Carole Itter drags her shopping cart over gnarled roots and slippery rocks along the uneven oceanside trail leading from the little blue cabin on Vancouver's North Shore to her car, a duck decoy inside the little buggy.
Ms. Itter, 75, is slowly emptying the cabin where she and Al Neil have been making art and music for decades. They received an eviction notice from Port Metro Vancouver in the fall with a Jan. 31 deadline to vacate, and a demolition permit has been issued for Feb. 1.
"We've been living on this roller coaster," says Ms. Itter, at the cabin Monday afternoon. "My knees are still weak."
Now a number of prominent players on the local art scene are working to save the little cabin that tells a big story about Vancouver's history.
The waterfront area was once home to a number of squatters – many of whom were artists, including the author Malcolm Lowry. He lived in a series of shacks in what is now Cates Park, where he wrote much of his classic Under the Volcano. The nearby cabin that has been home and studio to Mr. Neil and Ms. Itter is believed to have been made in Coal Harbour by a Scandinavian craftsman in the 1930s.
Mr. Neil, now 90 – a musician, composer and visual artist who received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Vancouver Mayor's Arts Award last year – has lived in the cabin on and off since 1966, serving as a sort of beach watchman for the company next door, McKenzie Barge. He initially paid rent to the shipyard – $15 a month, "and then eventually they said don't bother," says Ms. Itter, a sculptor and writer who joined Mr. Neil 13 years after he moved in.
"It's been a huge, huge part of our lives," she says. "It's been the source of inspiration for both of us."
One assemblage – she figures it's 45 feet wide – is suspended between (and beyond) two tall cedars, across a little beach from the cabin. Made by the artists over decades, the ever-changing work is clearly tied to the place, its days now numbered.
"This thing sparkles in the sunshine. I'm sorry you're seeing it under a west coast mildew," said Ms. Itter. "The beauty about working on it is that I knew it was never going anywhere. It was never going into a gallery and it was never going to be on the market. And now I realize it's going to a dump. Or as Al says, let the bugs eat it."
McKenzie Barge was sold to Polygon Homes, which is planning to develop the land – building townhomes and condos. The sale triggered the eviction notice from Port Metro Vancouver after environmental reports indicated the cabin is located in an area "extensively contaminated" with metals, including arsenic, lead and mercury. The letter warned Mr. Neil that if the structures were not gone by Jan. 31, Port Metro Vancouver would remove them "at your cost and expense."
"That shook us," says Ms. Itter. "We don't own real estate, we're not well-to-do. We have a little savings, and if it all gets tied up in that, I don't know what we would do."
Anna Deeley, a spokeswoman for Port Metro Vancouver, told The Globe and Mail in a statement: "The removal of the unauthorized structure in question on port land in North Vancouver is required in order to complete a habitat restoration project that will remove contaminants from port land and restore the natural shoreline, promoting human and aquatic health."
Ms. Deeley says that as of late Friday there has been no request to extend the eviction deadline, but added that the demolition may not happen on Feb. 1.
A number of figures in the local art community have gotten involved, and efforts are now under way to try to remove the cabin and find a new home for it.
"We live in such a redevelopment city and there's so little of heritage that gets saved here and I think this is a very important piece of Vancouver heritage that we should all really think about before we let it go," says Glenn Alteen with the Grunt Gallery.
Michael Audain – the founder of Polygon and a generous cultural philanthropist and art collector himself – says the company is willing to help defray the cost of relocating the cabin.
"I've said from day one I think it's an important relic of the cultural scene in Vancouver where a lot of artists and writers happily lived on the edge of the forest and the sea, kind of on the margins of Vancouver and I think it would be nice if we could help preserve … that last home," Mr. Audain said on Monday.
"We're just waiting for instructions as to where we can move it to."