Creativity needs an outlet, and 25 years ago, four Atikokan artists launched the Pictograph Gallery after becoming discouraged about the town’s lack of an artistic venue. Painters Sally Burns, Peggy Michels, Elsa Kosola and Lise Sorensen were taking Lakehead University fine art classes here, and at course end put on an exhibit at the Library. Still, neither that facility nor the Museum was set up to provide the kind of place artists needed to show and sell their work, and celebrate artistic expression. Atikokan artists needed their own gallery.
It was exciting to think about the possibilities of bringing in both local and regional artist to put on exhibits. Still, where would they get the funds or the space? “Bob Michels [then head of the AEDC] said ‘Talk to Fran Speer [who owns the Voyageur Mall], and he also said ‘Get a board together,’” recalls Burns.
They did both in short order: Speer lent them the downstairs space free of charge, (“That’s what has always enabled us to do this.”) and they incorporated shortly thereafter with a handful of artists. Jo-Anne Lachapelle-Beyak, who had researched the increasingly popular model of artist-run galleries, became chair.
The fledgling group managed to secure a job development grant to conduct renovations, and Lise Sorensen adorned the window with their new branding: the Pictograph logo. The name was something “we thought and thought about, and [chose] because a pictograph is a personal mark, and that’s what art is about – your personal mark and self expression,” said Burns. “When I’ve seen the pictographs [ancient Aboriginal paintings on rocks found in Quetico Park], I always thought about the person who did it.”
The grand opening was held March 11, 1988, and quickly the group “put our heads together because we had to think about who would be able to put on shows.”
The four artists each exhibited their own work, but because the women were busy with jobs and families, the gallery was typically only open a day or two per week. Soon however, the fertile artistic community here began to result in more and more local artists popping up with their own work. For many, it was a spring board to nurture those talents.
“It was a format where they could aspire to have a show and enabled them to be more visible and more productive,” added Burns, who stepped away from an active role with the gallery within a few years due to work commitments. “It has kept going so well, and I’m happy every time I go there [to see it flourishing].”
And indeed it is. Unlike many community organizations struggling with volunteer burnout and dwindling membership, the gallery continues to be enthusiastically supported by a board of six artists (chair Lori McCluskey, Christine Spilchuk, Vivian Gilmour, Andrea Allison, Mary Dyck and Janice Matichuk), a paid membership of about 75 and a pool of some 30 volunteers willing to lend a hand to help set up for the eight or more yearly exhibits, workshops, and to keep the gallery and gift shop open five to six afternoons per week.
Finding artists willing to show their work is no longer a challenge, with artists from across the region and the province putting on exhibitions here. In fact, the gallery is now booking into 2014.
The town alone is “a hotbed of creativity”. Artists “often approach us regarding exhibits and we’re always amazed by how creative people here are,” said McCluskey, adding jokingly, “Maybe it’s something to do with long, cold winters. I think everyone is an artist in their own way, though, they just have to discover and nurture it.”
“We’re the opposite of burnout,” said McCluskey, who has been active in the gallery for 20 years. “It’s been rejuvenated lately. It’s an active, forward-thinking board.”
For McCluskey, a painter and sketcher, the new gallery was originally a way for “to get involved with the community. I was supply teaching at St. Patrick’s and had a house full of kids. It was a way of getting involved and supporting the arts.”
Now, exhibits typically run for six weeks, featuring a broad range of artistic expression: painting, photography, crafts, pottery, sculpting, wood and metal work, cross stitch, quilting, weaving and much more.
“We’re always on the lookout for something a little different or new. We sit down on a monthly basis and plan ahead,” she said, promising some new and returning artists guaranteed to create a buzz. Some have elicited strong emotion and even controversy – not surprising considering art is self expression. One recent show to have elicited strong reaction was that of Nestor Falls visual artist Bill McFarlane, who after 35 years as a graphic artist explored his own personal identity crisis with his vivid depictions of anguish and despair for his Metamorphosis exhibit.
“We had more comments on that one than any others [recently],” said McCluskey. A depiction of a green screaming face repelled some, while others “would say ‘I know how he feels,’” recalled McCluskey. “I can’t wait to see what he brings this time.” (He’s booked again in 2013.)
Thunder Bay artist Pam Cain’s E nat’e me show which depicted the interior workings of the human body, was also much discussed by viewers. Southern Ontario graphic artist Margo Splane is also slated to return to the gallery with her thought-provoking impressionistic renderings.
McCluskey recalls an exhibit of Atikokan artist Alana Marohnic’s work a few years back and one particular painting that triggered an unlikely reaction in one elderly man. An old world European style painting of a bride and groom with dark ominous clouds behind them, prompted World War II memories for a veteran German soldier who shared with McCluskey the memories the painting called to his mind. He recalled rescuing a military medic from drowning in a river, of witnessing bombs landing and helping people trapped in the destroyed buildings. “I listened to him for about an hour and a half,” she said. “That’s what art can do… I’ll never forget it. It was an incredible afternoon.”
A tradition for the gallery is an annual exhibit of artwork from all local schools. “Kids love to be creative; it’s another form of expression. To see that work on display only reinforces it.”
Visitation at the Gallery is strong.
“We get lots of positive feedback from the artists about how many people view their show,” with some even noting that Atikokan showings draw bigger crowds than ones held in Fort Frances.
“It’s a very artsy – crafty community and people like to come down and see what’s going on,” said McCluskey.
By way of 25th anniversary celebrations, there are a few special events in store, thanks to an Ontario Power Generation donation which “as a result we’re able to celebrate our 25th in fine style,” said McCluskey.
Year-long celebrations will continue with a silent silver auction of arts, antiques and collectibles, May 9-12, a wine and cheese celebration for members, an anniversary tree with new monthly decorations (created by Andrea Allison) for the public to help decorate ( by Christmas, it should be an impressive sight), numerous workshops through the summer, and more special exhibits.
Keep an eye out for bird carvings by Dave Elder, Kristy Cameron’s Aboriginal art work and quilt displays.
The gallery received provincial funding a few years ago for major renovations, and annual federal grants have helped to hire summer students.
Through the Ontario Arts Council, the gallery recommends artists for grants to assist with exhibition, framing and shipping expenses.
For routine operational costs, the board relies on membership and fundraising. Memberships are $10 per year, $15 for two years and $100 for a lifetime membership, of which there are several.
Fundraisers include the Christmas Market, the gift store, artist-run workshops and some art sales, of which the gallery gets a commission.
A recent board idea to start an ongoing used book sale has proven “unbelievably popular.” “It’s getting bigger and now it’s spreading down the hall.” Even outside of gallery hours, people will peruse the books and leave their payment on the shelf.
The gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday, noon to 3 pm. For more info, check out their website, www.AtikokanPictographGallery.com, or phone 597-4344 or drop by during gallery hours.
The board credits the continued support of the community, artists, mall owner Speer, the mall merchants, and “an active, forward-thinking board” for a successful quarter century of nurturing and celebrating the creative community.
“It’s a thrill [to be involved] and a wonderful thing to do when you’re retired.”