It started with a simple idea…
The Whyte Avenue Art Walk is an outdoor studio and gallery featuring hundreds of working artists. For three days every July, artists and their art fill the sidewalks of Old Strathcona. It’s an original experience that artists love. Artists are encouraged to bring their supplies and their ideas and make art right on site, providing an exciting opportunity for visitors to become engaged in many creative processes.
Old Strathcona is the perfect neighbourhood for such an undertaking. Old Strathcona is established, rich in culture and history. It’s where artists should be seen. This is exactly the idea that started it all. Tim Nolt, an active member in the Old Strathcona Foundation, once commented that Whyte Avenue would look lovely with artists painting out on the sidewalks like they did on the Left Bank in Paris. “Perhaps we should start a festival,” he said, “We could call it the “Left Bank of Edmonton”.
David Bradley, then owner of The Paint Spot immediately agreed to help find a few artists. “David and Tim’s excitement was contagious,” recalls Kim Fjordbotten, who was the art store manager back then. “Everyone phoned artists and talked to neighbouring businesses.
“We pulled off the first event in just three weeks but with little time to promote it, the public didn’t know what was going on. I was out at 8:30 am that very first morning, setting up my little painting station, which consisted of a TV table, an easel and four art works displayed on the ground.” recalls Kim, “I remember an older lady, walking by with her grocery cart full of goods from the farmers’ market. ‘Just look at these poor artists having to sell art in the streets,’ she muttered to her companion. However, when I told her what the Art Walk was all about, her eyes lit up and she agreed it was a wonderful idea! She gave me a quick hug and a wink, and set off to search for more artists to meet.”
That was back in 1995. It started with 35 artists and a few pedestrians. Today there are about 400 artists and more than 40,000 visitors. It is not a typical event. It is a rare and precarious balance between the needs of the artists, the generosity of the merchants, who give up their storefronts, and the public who fill the streets.
“This is what community spirit is all about!” says Kim Fjordbotten. The festival is a labour of love for the owner of The Paint Spot. She has administered and supported the event since the beginning in 1995. “We work in partnership with the Old Strathcona Foundation and Old Strathcona Business Association to share promotion. The bulk of the administrative and volunteer work lands with my coworkers, on company time and with the The Paint Spot’s resources. It is amazing what can be accomplished with a handful of dedicated people. We do it to promote the artists while keeping it as simple and affordable as possible.”
THe idea may be simple but the event has grown! There is a reason we say “running” a festival. With 17 blocks and two parks full of artists, we do a lot of running. Kim believes these events are successful because they focus on the important interaction between art maker and art viewer. “There are so many ways to make art and so much talent in Alberta. I can’t imagine how many artworks are hidden in studios, basements, and closets.” She continues, “Without events like the Whyte Avenue Art Walk, perhaps no one would get to see them. It is rewarding to convince a hesitant artist to share their art. I tell artists to make what they love and there will be someone out there who ‘gets it’. It’s also good for artists to have an annual deadline to create new artwork and to finish projects. Too often ideas stay in our heads until a deadline trumps procrastination. Sometimes an artist misses a year due to time constraints and family commitments, but they seem more motivated the following year and often come out with all new work.”
A unique aspect of this festival is that it’s not juried and there are very few guidelines. Artists are asked to create art on site and exhibit their own original art. Due to overwhelming artist participation, the Art Walk chose to distinguish among mediums (e.g., no photography) rather than to jury the event. This allows for organic growth and diversity. Every year the art gets stronger and more diverse. Where else can you wander among glorious florals, graffiti-style slogans, delicate etchings, mosaic butterflies, and renaissance-style portraits?
The Paint Spot also provides professional advice and leadership to help artists make the most of their Art Walk connections. For artists of all levels, the Whyte Avenue Art Walk offers a welcoming environment. For emerging artists, the Art Walk is a learning experience. It provides valuable feedback, an opportunity to build contact lists, and raise profiles. The Art Walk showcases many professional artists and university or college graduates. It offers everyone the chance to meet and exchange ideas together.
Nurturing new art patrons is a vitally important aspect of the Art Walk. When there are thousands of art works on display, pedestrians are exposed to a rare feast of diverse artistic ventures. If they are curious about what they see, they can strike up a conversation with the artists themselves. If they love what they see, the Art Walk provides a more personal way of buying art, directly from the artist. Many people have purchased their first piece of original art at the Art Walk, and return each year to build their collection. “I feel we are also doing important work creating new patrons for art in Edmonton,” says Fjordbotten, “I know that once an individual acquires an original piece of art they will continue to collect art throughout their lives.”
Why not immerse yourself in the dynamic world of visual art as an artist, spectator, or patron?