Like a time lapse of ice splintering its way across a window pane, development continues to crawl to all corners of this city, replacing the past with modern structures of frosty steel and cold glass.
It is why it is nothing short of a marvel that the creaky 100-year-old giant at 1000 Parker St. — a building that was once home to Restmore Manufacturing Co., which made feather mattresses and iron beds and later, the Vancouver Revolver and Rifle Club — still stands. It’s in an old industrial part of East Vancouver where roads are worn jagged at the edges and cracked up the middle, sometimes revealing old rail lines, a reminder of days when much manufacturing used to occur within city limits.
The part of the building’s wooden exterior that faces rail tracks is a long stretch of canvas for graffiti artists, and from its odd little alley look upwards as a human sculpture dangles from a beam.
The heart of 1000 Parker St. is the 227 artists that work out of its 110 studios, linked economically by reasonable rent and physically by an artery of corridors and stairways that give the place a feel of a tree fort. Many artists, such as abstract painter Laurel Swenson, share a literal corner of a studio, whereas others, such as sculptor and long-time tenant David Robinson, have taken advantage of the 152,000-square-foot building to match their artistic needs (in Robinson’s case, a beautiful white-walled and naturally-lit gallery on the top floor, as well as a generous workspace on another floor).
Robinson remembers when artists took over the third and fourth floors during the 1980s in a building that was nothing more than dusty wide-open spaces and an empty haven for pigeons.
“Back then we just sort of erected walls here, there, willy nilly. It was marking your territory with cardboard and chicken wire. My first doors were practically just that,” he said. “There’s a special spirit to this place and any chance I get, I tell that to the building owner. It’s very special.”
Robinson is well-regarded internationally for his figurative sculptures so it might be expected he would be in his own, free-standing space, but being a part of Parker Street Studios is representative of how he chooses to mark his own path, especially with his chosen art form. (In art school, he was told sculpture “was a dead language not to be involved with.”) For Robinson, it’s being a part of a community of artists and contributing to a living space that’s vital. That hanging figure in the back alley, incidentally, is Robinson’s handiwork.
This past week and weekend’s East Side Culture Crawl provided a perfect opportunity to roam through the hallways of Parker Street Studios where you might have had the chance to listen to Robinson speak poetically and thoughtfully of his sculptures. Yes, the materials out of which they are made include bronze, iron, steel, cement, hydrostone and polymer-gypsum, but the artistry comes from being guided by the materials, letting them speak and inform.
His words would have lingered in your head as you made your way through the corridors and you might have found yourself facing Swenson’s corner two floors down with her canvasses and panels of beautiful swirls of green and turquoise. Swenson, too, spoke of her process. Hers is one of layers, brushstrokes, marks and a real physical connection with the canvas, which is especially interesting considering she often works on her paintings right after early morning workouts or rock climbing.
“These two paintings, they’re great big pieces of canvas so I put them straight on the wall,” she explained, pointing to her larger pieces, one of which is titled “Do No Harm But Take No Sh**.”
“Mounted canvas is a soft surface so when it’s just on the wall you can be a lot more physical with it which is what I like about it.”
Unlike her sculptor neighbour, Swenson is a relative newcomer to the Parker Street Studios, having arrived three years ago after deciding she needed separation from her home office and its distractions.
“It’s such a fantastic studio space, and the building, it’s like a maze and it’s a crazy relic that has so much character. It’s amazing that it even still exists and is used for artist studios,” she said. “It’s a special place.”
An old building like Parker Street Studios may not be the geographical heart of a city, but it does give it some soul.