as well as a catalogue. Articles also appeared in the Toronto Star, The Toronto Sun, and The Globe & Mail.

There was a delicious scandal when Bill Lishman’s Hasta La Vista Baby was deemed obscene by some employees at the Michael Starr Building, and great controversy (i.e. great press) ensued.  After public outcry, the 23-foot-high sculpture of a pregnant woman with adult male “fetus” was given a reprieve, the bureaucrats backed down, and all was well.

When the work began, artists pitched in to paint walls, scrub floors, install lighting, and basically do the heavy lifting that it takes to mount any exhibition, let alone such a major undertaking.

It was a heroic job on the part of Frank and Greenwood to keep the whole thing moving along, stamping out the little brushfires that always emerge when so many creative people are involved.

Each summer they would tour 40 to 50 artists through a number of locations, allowing each to choose where s/he might find inspiration to exhibit.

Established artists such as Lishman or Edward Falkenberg participated alongside newcomers Clint and Scotti Griffin and Jean Paul Rehr. Many have gone on to significant careers in various aspects of the art world.

Frank asserts that the third Artfest was the pinnacle, where the Alger Press building (now UOIT’s 61 Charles) became action central. Large enough to accommodate many artists as well as music and drama performances, it oozed atmosphere and captured imaginations. One whole room housed a giant camera that Frank used for his projection of historic and contemporary images.

However, some of the smaller spaces also punched above their weight.

Anastasia McEwen installed an eerie kitchen tableau in the backroom of a storefront space on King St. with drawings of sprouting potatoes and hanging bodies.

Along with innovative, accomplished painting were sculpture, video, printmaking and installation work. Bill Fraser created giant straw animals and set them grazing in a field at Bond and Mary Streets. Maralynn Cherry draped printed white linen in a tall, vault-like room in the Alger Press building.

Artists were presented with the freedom to work in any medium, to grind an image into a steel door (Frank), lay sand designs on the floor (Rowena Dykins), or tuck plaster body shapes into alcoves (Judith Mason).

A location that inspired me personally was the former Oshawa House, on the north west corner of King and Centre streets, dating back to 1838 when it was a hotel on the King’s highway.

After the first year, the popularity of the project grew, necessitating a jury process for new additions to the roster. Meetings were arranged in empty apartments and upstairs bars, including the Moon Room, run by Kerri King, where the rowdy and rancorous were kept in check as slide presentations were reviewed and voted on. Artists were both senior professionals and recent graduates.

A picture from one of the meetings mirrors a similar one in the Bouckley archive, where city elders are convening to discuss Oshawa business. It is possibly the same apartment where the Artfest group sits. 

Opening night would see the streets filled with gallery-goers moving from place to place. One year Artfest opened in co-ordination with the Robert McLaughlin Gallery’s Abstracts at Home, a Painters Eleven exhibition that revisited the nascent group’s show in the Toronto Simpson's store.

Some of us geared up in fifties garb in honour of that earlier event in Canadian art history, with its strong ties to Oshawa through Alexandra Luke. I channelled Luke in a nice little black hat with a veil, and RMG Curator Linda Jansma recalls the green and black printed dress her mother had sewn for her from a 1950s pattern that she'd kept in a cupboard for decades.

High school students assisted with gallery sitting and teachers toured with their classes. Following the 1992 success, Artfest expanded to include performances, storytelling, and always, music. Top Toronto bands such as Bourbon Tabernacle Choir and Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet shared billing with local talent. Durham Shoestring Performers created a mock protest against modern art outside the Alger Building, and George Blake from the Durham Folklore Society told folktales from his African-Caribbean heritage.

A lamentable wealth of untenanted properties, in combination with dedicated organizers and an enormous amount of artistic talent and energy, all provided a perfect storm. Artists and landlords gained exposure, but the biggest beneficiary was the city itself.

If you are interested in exploring the work of the participating artists of Durham Artfest click here.

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