Yukon Artists at Work celebrates 10 years

Persuading artists to work together often isn't easy. Harreson Tanner likens it to "trying to put socks on feral cats." Tanner knows what he's talking about.

Persuading artists to work together often isn’t easy. Harreson Tanner likens it to “trying to put socks on feral cats.”

Tanner knows what he’s talking about. The sculptor is an original member of the Yukon Artists at Work Co-op, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month.

In order for YAAW to become a reality, artists had to check their egos at the door, said Tanner. The payoff: a place to sell their work, and a chance to collaborate with the same artists they would usually compete against.

Lillian Loponen, or, as Tanner calls her, The Divine Miss Lilly, is another original member. The anniversary celebration coincides with her first solo exhibit at the gallery in six years. She says the co-operative is “like a family. We look after each other. Artists are usually loners.”

Loponen says the cooperative is a self-made business; artists work for artists. To get the original co-operative off the ground, everyone had something to offer: optimism, vision, carpentry skills, interior design, accounting, marketing or business senses.

The co-operative gallery is now squeezed into a strip mall on Industrial Road, after moving from its original location in McRae. But the legacy of collaboration continues.

Member artists have to work a shift per month at the gallery. When they tour visitors through the gallery, they point out favourite works by other artists.

Heather Hyatt is a realism artist who draws with graphite pencils. She has been a member for around four years. She says she is glad Loponen’s work is on exhibit for the anniversary, because it is so good. She stops by a life-size oil portrait by Suzanne Paleczny and points out the unexpected colours worked into the painting. “But it works,” she says.

The community engendered in YAAW encompasses more than artists. “There are non-artists here all the time. They’ve really taken an ownership of the place,” says Paleczny. They ask artists on shift about their own work, and how long it takes to complete a piece. “It feels cool for non-artists to hang-out with artists,” says Tanner, and the YAAW gallery gives people access.

Since opening, YAAW has managed to wrangle a financial existence through sales commissions and artist membership fees. Today there are 35 member artists. The gallery is on a tour-bus route in the summer, when sales are higher. They also ship art to South America and Europe.

But Paleczny says the co-operative is hanging on by a string financially these days. Art sales are low in this uncertain financial climate. However, artists don’t talk about money as much as they talk about the talents of their peers. Before YAAW, there wasn’t a space for professional Yukon artists to show their work. Now, there is a regular inventory of art. It has turned artists into local celebrities.

Loponen captures scenes of Yukon winter with watercolour paint. Imagine greyish-green coffee-stained fog, punctured with rays of slanted January sun. Unlike other Yukon artists, such as Ted Harrison, Loponen doesn’t outline separate colours with black borders; her bold shades bleed into one another.

Loponen says people have been asking where to buy some of her original paintings. She works with watercolour, which she says is a difficult medium, and she is a slow producer. But, she says, “scarcity creates a high demand.”

Loponen describes her body of work as a timeline from 1982 to the present, a “melody of Yukon images.” Lately she has been “trying out the magic of green” in an attempt to capture the winter essence of the Yukon.

Loponen’s new paintings will be on display until Nov. 20. Tanner, meanwhile, is optimistic about the next 10 years of YAAW. “We should have a good long legacy,” he says.