Eastside Culture Crawl offers rare glimpse into sculptor's work

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

By Erika Thorkelson

THE VANCOUVER SUN, November 13, 2013

The route to the Robinson Studio Gallery is a spiral through industrial hallways covered in posters for exhibits. The grind of machinery from the cabinetmakers below reverberates through every corner, blocked out only by massive doors.It’s a place most people would never think to go, but this is precisely the kind of hidden treasure the Eastside Culture Crawl — now in its 17th year — seeks to reveal.

Door after door of the 1000 Parker Street building, once a paint factory and now an invaluable part of this city’s artistic landscape, reveals cluttered workspaces and more tucked-away studios and galleries belonging to artists in a plethora of different media. It’s in buildings like these, chosen for their rugged fixtures and cheap rent, that some of the city’s most exciting visual art comes to life. Though artist David Robinson has been in the space for more than a decade, he says the people he encounters often surprise him.

“The building is big enough that there are different neighbourhoods,” he says. As rents have increased, the studios have been carved into smaller sublets with more and more artists sharing space. “The place started out 30 years ago really, really cheap and now it’s just merely inexpensive,” he says.

Robinson is working on a colossal human figure, part of an installation called Critical Mass for a commission that will eventually end up on a manicured lawn. The maquette, a small-scale model of the finished work, will be on display in his gallery during the Culture Crawl. The line between visual artists and the general public can seem unbreakable, but Robinson sees the commission process as a partnership. Often, the client’s ideas will lead him down unexpected avenues, drive him to work with subjects or materials that he wouldn’t have considered on his own.

Some of his best known pieces grew out of commissions. His suspended works — a series of figures perched on taut ropes — began as an idea for the lobby of an engineering firm. Eventually the clients went another way, but they left Robinson with an idea that would help shape his career.

The Culture Crawl allows for a similar softening of the line between artist and public. Seeing the raw materials opens up the process, touching people in new ways. The effect can be profoundly emotional.

Esther Rausenberg, the culture crawl’s executive director, is a photographer who has been a part of the event since it was just a handful of studios throwing a fundraiser. She remembers one year in her own studio when a few attendees were moved to tears by the work. “It wasn’t a show that was about something that was a heavy issue,” she says. “I think they were just overwhelmed by it. There are moments where there are insights from the public that are just really gems for artists who open themselves up in this way.”

Each year she saw the crawl as an opportunity to shed knew light on her work through conversation with the public.

“I recall being inundated by so many unexpected questions, people commenting on things that you just would never have thought of,” she says. “It’s interesting how many different interpretations a work can have for somebody and how it can inspire them.”

Robinson’s studio will not be open this year. The space was simply too large and full of expensive equipment to handle the massive numbers of visitors the event attracts.

“You get so many people, you get the occasional feeling that someone is here to case the joint,” he jokes.

But there will be many other studios open in the Parker building and all over the east side, giving the curious public a rare glimpse into the rough work that goes on before a painting or a sculpture takes its place in a gallery, museum or corporate lobby. This year’s crawl features 84 buildings and more than 420 artists and craftmakers, all open to the public for free.