President Carl Stevenson optimistic about Blyth Festival Art Gallery season ahead
BY SCOTT STEPHENSON
Carl Stevenson, President of the Blyth Festival Art Gallery Committee, is busy preparing the first full lineup of professional art shows since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the organization to temporarily abandon traditional practices.
“Art belongs on walls,” says Stevenson, now serving in his fifth year as committee president, representing almost half a decade of volunteer service with the organization. “The lifting of pandemic restrictions has allowed artists to come out of hiding. We’ve made every effort to make people feel safe and comfortable in the space.” The anxiety and chaos of operating the gallery during the pandemic, Stevenson reassures, has dissipated and committee members are feeling jubilant as the countdown to opening day continues.
The expected return to normalcy is welcomed by Stevenson and the slate of professional artists who have been forced to wait almost four years since originally being selected for the program in 2019. The 2020 edition was outright cancelled, followed by a lengthy social media artist showcase in 2021 through which the gallery connected artists with potential buyers. The success of last year’s summer-long Community Show was an encouraging step toward bringing visitors back into the Bainton Gallery space at Memorial Hall. An estimated 500 people passed through in 2022 despite a Festival season that saw no theatrical shows mounted inside the building. Creative promotional materials were designed and implemented to raise awareness of the gallery operations, including large printed banners to direct foot traffic toward the gallery. The banners were installed along the path to the Harvest Stage, a new, permanent outdoor Festival structure built on the Blyth Campground several blocks away from Memorial Hall. Stevenson hopes attendance will return to pre-pandemic levels of between 2,000 and 3,000 visitors over the course of the 2023 season.
“The fantastic thing about art is that it’s not going to touch everybody; but it’s going to touch somebody,” says Stevenson, who views art as a manner of communication; a way for artists to share thoughts and impressions of the community. “Art shows us the beauty around us, but sometimes the ugly too.”
This year’s season begins in April with the return of the Student Show, a personal favourite of Stevenson’s. “You really get to see the progression of their work and growth in their abilities.” The show features student artwork selected by secondary school classroom teachers across Huron and Perth Counties. The gallery series continues in May with a return to the traditional Community Show, an opportunity for local amateur artists to showcase their work in a public space. Community members are invited to submit up to two works to be displayed for a nominal entry fee per piece. Last year’s summer-long Community Show displayed work from 52 different artists and included 93 pieces, 11 of which sold for a combined total of approximately $3,100.
Lucknow-based photographer Hannah Dickie will be the season’s first professional artist, and first in four years, to display work in the gallery beginning in the middle of June. Dickie’s photography focuses primarily on her rural upbringing and the connection she shares with her father, a hobby sheep farmer and maple syrup producer.
Next up in July, a collective of eight potters exploring the Japanese technique of Shino will take over the gallery space with their work. The pottery exhibition is being curated by Seaforth-area artist and former committee executive, Rob Tetu. Tetu stepped down as the gallery communications co-ordinator in December after serving 25 years as an executive on the committee.
The gallery series concludes in August with the return of work from Blyth-based artist Kelly Stevenson. Stevenson’s artwork was previously displayed during the 2014 edition of the Festival Art Gallery series. In fact, Kelly Stevenson’s involvement with the organization is what initially attracted her father, Carl, to join the committee.
Professional artists for the gallery series are typically booked one to two years in advance. A call for artist submissions is sent out by the committee and then several artists are selected for studio visits and interviews. The committee tries to select a balanced variety of artistic styles and personal backgrounds to complete a well-rounded program each year, explained Stevenson.
A brand new initiative for the 2023 series will be the inclusion of three live poetry readings to complement each of the professional shows throughout the season. The yet-to-be-revealed poets have been selected by the committee and Stevenson ensures The Citizen that a poet announcement is forthcoming. According to Stevenson, live poetry readings are uncommon in Huron County and the committee hopes the novelty will bring people through the doors, adding extra value to the gallery experience. The committee has been seeking new and innovative ways to promote the space, build excitement and connect with locals and visitors alike. “There has been art displayed in Blyth for something like 46 years, and even some people in town don’t know the space exists,” says Stevenson. The organization recently expanded its social media presence to further its reach in the community and beyond.
The committee has also created new community resources specifically for artists who often work in isolation. The inaugural “Critique Night” took place on Wednesday, Jan. 18 at BRØD bread & pastry in Blyth and was attended by a small but passionate group. The evening was created as an opportunity for local artists to share works-in-progress and receive feedback in real time from peers and to build a sense of solidarity. The workshop will recur on the third Wednesday of each month moving forward.
Preparations for the coming season are not without some challenges, as the committee itself is going through a period of renewal. In addition to losing Rob Tetu from the executive team in December, Bruce Stainton, Exhibition Committee Chair, and Secretary Colleen Schenk have both stepped down from their positions after many years of service. Stevenson acknowledges that it can be difficult for volunteer organizations to fill vacant positions, but a call has been put out for interested parties with a passion for the arts to become involved with the organization. “Blyth and the surrounding area is much more than just cornfields. There is a hidden cultural world here just begging to be discovered.”
2023 Festival Art Gallery Series Schedule
Student Show, Apr. 14 - May 5, 2023
Community Show, May 19 - Jun. 9, 2023
Hannah Dickie, Jun. 16 - Jul. 15, 2023
Rob Tetu et al., Jul. 21 - Aug. 12, 2023
Kelly Stevenson, Aug. 18 - Sept. 9, 2023