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The loft life

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The "artist’s studio" calls to mind images of lofts in New York and Paris — but we’ve got our share in the Exchange District in Winnipeg, too.

Loft life sounds fun and romantic. But is it?

Wanda Luna has been renting studios off and on in the Exchange District for 20 years. "My first studio was above Albert Burgers — and all the artists in the area kept dropping in. I used to party with all the Latino artists and musicians there. At three in the morning, I’d be having breakfast with Papa Mambo. One year I only got two paintings done."

Estudio Luna, two floors above Ragpickers on McDermot Avenue, recently packed up after three years. Gone are arguably some of the best First Fridays parties in the Exchange. (On the first Friday of each month, area studios open their doors and special arts events and parties are put on).

Luna is now working out of a loft at 138 Portage Ave. East.

"I said to my agent, ‘I don’t want to be around other artists because I’m not getting any work done!" She moved her canvases and has gotten seriously busy doing her own work. She doesn’t even know her neighbours.

"I did 13 paintings last month," she laughs.

In the heart of the Exchange District, the Silpit Building at 70 Arthur St. is a giant rabbit’s warren of arty businesses and artist studios, most of them rented to groups of two to four people.

"Everybody is very supportive," says Louise Kollinger, an artist on the fourth floor, with a medium-size setup. Known for her "tranquil quasi-impressionistic" paintings, Kollinger enjoys a high-ceilinged airy space in the building that used to be a sewing factory. (You can still see sewing needles glinting in the hardwood floor cracks.)

There, with the venetian blinds pulled down, she creates big paintings such as Pier Into the Mist and a shining copper metallic tree of life — still a work in progress. "I also have some larger ones — five by seven feet, in a second studio I rent here." She says they’ll have to come down in the old factory’s freight elevator.

Kollinger works diligently but knows lots of artist friends in her building.

"Leona Brown has a huge studio (with artist friends) and also Peter Graham and Nora Kobrinsky have a studio." So is the Silpit busy and friendly, with artists visiting each other? "Actually it’s pretty quiet around here, except for First Fridays. Doors are open and there’s a lot of visiting then, to see what artist friends are working on."

The next First Friday (Nov. 2) stretches into a three-day affair for the 14th Annual Silpit Sale, which means there will be lots of action for early Christmas shoppers.

The artists are very co-operative and like to help each other, says Kollinger. "One artist will be in Morocco during the sale, so she’s bringing her art to hang in my studio to sell. Another artist is using her studio while she’s away."

Silpit studio artists range in age by more than 40 years. "Eva Stubbs is in her 80s and Kelly Ruth is one of the younger ones, in her 30s," says Kollinger. They all have one thing in common, though. Artists at the Silpit are generally well-known. "The rent is pricey, so people here are pretty established." This would not be a two-figure rent deal like writers line up for at the Manitoba Writers Guild in Artspace. "It’s a clean and secure building, which is what I want if I’m going to be downtown. But that costs money."

Peter Graham shares a sixth-floor studio in the Silpit, down a long, white hall with no paintings and a double lock on the door. "I was briefly at Cre8ery, which is smaller, and I saw more people there. Now I have a job three days a week at the Martha Street Studio as a studio technician helping in the printmaking room. I take my own painting up to Silpit, where I share with two other artists — Nora Kobrinsky and another woman who hasn’t really moved in yet."

Graham says he likes to work alone or with Kobrinsky. It turns out their working compatibility is more about music than about art.

"I’m an old fogey so I like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Bruce Cockburn. Even so, we’re rarely there at the same time. The space is pleasant, with canvas holding racks in the back and a wall-to-wall New York warehouse window like you see in movies.

"The rent used to be $7 a square foot," says Graham, adding rent leases coming up recently are reportedly much higher and might mean he won’t be able to afford that space anymore. "I have a young son and a puppy. I might be back at home, and then l’d be working at night in the basement."

Meanwhile, over at Artspace, five artists share a large, fifth-floor space with big windows overlooking Old Market Square.

Jewelry artist Bryan Johnson says people have different reactions to their quiet studio life.

"It depends on your lifestyle. For me, I come here to work at night, so it’s very peaceful. I do phone calling from home. It’s very pleasant to be able to tune out all of the drudgery and mundane things and focus on your art, as opposed to the laundry."

His advice to newbies? "I find the four key pieces of studio equipment I couldn’t live without are my three computers with my music and correspondence, the coffee pot (I’m a practising coffee addict) the refrigerator and the couch."

Johnson reports food is easy to find, tasty and cheap in the area. "I generally go out. We’re right on the edge of Chinatown, where food is really good and affordable. Walk a few blocks and you can get first-class Asian food at places like Little Saigon and Sum Hay for the cost of a Big Mac."

This studio’s artists come by all day and peter out by evening. "My studio is more like my quiet happy place. Occasionally, I’ve had a nap, hence the importance of the couch, but I don’t spend the night here. I like dinner at home and to sleep in my own bed. But there are people who do spend the night if they’re in from out of town and have studios here. They might make it their base of operations for a weekend."

I myself have had two writing studios in the Exchange — one in Artspace and another in the Bates building at 221 McDermot. Both lasted less than a year. Why? Because I’m the type who wants company, and frankly, I got too lonely to enjoy working there. Too bad Wanda Luna’s old party studio over Albert Burgers is a thing of the past.


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