An invitation to enter the Comox Valley Art Gallery, where art and community intersect.
THE TIME OF THINGS
A masked woman reaches toward the fabric hanging on the art gallery wall.
“Don’t!” admonishes her friend, gently.
“I know. I won’t,” the masked woman says wistfully. “But I want to touch it so much.”
She is standing in front of Our Healing, a piece of Coast Salish weaving created by Susan Pavel of Olympia, Washington. Pavel’s work is part of the exhibition The Time of Things: The Continuum of Indigenous Customary Practice into Contemporary Art.
Featuring the work of five women artists, The Time of Things almost didn’t happen. It opened on March 14, 2020, for just one day. And then everything closed.
COVID-19 caused the Comox Valley Art Gallery (CVAG) to shut its doors for four months—long after the planned closing date for The Time of Things. But the gallery’s curatorial team worked with the artists and guest curator to extend the show, and people were able to see the exhibition from the gallery’s re-opening in July until September 11.
All summer, around the world, people were rising up in protest against racial injustice and police brutality during a global pandemic. The atmosphere gave added significance to an exhibition that considered the continuum of Indigenous cultural practice in the aftermath of cultural genocide and devastating pandemic.
WALK WITH ME
Some look startled. Some look sorrowful. Some look enraged.
They are sitting around a fire pit on the CVAG plaza. They have just returned from a 45-minute walk through downtown Courtenay. For passersby, they must have made an odd and striking sight: fifteen masked people, observing social distancing but moving as a group, all wearing matching headsets, and deeply absorbed by what they are listening to.
They have been listening to the stories of people sharing their experiences with the overdose crisis. The stories are personal, authentic, and heart wrenching.
As the participants share their responses to what they just experienced, gratitude is the most common sentiment expressed. It’s directed to people mostly not present—the people who openly shared their stories.
The gallery had long been planning an arts-based community action project about the overdose public health emergency. The subject became even more crucial to address when the COVID-19 pandemic began to cause a direct increase in the number of overdose deaths.
Because the pandemic also made it challenging to hold indoor group activities, the project evolved into an outdoor event built around walking tours and soundscapes. Walk With Me: Uncovering the human dimensions of the overdose crisis ran from September 30 to November 21, 2020; workplaces and organizations can still book these walks.
SPACE BETWEEN US
The viewer closes his eyes, draws a deep breath, opens his eyes, shakes his head. This is important to see, but very uncomfortable.
He is looking at Kill Yourself, a work created by Mackai Sharp. Along with a challenging open letter to our community, the work features the words of bigotry and intolerance Mackai has heard as a queer youth in the Comox Valley.
The viewer listens to Mackai’s open letter to the end. And then he says softly to himself, “Thank you.”
Mackai’s work is part of the larger thematic program Space Between Us, which ran at the gallery from December 17, 2020 to February 27, 2021. Encompassing exhibitions, creative residencies, and publications, Space Between Us was a response to COVID, and a deep examination of human relationships.
One of the beautiful things about working at the Comox Valley Art Gallery is witnessing people’s direct, personal, and often emotional reactions to art.
Our programming is designed to dive deep into themes that are relevant in our community. We foster and present work that often provokes, challenges, or inspires new ways of seeing things. We have a long history of being responsive to emerging events, needs, and issues in our community.
We know that many people perceive the world of art as exclusive or institutional, and we are dedicated to breaking down those barriers and welcoming more people through the doors. Making the gallery engaging for all is an ongoing project that calls for constant adaptation and evolution, as reflected in our history that dates back to 1974.
I was a gobsmacked teenager attending Courtenay Junior when the Central Island Arts Alliance first opened its doors in a ramshackle wooden building on McPhee. (Both the school and the original Arts Alliance building are long gone.)
I had never seen anything like it, with its art, crafts, exotic food, poetry readings, music (oh, those Pied Pumkin concerts!), and assortment of rare individuals that somehow formed into a coherent (or incoherent?) community. They were a pretty odd group, for adults—they were in their 20s! And some even older than that!—but I, and some of my friends, found a welcome in this place so far removed from our usual world.
I could not have predicted that someday far in the future, I would become the executive director of this unique organization, today known as the Comox Valley Art Gallery. I only knew that I was altered by the arts and artists, and they would forever be in my life.
The Arts Alliance changed considerably over the years, moving buildings, updating its mandate, and eventually changing its name. In 1997, while located in a former pool hall on 4th Street, it formally became the Comox Valley Art Gallery to reflect its core purpose as a venue for showcasing art.
In 2005, the gallery moved to its current location in Courtenay’s old fire hall. With temperature and humidity controls, high ceilings, wheelchair access, a plaza, and much more space, CVAG had matured into a full-fledged contemporary art gallery.
Since I joined the staff in 2014, I have watched CVAG continue to evolve and adapt. Under the leadership of Program Director Angela Somerset (who joined the gallery team the same year I did), we place an emphasis on programming that facilitates a deep exploration of thematic concepts. We create a space that does more than present artwork—we foster the creation of new work, we link the work of multiple artists, and we connect programming to multiple organizations within our community.
To make this happen, we’ve established studio space where artists can create on site, launched a residency program, upgraded our technology, activated our window gallery for 24-7 viewing, and use our plaza to host more outdoor activities.
Our goal is to connect our community to the broader world of contemporary art, and ultimately the most potent outcome is an intimate interaction between the individual viewer and the art.