Ten years ago, Sunworks owner Paul Harris was approached by an art student who lamented the lack of gallery space in Red Deer.
Harris, who creates art himself, sympathized.
He pointed the young woman towards an old storeroom filled with boxes at the back of his store.
The student was told that Harris and his partner Terry Warke could contribute all the materials, lighting and staffing for a gallery, but she had to convert the space, and find someone to do the adjudicating and curating for shows.
“She said OK,” he recalled, so storage boxes were shoved under the stairs.
An old shelving unit was converted into plinths, walls were painted — and a gallery was born.
Since then, the non-profit Harris-Warke Gallery has hosted a multitude of diverse exhibits.
Some have pushed the boundaries of what conservative viewers would consider art.
From a table full of artfully arranged napkins, to ceramic depictions of food, spherical landscape sculptures, and boxes displaying various ‘fears,’ the Harris-Warke Gallery has exhibited it all.
The space that has now been moved upstairs to the second floor of Sunworks on Ross Street has, in the process, nurtured all kinds of artistic talents through its revolving door of six-week exhibits.
Some featured artists have been local, including abstract landscape painter Galia Kwetny, figure painter Erin Boake and multidisciplinary artist Daniel Anhorn, a visual arts technician at Red Deer College.
Many other sculptors, photographers and printmakers have hailed from across Alberta and a few sent their artwork to the gallery from as far as Winnipeg.
“Our primary focus is the quality of the work,” said local artist Paul Boultbee, who is stepping down from an ad-hoc adjudicating committee after 10 years of service.
Boultbee said he’s always found it “fascinating” to see what others are creating. “We’ve never turned anything away” based on content, he added.
In fact, when faced with a choice of exhibiting painted flowers or an interesting and unusual sculptural show, the committee of four to 10 local artists and art supporters would invariably make the less conventional choice.
“We wanted to show things that you might not get to see in a Red Deer gallery,” said Boultbee.
Commercial appeal isn’t a factor because the space can run on a shoestring budget made up from an annual fundraiser.
(If an exhibited work does sell, the artist gets to keep 70 per cent of proceeds, with the rest going towards gallery costs, he added.)
Boultbee remembers only one show that caused difficulties.
A Winnipeg artist had sent 1,200 paper napkins with lipstick lip prints and asked curators to arrange them on a table in a particular pattern.
Unfortunately the store kitten began frolicking on the table, causing no end of extra rearranging work for store staff.
But no show has ever been derailed by customer complaint.
Boultbee said he can’t even recall receiving a negative comment from a viewer over an exhibit.
“Sometimes we know people don’t like a show when they say ‘I don’t like this,’ or ‘I don’t understand this’ in the comment book,” but that’s as far as it goes.
Harris, a city councillor who considers himself an activist, appreciates that art often makes a statement.
For instance, Anhorn, whose October exhibit of “toids” featured spherical forests that could fit in the palm of your hand, showed how industry affects the natural world.
Some of his forests were shaped like plumes from smokestacks, others showed dead trees from oil spills.
Some of Anhorn’s pipe-cleaner trees were depicted as dried up from water being pumped underground for oil extraction.
Harris said one of the most popular recent exhibits, Little Fears, delved into the psychological.
Edmonton artist Laura O’Connor explored evolving anxieties through mixed media works — from worrying about “a monster under my bed” to “a strange man walking a few steps behind me down an empty street.”
The artist wanted viewers to recognize anxieties are part of emotional maturation, said Harris, who believes “art expresses to society things that are sometimes difficult to express in any other way.”
Boultbee credited the Harris-Warke Gallery for serving as a starting point for many artists, who have often gone on to exhibit in other places.
For instance, a version of one of his shows, which debuted at the Red Deer gallery in 2004, later moved to Calgary and will appear next year in Portland, Ore.
Harris, who is glad to have created opportunities for artists, decided to move the gallery upstairs after 10 years because “art is important.” He said he wanted it shown in an airier, brighter location.
The new gallery was designed with the help of a curator with upgraded risers, a skylight and more wall space.
“Now we have a beautiful space for beautiful art,” added Harris.
The gallery’s 2013 fundraiser runs Nov. 11 to 15. Silent auction bids on donated art close at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 15.