Nestled in the awe-inspiring mountains of the Crowsnest Pass lies two unassuming buildings–a cottage and a studio–dedicated to the professional development of established and emerging artists and creative professionals from around the world.
The Gushul Studio and Cottage, situated in the town of Blairmore, Alberta, opened in 1988 as a site for creative residencies for professional artists and writers. Owned by the University of Lethbridge, this facility has hosted over 200 artists, scholars and other professionals, and has offered inspiration and sanctuary for the production of their work.
Thomas Gushul (1891-1962), a prolific and pioneering Canadian photographer, founded the studio in Blairmore where he lived and worked with his wife Lena. In the early 1980s the studio was restored and was registered as a historic resource by the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation. Today it remains an important cultural resource for the Crowsnest Pass community and a space for ULethbridge students to hone their artistic practices.
Each year, two art studio students in the Faculty of Fine Arts are awarded a month-long Gushul Residency with additional mentorship from faculty in the art department.
The application deadline for the Founding Faculty Artist Residency Award is March 1, 2024.
For 2023, students Leah Evans and Natalia Smith spent the month of May working on their respective projects, from textile works to paintings.
When Leah Evans found out she won the Gushul Studio Award, she was thrilled. Being able to work in a beautiful studio space and dedicate her time to her artistic practice was something she says she's grateful for.
"The residency allowed me to spend extensive time focusing on my work and engage mentally with my practice to a full extent of which I had never quite been able to do previously," Leah says.
"The studio space supported my practice by allowing the creation of large works with wonderful lighting for the process. Sharing the studio with another artist allowed for us to share ideas and critiques and I enjoyed the company! The scenery of Blairmore on our nature walks was refreshing and helped to inspire me to work once we got back to the studio."
During her residency, Leah primarily worked on a series of conceptually-connected paintings, and also spent time shooting film around Blairmore and pressing wildflowers.
"Throughout my time at the Gushul Studio I completed four paintings, branching out from my original inspiration for the residency of human bodies in isolation and connecting this idea with small town atmospheres. I was directly inspired by my surroundings regarding the first of the paintings."
Her first painting, Window, was inspired by a group of people sitting at a café in Blairmore, talking about art. Leah asked the group if she could take a photo to use as a reference for her painting.
"This piece looks at the idea of feeling isolated even when you are in a group, with the viewer placed outside the frame of action and those seated around the table all seeming disengaged and contemplative. This painting is also intended to touch on themes of death and religion – a topic which wasn’t originally intended but came about during the painting process."
Leah's second painting, Garden, also used a photo she took for reference, this time of a garden statue.
"I was inspired to create this piece by watching Natalia Smith’s (whom I shared the studio with) approach to painting plants. The piece is intentionally kitsch and uses a limited colour palette."
The other two paintings that Leah completed were Her House and Monstera.
"Her House started with the Alberta wildfires (of which my family in Drayton Valley had been evacuated from). I then went back to a previous focus in my work on childhood, although this piece doesn’t involve memory as did these previous works. The final painting, Monstera, is one that I added to on and off throughout the residency, changing the layout often and removing objects from the scene. I asked Natalia to model for this painting."
For Leah, the experience of working in the Gushul Studio further inspired her to continue refining her practice, which included a trip to New York City to conduct street photography as part of the Roloff Beny Foundation Photographic Award in Fine Arts she received in the Spring 2023 semester.
"As a student, the value of gaining this experience is irreplaceable and has inspired me to pursue more residencies in the future. This award was meaningful to my studies in the time it gave me to focus on my art and the opportunity to stay in the studio. Living in Blairmore for a month was invigorating – of which inspired me to paint and explore my own artistic interests in a way which I hadn’t had the energy to in a while."
Natalia Smith began planning for her residency work from the moment she heard she won. For her residency, she says she worked with textiles for the first time, with themes surrounding relationships; relations with other people, objects, places and ourselves through dying fabrics, stitching and embroidering.
"I’m always curious to try new materials and see how this will affect how I create art and expand what I'm able to do. I consider materialism to be an important aspect of my work and I feel as a woman artist, having an amateur approach to working with textiles embeds a bit of a comedic relief," Natalia says.
"Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas are artists I've researched whose work surrounding personal relationships, and the relationship to self has inspired me to investigate my own relationships, and question how and when a relationship can become an attachment."
For Natalia, the process from application to receiving the award felt like a real-world experience.
"This is something I can place on my CV and gives me a sense of what to expect from residencies in the future. It's very self-motivating and I had the freedom to create anything I wanted, which lured me into being experimental with methods mediums. I’m able to bring this explorative mindset forward in my studies and be more comfortable in taking risks and learning what works for me and my work."
Since starting her work in textiles, Natalia has been looking at other ways to incorporate textiles and painting into her artistic practice. She hopes to return to the Gushul Studio again in the future and see how her work has evolved.
"I think the residency would be beneficial to any artist and would encourage all my peers and future Fine Art students to submit their applications for future residency opportunities."
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