A studio study

Halifax may be home to some of Canada’s top artists, but there are few places for them to work. We say goodbye to the Propeller studios.

The smell of hops hits at the bottom of the stairs. It's not an awful smell, it's just pungent, like dirt after a rain storm. After some time the scent blends in, but doesn't go away.

That odour is like home-baked bread to the artists who work above Propeller Brewery. For 14 years, Halifax artists, from NSCAD newbies to those with established, internationally recognized practices, have worked out of the second-floor Gottingen space. Besides art creation, there have been exhibitions, costume parties and rock shows. Quietly, in a city with a lack of permanent studios, the Propeller building has become a cultural institution. But come January 31 that will change when John Allen, the brewery's owner and an arts supporter, expands into that space.

Fancy Pants fashion designer Sherry Jollymore is one of the current tenants. She's sad to see her studio go, loves its "good energy and sense of community," but isn't one to look back for long. Jollymore and a crew of the other Propeller artists are in discussions to rent a substantially larger space downtown that would provide them with with 5,000 square feet of working areas, plus potential gallery and community art-class space, too. "We're anxious to give back."

Mitchell Wiebe has occupied rooms in the Propeller studios for 14 years. It's a head-scratcher as to how he'll move everything out---his two rooms are an exuberant explosion of neon paint, feathers and animal prints. But Wiebe, whose group painting show Tilted Landscape opens Thursday at a temporary space at 2053 Gottingen, has some underground plans. Although he loves his studio's central location and the pools of light that stream through the windows, Wiebe is taking on a self-directed residency in Anton Self's former Diefenbunker. The decommissioned Cold War bunker in Debert is home to Self's tech company Dataville, but with 64,000 square feet underground, there's plenty of space for Wiebe's large paintings, a luxury few artists can entertain.

He's happy to have other opportunities and shed the "shell on the tortoise's back," but Wiebe will miss his studio mates. "There's an ability to get focused on stuff and still be involved," he says. "The interaction with other artists is healthy. There's a mingling of disciplines which is perfect, without being an institution like art school."

Both Wiebe and Jollymore say finding decent, permanent studios in Halifax is tough. Many artists make do with converted office or home locations. Jollymore says space is "tough to negotiate, but there's enough of us, and it helps that we're all established artists. It's harder when you're starting out."

So what does a recent NSCAD grad do? From July to December 2009, HRM, partnering with NSCAD, offered three emerging artists temporary studios in the Immigration Annex on Marginal Road. Painter Aaron MacLean, fashion designer Akshay Tyagi and mixed-media sculptor Arianne Pollet-Brannen were provided with access to two 500-foot studios for six months, responding to an issue identified in an HRM staff report: location, cost and availability of studio spaces are common reasons for artists leaving the city. HRM cultural planner Leticia Smillie says the program will continue in 2011, but in a new, municipally owned location, which will be announced next week.

Artists always have one thing on their side: creativity. "Even if we don't find an ideal space," says Jollymore, "there's always a way."

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