The Vancouver Eastside Culture Crawl

The Eastside Culture Crawl, which occurred over four days last week in Vancouver, is a bonanza for lovers of arts, crafts and design. Held once a year for the past nineteen years, the Crawl features over 450 artists and artisans who open their studios to meet the public. The energy and creativity of the participants, and the thousands of Vancouverites who flock to visit, is more than exhilarating, especially on a bright sunny day in late fall.

The Crawl takes place on the Flats, just east of Vancouver’s well-known downtown east side. The area runs roughly from Main Street to Commercial Drive, between Powell Street near the harbour down to Terminal Avenue and First Avenue in the heart of Vancouver’s former industrial core. Some artisans work out of their homes. Others share space such as the MakerLabs on Cordova, the Octopus Studios on Powell Street, the Acme Studios on East Hastings, the Onion Studio on Union Street, or the Arts Factory on Industrial Avenue. Still others work in huge old warehouses such as the Mergatroid Building on Vernon Street and, around the corner, the even larger, four-storey Parker Street Studios. There, over 148 artisans have spacious ateliers, some with wonderfully big windows for the natural light, and rent is cheap (apparently only $1.00 a square foot). Clearly, the entire neighbourhood is teeming with creativity.

My friend and I took in the Crawl for only a few hours last Saturday. Alas, our time was far too short, and we saw only a little of what was available. We were totally amazed by the numbers and variety of the people who make their living in the visual arts. Painters, weavers, furniture makers, jewellers, potters, photographers, glass blowers, sculptors; all manner of creative artists and designers. We were also charmed by the chance to talk with artists about their work.

Most were eager to talk. Kaija Rautiainen showed us how she uses a computerized loom to produce magnificent wall hangings embossed with paint. Michael Brown, originally from Toronto, demonstrated how he achieved the effects in his evocative paintings. Jeff Martin told us how his high-end fine furniture attracts clients from abroad. Three years ago, he crowd-sourced the funding to attend a trade fair in New York City for architects and interior designers and has not looked back since. Propelled by these trade fairs, most of his furniture goes to clients in the United States, Europe and even the Middle East. When I asked if he would ever move to the United States, he said that he had spent time in New York City but wanted to live in Vancouver. A popular attraction at the Crawl were the huge bronze and serpentine sculptures of bears, birds and other animals produced by award-winning sculptor Cathryn Jenkins and her mother Fran. Fran was born in 1933 and continues to work as a prospector and sculptor.

We agree with the organizers that to do justice to the Crawl, at least two visits are necessary. The organization of the Crawl makes it easy. Popular street food vendors sell a variety of hot and cold foods: cheese sandwiches, samosas and curries, different flavours of chili, bratwurst, hot chocolate, coffee, and even crème brûlée, torched to taste. A shuttle service offers regular rides on two different routes around the area. Bicycle riders can park their bikes free of charge at the bicycle valet service. Last year, over 25,000 people attended the Culture Crawl, and more were anticipated this year.

The Culture Crawl marks the rise of the Flats as a hub for artistic creativity in Vancouver. The City is already engaged in a revisioning project to enhance the area. Apart from the cheap converted studio space, high-end art galleries are increasingly relocating to the Flats from South Granville further west. In the summer of 2017, the Emily Carr University of Art and Design will also move there from Granville Island. The vitality of the area will undoubtedly attract locals and visitors alike. The sooner, the better. Our skilled artists and artisans need support from the home crowd. And we need their imagination and creativity.

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