Every Wednesday evening for 355 consecutive weeks, a crowd has gathered inside Rumble House in downtown Calgary to create art together.
The two-hour art rumbles, as they’re called, are followed by an auction of the pieces. Both events – free and open to all – have become a mainstay for a diverse group of Calgarians.
“It’s not so much about making art as it is about making connections,” says Rich Theroux, who started Rumble House, an art studio and gallery space, with his wife, Jessica Theroux, in 2012. Both have day jobs as art teachers and call themselves “caretakers” at Rumble House.
Now, as the response to the COVID-19 outbreak includes limits on mass gatherings and recommendations to stay home, Mr. Theroux and Ms. Theroux are striving to keep the Rumble House community going online. Through broadcasting art making and hosting an online auction, the couple have found a creative way to continue providing weekly respite to their community, at a time when physical distancing is necessary to slow the spread of the virus.
A Wednesday night at Rumble House typically attracts about 50 to 80 people. The evenings start with spinning a wheel full of art suggestions to "come up with three random ideas that everybody’s welcome to ignore,” Mr. Theroux says.
For the next two hours, people use those ideas as inspiration while they paint or draw or embroider or make balloon animals – anything goes. At 9 p.m., the pieces are auctioned off. Some people show up only for the art making, while others join just for the auction.
Until March 18, the door at Rumble House, and its earlier incarnation, Gorilla House, had opened every Wednesday since July, 2012.
The door opened when Christmas landed on a Wednesday. It opened during a hailstorm that caused the building to flood. “People helped us haul water and then we made art,” Ms. Theroux remembers.
When Ms. Theroux and Mr. Theroux got married on the roof of Rumble House on a Wednesday in August, 2019, the ceremony was followed with art making and an auction.
“We've always made a point of never missing a Wednesday, because we know there's going to be people looking for somewhere to go,” Mr. Theroux says.
A varied crowd frequents Rumble House’s quirky events, from art instructors to students, people who are homeless to politicians.
“What I like about going there is that Rumble House transcends all social statuses,” says Mark Vazquez-Mackay, a visual artist and instructor at the Alberta University of the Arts. “I can go and I can work side by side with someone who has maybe never made art before.”
Mr. Vazquez-Mackay learned about Rumble House from a morning radio story about seven years ago. He heard Mr. Theroux talk about making art in two hours, and says as someone who often spends much longer on a piece, he saw the event as a challenge.
After that first rumble, he has returned for a different reason. “I was hooked on the community part of it,” Mr. Vazquez-Mackay says. “I think what they do goes beyond just art making. Art making is the vehicle to be able to care for people and to make people feel welcomed as human beings.”
On March 25, Mr. Vazquez-Mackay finished two weeks of self-isolation after his return from a trip to New York. One of his stops that afternoon was at Rumble House, where he left four small paintings for the auction.
Mr. Theroux and Ms. Theroux began adjusting their operations and asking people to drop off art on March 15. That afternoon, Albertans learned classes at all K-12 schools were immediately cancelled. The couple, both teachers, saw the school closings as a signal for Rumble House.
Mr. Theroux and Ms. Theroux went on to leave care packages of art supplies outside Rumble House for people to pick up.
The evening of Wednesday, March 18, they closed Rumble House’s door, despite a few people showing up.
“That was really difficult, because we've never turned anybody away before,” Mr. Theroux says.
Then the couple turned on Facebook Live, filmed as they worked on new art pieces and followed that with a live auction, in which Mr. Theroux held up pieces people had dropped off earlier and Ms. Theroux managed bids through text messages.
That first online rumble, Mr. Theroux says, was “really kind of vaudevillian.”
“We were figuring out how to do it while doing it, and stumbling quite a bit. I think the comedy of us failing was probably better than the rest of the evening,” he says.
Still, people tuned in. “Just so you know – this was the best part of my day. I didn’t think of the pandemic for several stretches of 10 min at a time,” one commenter wrote.
People texted in bids, alongside words of encouragement. (As is always the case with the auctions, the money from each winning bid is split in half between the artist and Rumble House, where it goes toward rent.)
Rumble No. 357 took place March 25 on Facebook Live and YouTube. This time, for the live art portion, videos were shared of people making their work at home. The couple intend to continue adjusting and adapting their online rumbles as they go.
Calvin Chow, a long-time Rumble House attendee, tuned into the two virtual events and successfully bid on two pieces: a black and white drawing of four people gathered around a piano, and a landscape painting of a mountain lake. He’s pleased he can continue supporting artists and Rumble House.
“It feels like I’m escaping my one bedroom condo and getting out there to do something very, very different,” Mr. Chow says. “Rich and Jess make it so much fun.”
Mr. Theroux says he hopes to get back to having bodies in the Rumble House building and physically bringing people together. But in the meantime, he feels grateful the community can continue to connect online.
Ms. Theroux agrees. “The interest has shown us that people do need that connection, and that we’ll do [rumbles] however we can until the doors can open again.”
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