By James Takeo
Yes, you read that correctly: Welland.
Often the brunt of the jokes in the Niagara Region for its shortcomings, this little city is producing from the first seeds sown a couple years ago the fruits of the efforts of local artists. In a city with few jobs, factories gone, and “nothing to do”, the situation was ripe for creating a situation in which a few artists got together to make something for themselves, and by their own initiative and actions.
Over two years ago,in July 2013, as a reaction to what was happening for arts in the Rose City, a group of local visual artists and photographers got together and hosted their very own art show, independent of the other municipally-sanctioned events and initiatives that were happening at the time. These initial seven artists called their first show, and themselves, The Black Lantern Experience. Displaying their artwork in an environment “free of censorship” (as stated in their mission objective), and hosted by one if its members at his small studio space on West Main St., drew a curious crowd of about 50 people to the event, followed up a month later by what was described by one of the attendees as an art show that was “brutally honest”, the BLX: Where Rails and Water Meet (The City of Welland’s motto), that drew a crowd of about 80 people.
Quickly, with a reputation for no-holds-barred art shows that would only last one night, the BLX had four more shows within as many months, with the crowds increasing in numbers attending, culminating in a show held during the 2013 Culture Days event which drew a crowd lined up down the block just to be permitted entry into the small studio space where the exhibit was occurring. With an already avant-garde and risque reputation building locally, attendance outgrew the private studio that was offered for hosting shows, and the decision to take the show to another level, a larger audience, and bigger space resulted in its first show in another location, a downtown lounge, that was to be the celebration of the first six months of BLX. The “One Night Only” was attended by approximately 150 people, including local officials and business representatives, and only illustrated to these artists that Welland was a city willing to not only become more aware of arts, but support it, and yearn for more in what was viewed by some as a landscape devoid of artistic and cultural awareness.
Already the group dynamics were changing in BLX, along with its membership. Some artists left, other artists joined, as has been the case for this group since it’s inception. In the Spring of 2014, a new initiative was hosted by BLX: the Easter Art Hunt, in which free pieces of artwork from artists were hidden around Welland’s downtown core, with BLX engaging the public by searching for these hidden artworks and claim them free for the taking, much like an Easter Egg Hunt. Already, the BLX had found ways to engage the public by not only attending art events held by the artists group, but by also including them in many art displays and artworks, such as the work by photographer T Lee Kindy, either as subjects or participants in the making of art. During this, there was a message of encouragement offered to the public to not only be aware of art, but to also produce it.
Slowly, the importance and impact of art in Welland was growing through such engagement, and this resulted in the first partnership that BLX had with others: a group of individuals interested in supporting local arts donated their time, resources and efforts and with BLX opened a temporary, one-month-long gallery in an empty storefront on a downtown Welland corner, and called it The HardWay. Though only lasting one month (mid-July to mid-August 2014), it facilitated not only the exhibition of BLX artists and other local artists work, it hosted various workshops, seminars, events, and even hosted a show by a visiting international artist. In four weeks, it made significant and noticeable impact on the downtown core, and even made front coverage of Welland’s local newspaper three times in that month.
There were also other significant initiatives that occurred that BLX had involvement in during the remainder of 2014. One was the establishment of a phantom gallery, in which artwork was displayed in the windows of an another empty storefront that had been vacated for years, with the idea that vacant empty space could be used as a platform to display local art to the public without the need for a gallery. Another project some members became involved in was the first time there was direct involvement between BLX and the City of Welland: two artists, Chris Lagetsten and James Takeo, collaborated on one of the Art Canoe pieces that were eventually displayed around the city for the 2015 Pan Am Games. In September 2014, these numerous efforts and initiatives were recognized with the City of Welland’s Arts and Culture Award for Visual Arts being presented to BLX, the first time an artists group had received the honour. One of its members also received the award for literary arts for his efforts in contributing arts opinion columns to the local paper and creating awareness for arts advocacy locally.
It was also around this time that the BLX was approached by a local businessman who intended to offer support for this artist group by offering them space to utilize. The result was the BLXStore, and eventual BLXStudio, that is now housed in the Seaway Mall in Welland’s north end. The BLXStudio not only features artwork produced by BLX artists, it has also been the setting for a number or art shows and events that continue to engage the public.
Currently, the BLX is still active, and it continues to make an impact on its city. What was once viewed as a group of “avant-garde and risque” artists initially, it has now impacted locals as advocates for local and public art, as well as creating an awareness and appreciation for arts among many who might not have taken arts much seriously beforehand. What lies ahead for BLX? As some of its members state: the future is colourful.