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Meet our Organizers: The Gallery on 47th Street

Culture Days

Mar 15, 2024

Meet our Organizers Series

Last year, Canada was affected by a record-setting series of wildfires. Roaring to life in early May 2023 and continuing into the Fall, parts of all 13 Provinces and Territories were engulfed in flames. In the North, as the fire chewed toward capital city limits, an evacuation order for Yellowknife, NT, was announced by mid-August.

Yellowknife is a vibrant city-landscape of natural beauty, resilience, and strong community ties. Despite the wreckage and displacement caused by the fires, Ainsley Dempsey, Owner/Operator of The Gallery on 47th Street, was eager to return home and continue her work supporting the creative community. Just in time to celebrate their one-year anniversary and Culture Days 2023, The Gallery on 47th street reopened and presented new works by local artists Jessica McVicker, Landon Peters, Tracey Bryant, and Erin Nelson featuring collections of Northern skies and landscapes, wildlife, and pieces inspired and created during the evacuation.

We recently spoke with Ainsley and featured artists Erin and Landon about community, what it means to be a creative living and working in the North, and how devastation can seed hope and regrowth. Here is what they shared with us:

New works by Debi Scott-Fidler on display in the Gallery. Photo courtesy of Ainsley Dempsey.
New works by Debi Scott-Fidler on display in the Gallery. Photo courtesy of Ainsley Dempsey.

What’s The Gallery on 47th Street all about? Can you tell us more about this family-run, local venue and how it came to be?

Ainsley: The Gallery on 47th Street is committed to providing a venue for local and Northern artists to exhibit and sell their work. I’m not sure whether it’s the long winters or opportunities up here to participate in the arts community, but Yellowknife (and really, all three Territories) are overpowered with art and artists. While there are other places in town that show and sell local art, many don’t have enough space to feature solo or multi-artist shows. That is the key for my husband, Colin, and I and our Gallery.

When we first moved to the North, Colin ran the former Northern Images store and we became familiar with the local arts scene. We quickly identified the need for a new commercial exhibition space and set up The Gallery at its former location next door from 2010-2014. When our tenant left the current space in August 2022, we decided to reopen The Gallery for a few months while we looked for a new tenant. Well, a few months turned into six months and suddenly I was leaving my career with the Government of the Northwest Territories to run The Gallery full-time. The artists and our regulars are so wonderful. We love the space and the people.

Visitors admiring the September/October 2023 exhibitions as part of Culture Days. Photo courtesy of Ainsley Dempsey.
Visitors admiring the September/October 2023 exhibitions as part of Culture Days. Photo courtesy of Ainsley Dempsey.

What role does the gallery play in carving out space for local and/or Northern Artists?

Ainsley: Being a small business with one employee allows us to be very dynamic and to change the collections around very quickly. We feature a new collection each week, opening on Friday nights with a wine and cheese reception. A number of our artists have started producing more since we’ve been open because they know that whenever they have a new piece completed there is a place to exhibit and sell their work right away. Even if we can’t get it on the wall immediately, we update the website constantly and do daily social media posts to give our artists as much visibility as possible.

Describe your city in three words. What does it mean to be an artist living and working in Yellowknife or in the North?

Erin: Quirky, fun-sized, adventure!

It means never lacking inspiration from the natural world. I’m often taking reference photos for paintings while walking to and from work. The light is different up here. Yellowknife is known for Aurora viewing, but we also get longer sunrises and sunsets too. It means encountering wildlife right outside your door. I find watching ravens and foxes particularly entertaining.

Landon: The Last Frontier.

It’s a unique opportunity, a unique surrounding, and one that appeals to me in many different ways. I love the rugged beauty of the Northwest Territories and what it draws out of me. My pieces are impressionist and colourful, and I like to dissect the environment around me with my oil paints and brushes. From Alexandra Falls to the houseboats on Great Slave Lake, the brilliant skies—whether they be a glowing sunrise or the dancing of northern lights—to bison trudging along the Mackenzie Highway or a murder of ravens rummaging through a dumpster. There is always something in my natural surroundings that I can investigate with canvas, brushes, and paint.

Erin Nelson, ‘August 2023’, 2023. Oil on canvas, 22x18
Erin Nelson, ‘August 2023’, 2023. Oil on canvas, 22x18

Your work seems to be inspired by the natural world, but last summer the natural world took a turn on Northern communities in a devastating way. In your experience, how did a displacing event like a natural disaster impact your creative process and work? Can you share more about your work inspired by and created during the fire evacuation?

Erin: Even before we evacuated, the wildfires were already starting to influence my work with bold reds and oranges featuring more on the canvases. When we got the evacuation order, I had to make my peace with leaving all my paintings and supplies behind and hope they would be OK. I took two sketchbooks and some coloured pencils to capture my ideas while staying in Edmonton. Since returning I’ve been working to make some of them into paintings. At first, all I wanted to express was the dramatic scenes and the devastation I saw, but after some time I added elements of hope and regrowth.

Landon: These were very stressful and nerve-wracking times for all, especially for those who had to make the drive out. It’s a part of living in a Northern isolated community, a part of the adventure of living in the North. We saw what happened years ago to our neighbours in High Level, Alberta, and what the fire did to that community. The situation in Yellowknife was very scary, but Northerners are strong people. The folks who have lived in Yellowknife for three or more generations know about resilience and adventure. Life in the North isn’t easy.

Landon Peters, ‘Fiery Skies and Fabulous Floats’, 2023. Oil on canvas, 24x36.
Landon Peters, ‘Fiery Skies and Fabulous Floats’, 2023. Oil on canvas, 24x36.

Given that the evacuation order had recently been lifted and people were allowed to return home only three weeks prior, what made you decide to organize an event for Culture Days 2023? What was the process, and why was it important to you to offer this experience to the community?

Ainsley: Throughout the evacuation, The Gallery community was very much a stabilizer for us. We had clients and artists sending us messages from the road, checking in and letting us know they were safe. We recognized in ourselves the need for normalcy and were laser-focused on getting home and getting back to our Friday night openings. We already had the show schedule laid out in our minds for September/October so, the moment the notice was given that the City was reopening, we started reaching out to artists to coordinate the shows—all while we embarked on the five-day drive back to Yellowknife from Washington State where we had been staying with family.

Fall 2023 opening reception at The Gallery. Photo courtesy of Ainsley Dempsey.
Fall 2023 opening reception at The Gallery. Photo courtesy of Ainsley Dempsey.

Not only were we losing income in those weeks, but our artists were losing sales opportunities too. It was important for us to get right back into it, and the first show post-return marked the one-year anniversary party for The Gallery. The atmosphere was celebratory and we had work from all of our regular artists on display. We were overwhelmed by the number of people who came out that evening. Everyone was ready to be back to normal and back together, so it was a perfect homecoming.

We love the work that Culture Days does to promote the arts across Canada and, despite the evacuation, we didn’t want to miss out on the chance to participate for a second year in a row. We knew that, if we were back in Yellowknife in time, we would absolutely be registering as a part of Culture Days.

How has your community (however you choose to define ‘community’) shaped or impacted your artistic practice?

Erin: As a newer artist, I have found the community to be welcoming. It has allowed me to take my time finding my own style and to see which parts of my portfolio people are drawn to. I don’t have much experience working with commercial galleries, but I feel supported by The Gallery on 47th Street. I create art in my spare time and when I’ve accumulated enough for an exhibition, the Gallery assists in securing a slot within their show schedule.

Landon: I feel very blessed to have people in this community admire my work. I paint my surroundings—landscapes, houseboats, float planes, ravens—and people here are incredibly supportive when it comes to buying my oil paintings. Northerners invest in original art and the homes I visit here have very diverse collections, from carvings to paintings. Years of community support have allowed me to develop my skill set, nurture my craft, and allow the work to take shape. I owe a great deal of gratitude to the community of Yellowknife for the past 20 years and to the galleries that have promoted and continue to promote my work. I’ve appreciated the opportunities Colin and Ainsley have provided me with, including solo exhibitions and group showings.

Did this experience provide any reflections on how you think about the role of artists and arts spaces in terms of community resilience? What’s on the horizon for the gallery in the next year?

Erin Nelson, ‘Above the Smoke’, 2023. Oil on canvas, 18x22.
Erin Nelson, ‘Above the Smoke’, 2023. Oil on canvas, 18x22.

Ainsley: Yellowknifers are hardy and loyal. While it gets easier every year in terms of amenities and access to supplies, life in the North isn’t always easy. You get used to minor (or major) inconveniences—be it stretches of -40°F weather, a smoky day, or the vegetables in the grocery store not being as fresh as you might like sometimes. We never had any doubt that the community would rally and come back strong post-evacuation. Certainly, everyone, including our artists, came home with a renewed appreciation for where we live and the things that make it enjoyable to live here—walkability, access to nature, and relationships built living in a small town. The pieces that our artists have created since the evacuation underscore the love of the North in its residents.

In the next year, we’re going to continue to expand our collections to incorporate more artists from across the North. We currently have a show featuring artists from Ulukhaktok, Pangnirtung, Clyde River, Baker Lake, and Sanikiluaq and are connecting with artists in the Yukon in the hopes of bringing them into the fold. Although our collections will continue to be largely dedicated to showcasing artists in Yellowknife and the surrounding area, we want to ensure that artists from all three Territories get the recognition that they deserve.

Visit The Gallery on 47th Street’s website to learn more or follow them on Instagram.

Title image: Landon Peters, ‘Untitled’, 2023. Oil on canvas, 36x48.

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