Local artists’ studios rarely seen by the public offer a glimpse into a disappearing world.
IT MAY NOT OCCUR TO THE TOURISTS and locals walking among Chinatown’s storefronts, but there’s a whole community of people living above the grocery stores, furniture shops, and restaurants. Many have called this quirky neighbourhood home for decades; a disproportionate number of them are artists. What originally drew them was cheap rent and a charming, decayed-around-the-edges aesthetic; what’s held them is the sense of solidarity and survival as rapid gentrification prices them out.
On a rainy April afternoon, I visit the 700-square-foot, brick-walled studio space shared by husband-and-wife artists Denise Nicholls and GJ Pearson. Their tiny home floats above the Herald Street shops like a lucid dream someone had about a Tim Burton movie starring Alexander Calder. “It’s the opposite of minimalist,” quips Nicholls, a graphic designer who creates jewellery and paintings under the name Firehorse Designs. A floor-to-ceiling collection of their friends’ art on the walls is lit by two enormous windows. Pearson’s intricate wire, fabric, and found-object sculptures—some with motors—which he refers to as “toys,” perch atop most surfaces, float suspended from the ceiling, or are mounted to the walls and shelving that hold books, tools, and boxes of materials.
“This space is what I’ve always wanted to live in,” says Pearson, as we drink home-brewed kombucha and cozy up with the studio’s two cats on an intimate grouping of upholstered furniture. The historic building, originally used as meat lockers, feels secure to him as a rental; it was re-done in the late ’90s. “We’re not in any danger of being renovicted, because it’s new-ish,” he says. Before choosing the space “on a whim,” the couple lived on the family farm in Central Saanich; Pearson had a separate studio—a barn—that was twice the size of their current home. He doesn’t miss anything about it. “I’m much happier in this space. I love being next door to Opus [art supplies], we’re across the street from great coffee shops, we have a community of artists, and I don’t have to have a car anymore.”
I ask Nicholls what visitors’ general reaction is when they see the place. “They don’t know where to look first,” she says. “It’s a series of vignettes; there’s probably 100 places you could look and see something.” As Pearson works on what resembles a small Viking ship at his desk, I try to take it all in, and fantasize about the artist’s life I might have had. “We live like children,” Pearson admits. Nicholls concurs. “I’d always wanted to live in Chinatown since I was a little kid. I love living surrounded by the things that we make, and the things we’ve collected from other artists.”
The couple considers themselves fortunate to have gotten into the rental market when they did, but Nicholls says, “We’re trapped here. I mean it’s great, because I love the space,” but she does find the size limitations restrictive at times. She says they could never afford a larger unit at today’s rates. “More and more gentrification is starting to happen in the neighbourhood; it’s kind of like a switch went off, as soon as the Union Building went up, and now all the buildings are falling to developers.”
The units that are currently being developed are truly tiny, Pearson says. “If this place had been renovated now instead of 20 years ago, it would be half the size,” he says. “Basically, you’d have one window, and that would be it. The new standard is 250-400 square feet, just enough room for your laptop and a fold-down bed.” “Or,” says Nicholls quietly, “to run an airbnb.” A few minutes later, she slips away to do just that—to supplement their income and remain, for now, in the hidden, eroding artists’ colony of Chinatown.
To see more of Pearson’s drawings and kinetic sculptures, see gjpearson.com; Nicholls’ work can be purchased at firehorsedesigns.bigcartel.com.
Mollie Kaye is Focus’ arts editor.