They all come, handcrafted squares in tow, to sew together a quilt. It is a one-of-a-kind gift for Kathy Ramsey, founder of Gabriola Artworks. These artists are stitching to show their appreciation for all of the heart and hammer Ramsey has put into Artworks – a gallery that has showcased Gabriola Island artists for over eighteen years.
The quilt is borne of mixed emotions. There is much happiness in knowing that Ramsey will finally be able to live with her long-distance beau of five years. However, he lives on Saltspring Island, she’s moving and Gabriola Artworks closes tomorrow.
Ramsey grew up on Saltspring while her parents ran the local drugstore. Fifty years later and the business is still in the family. Kathy made her way to Vancouver and a political science degree at SFU, much of which was done through correspondence from Mexico and Guatemala. To the horror of her parents, “I was doing my work sitting in bus depots then putting it in a mailbox in a dusty town. What are the odds that it would get back to SFU?” She didn’t know until she returned to Vancouver that the work had made it through the post and back to her professors.
Ramsey went onto the journalism program at Langara College, then to a career as a newspaper reporter. “I loved the work, but the job sucked. It was the unions versus the suits. People were being fired in the morning then rehired in the afternoon.”
By the time her first child was three, Ramsey was looking for a less harried lifestyle. She moved to Gabriola Island and, not long after, took over Artworks. “My parents thought that was a terrible idea too.”
Ramsey felt that the timing was right. “Gabriola was looking for an identity at that point and it really clicked. We are the Isle of the Arts. Gabriola has one of the highest concentration of artists in Canada.” Perhaps, Ramsey says, there is something about the island’s more than seventy petroglyphs that inspires artistry. “People work hard at their art and send it to galleries in New York and beyond.”
Many of the gallery’s inaugural artists are still with Artworks today: master silversmith Lindsay Stocking Godfrey, painter Paul Grignon, carver Rick Cranston…
Ramsey has also been thrilled to watch new artists flourish. “Tammy Hudgeon is a glass artist who is now all across North America. She came in, probably fifteen years ago, and had just bought a glass kiln. She was starting to experiment. She approached me and said: ‘I have this stuff. What do you think?’ There was definitely something there.”
Kathy has treasured her relationships with both the people who browse and the artists. “A lot of really amazing people. We live so on top of each other in Gabriola. Somebody once described Artworks as Gabriola’s living room. You never know who you are going to run into.”
The upstairs coffee bar is an “unofficial office” for many. Upstairs is also where Ramsey hangs her shows. “It’s the non-social aspect of putting on a show that I find meditative. I do it late at night. Artists drop off their work. I look at it, contemplate. It’s the curating aspect. I love doing that. I’m in the zone and suddenly it’s two in the morning.”
The Text and Art show was one of Ramsey’s favourite group exhibits. “I just loved everything about it: the concept, the thought that the artists put into it.” The exhibit included Sheila Norgate, who uses text in her art, Doane Gregory, who uses found words in his abstract photographs and Jeff Molloy, who created a giant painting of Louis Riel with the word ‘Rebel’ written across it.
Another favourite has been the Annual Object show where Ramsey gives artists an object to use as their muse. “They go off and hate me for three months, then come back with something fabulous.”
The first ever object was a cardboard box. Other years were centered on a pound of roofing nails, a pack of matches, a deck of cards. The year of the ruler inspired everything from a portrait of Fidel Castro to a mirror framed by a collection of vintage hardware store measuring sticks.
Owning a gallery has, of course, brought challenges. “Long hours. And 2008 was not pretty for anyone. You have to dig deep, have faith. That’s when you really need to love what you do.”
Ramsey’s involvement in the arts community on Gabriola extends beyond the gallery. She has played an active role in the Thanksgiving Studio Tour and has been president of the Gabriola Arts Council – “a huge education for me.” She is now the Pacific/North Island Regional Director for Arts BC.
At this moment, though, Ramsey must focus on winding down the gallery and “untangling” herself from this island she loves. She has been tremendously moved by the outpouring. “There was a huge party for me at the community hall. Over fifty artists stitched a square on a quilt. Just amazing. Each square referenced some sort of event, thought or project I had worked on. Oh ya, I was in tears.”
Her past and present staff also came up with the idea of getting Doane Gregory to shoot a picture of them all seated as Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. “It was so fun. There was a bit of wine.”
She is not sure what will become of the Gabriola Artworks space. Perhaps someone will swoop in and start anew? Ramsey is excited for her new life in Saltspring – home to two of her children and thirty assorted relatives. She is eager to explore the arts scene there and, after getting a little sleep, to at least consider the idea of pop-up galleries or curating shows. “I’d hate to get rusty.”
Kathy knows that she will be back to Gabriola, certainly for the Thanksgiving tour. “I’ve just been really grateful to the community of Gabriola. It gave me an amazing place to raise my three kids.” And it’s better, she says, to exit smiling. “I’m really happy that I still love what I do. It’s better to go out while you are still enjoying what you are doing and putting in one hundred percent.”
Written by Elizabeth Newton