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Eastside crawling with culture

Artists let the public into their spaces for the annual open house this weekend


Jane Wolsak's "Brown Jacket" 2007. Acrylic paint on wood panel.
Jane Wolsak's "Brown Jacket" 2007. Acrylic paint on wood panel.

When Robert Pickton first made headlines, Jane Wolsak was in court, drawing a solemn expression on the now-convicted serial killer’s face.

Wolsak is a courtroom illustrator and an accomplished still life painter. This weekend, the Eastside Culture Crawl will offer a rare window into the world of working artists like Wolsak. She is just one personality among hundreds of talented artists featured in this year’s festival beginning Friday.

The Culture Crawl allows the public to peek inside the creative spaces of more than 300 local painters, photographers, jewelers, furniture makers, sculptors, glassblowers and performance artists. Across Strathcona and the Downtown Eastside, artists of every stripe will open their studio doors to more than 10,000 festival-goers.

In her fourth-floor studio overlooking downtown Vancouver, Wolsak keeps dozens of courtroom sketchbooks stacked neatly in a corner. “People are most interested in the Pickton trial and the Air India trial,” she says.

While flipping through an old sketchbook, Wolsak says the Culture Crawl is an opportunity to showcase her unfinished works. “Because we’re in our studios you can see what’s behind the scenes–not just the finished product.”

“With my sketches, the product ends up on television or in newspapers,” she adds. “But there’s always little bits of drawings people haven’t seen.”

When she’s away from the courts, Wolsak paints acrylic images of worn clothing. With immaculate detail, she brings to life ordinary hats, jackets and coveralls.

“I think clothes have the essence of a person in them,” she says. “Although I don’t do pictures of people, I like the feeling of a person that stays within clothing.”

Wolsak recalls one garment she pinched from the edge of a dumpster.

The brown work jacket, dotted with rips, frays and oil stains, still hangs in her studio at 901 Main Street. “I have this imagined story about the man who wore it,” she says. “He likes to wear it when he’s doing odd jobs and dirty things –but his wife always tells him to throw it away.”

Wolsak has worked at 901 Main (next to the Cobalt Motor Hotel) for 19 years. In that time, she has witnessed the Culture Crawl evolve from a series of open houses into a renowned citywide event.

“I’ve actually been here longer than I have in any home,” Wolsak says. “In a way it’s become my home.”

But Wolsak will soon be leaving her home at 901 Main. Residential development company Amacon purchased the heritage studio space, and will convert the building into high-end apartments beginning next year.

“Buildings like this can’t survive because the property values are so high,” Wolsak laments. Although members of the Culture Crawl lobbied against the project, the development permit was approved by city council.

“We’re now in negotiations with the development company for an alternative space,” Wolsak says –though the prospective studios will not be within the Crawl’s boundaries. “But it’s great that they offered us anything at all.”

Despite woes about dwindling studio space, the festival’s organizers expressed excitement about the upcoming event. “I can’t wait,” says Dori Luthy-Harrison, president of the Eastside Culture Crawl Society. “Our studios are like offices 362 days of the year, but for three days we mop the floors and put on the spotlights. It feels really authentic to be validated by the community this way.”

Published November 2008. Photos courtesy of the artist.

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