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Chris Blades sits in his apartment in the ARC building in Vancouver November 16, 2012. Jeff Vinnick for the Globe and Mail (Jeff Vinnick/Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail)
Chris Blades sits in his apartment in the ARC building in Vancouver November 16, 2012. Jeff Vinnick for the Globe and Mail (Jeff Vinnick/Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail)

On Culture

Waterfront building provides artists both studio space and studio apartments Add to ...

For decades, Chris Blades lived an underground warehouse existence – not underground as in basement, but underground as in not really legal. The visual artist and musician was living in warehouses that were not meant to be lived in. But he needed a studio and he needed a home and he certainly couldn’t afford both. About 10 years ago, he landed a unit in the ARC building – a live-work space geared to artists.

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“That’s my history, going from warehouse to warehouse,” Mr. Blades said in his vast, airy unit, which was once a loading dock. “This place is the most kind of comfortable and upscale situation that I’ve ever been in. Like, it’s got a shower. It has a bathroom, and a kitchen. In my other places, I had to sort of make those things happen myself, without the landlord knowing.”

For an artist with specific needs – to be able to paint or weld or practise music deep into the night – a live-work space designed specifically for creative needs can be a slice of real-estate heaven. Even if it’s not exactly affordable for every artist – ARC (Artist Resource Centre) has 80 units, renting from $1,000 a month – it makes more sense than trying to live and work in, say, a tiny Vancouver condo or a basement suite.

“Rent an apartment and try to go ahead and hammer away or paint [with the] fumes or whatever,” says building manager Richard Marcus, a sculptor (he works with prehistoric mammoth ivory) who has lived in the building for 10 years, managing it for six. “We have facilities here that are 24/7, because they’re all down in the basement.”

Those facilities include a wood shop, machine shop, kiln room, dark room, dance studio and loud music practice room. Upstairs, there are common areas, and in the individual studios, artists engage in everything from poetry to pottery to puppetry – with views of the water and mountains. The seven-storey building, on the waterfront at Commercial Drive and Powell Street, is zoned industrial, but the city approved a change of use application from industrial storage to artist live/work studios in 1994.

You can see it for yourself this weekend, when 25 of the artists open their studios for the Eastside Culture Crawl.

One highlight is sure to be Karen Moe’s studio, where the artist is creating the latest piece for her Princess project. Ms. Moe – photographer, performance artist, academic – has created a series of princess-themed portraits, steeped in art history and feminist theory. Among them: Princess Glutton, Princess Birthday, Princess Vulva, Post-Feminist Princess and, the work she will be creating over the weekend, Princess Commodity.

“She’s going to be a kind of mock goddess of the cult or religion of consumerism,” Ms. Moe said on Friday morning as she was preparing the installation, which by that point included Barbie parts, an old vacuum cleaner, plastic tiara, Santa head, pirate flag, London bobby helmet, a belt made of old cell phones, and piles of other stuff.

Ms. Moe – whose dog portraits help pay the bills – moved into the ARC building about four years ago.

“Everybody’s an artist, so in terms of community, right away you have something in common,” says Ms. Moe, who often leaves her door open so other residents can just stroll in and visit.

“If you’re in a city and you’re living by yourself, usually you’re quite isolated,” she says. Indeed, a recent Vancouver Foundation survey found that social isolation was a large concern for many Metro Vancouver residents. “But it’s just so awesome [here]. People come in and you talk about your art or your life or whatever.”

Right below Ms. Moe is Sarah Hagen, who shares her studio unit with a demi-concert grand piano.

“This piano’s too big for most elevators; I needed a freight elevator,” says Ms. Hagen, whose custom-built loft bed appears to take up less space than her instrument. “Also, where do you live where your neighbours don’t start freaking out at you? Because everyone says they love the piano, but I don’t think anyone loves the piano eight hours a day. Here, they think I’m magic.”

It’s not all sunshine and roses, to be sure. This place is noisy; residents put up with the sound of trains shunting all day – and night. On Friday morning, alarm bells rang for over an hour at an auto body shop across the street. And at times, the stench from the nearby rendering plant is overwhelming. There has also been resistance to rent increases of 3 to 5 per cent.

But with a cultural brain drain a real concern in expensive Vancouver, the ARC can serve as a model – particularly as the city has shown an interest in the issue, introducing a number of programs to help artists with their studio needs.

“I do wish there were more buildings like this around,” says puppeteer Wryly Andherson, who has rigged up his studio for a wonderfully inventive but fairly dark show this weekend. “The people this place attracts are generally worth knowing.”

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