Story and photos by Will Geier.
A crowd of paintsuit clad artists gather around the outside of the vibrant art-covered building: Voltage Creative Garage.
Spray paint cans are in piles, ready to be “popped” and sprayed over this derelict building. This soon-to-be-destroyed space has been home to many of these artists since early 2016. While it may seem like a sad event, everyone is in good spirits, joking and laughing as they cover a wall with a mural of colour and the phrase “You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.”
Passers-by watch in awe at the spectacle and offer their thanks to the artists who had contributed this creative and colourful space to the Marda Loop community.
The idea of transforming an unused building into a safe and welcoming atmosphere for artists while simultaneously creating a piece of urban art was born in the minds of Andrea Llewellyn and Kelly Johnsgaard. The two realized that they both wanted to start a distinct studio space and oddly enough, they both had the same auto-mechanic shop in mind – the one now set to be torn down.
“God, I had been trying to break into that building to do photoshoots because I love that art-deco style,” jokes Johnsgaard.
It didn’t take long for Llewellyn to take action and make their dream a reality.
“The ball was rolling and it literally kept rolling from there,” recalls Johnsgaard.
However, the two admit there was an extensive learning curve that included dealing with an intimidating wall of red tape, finding the right land usage classification, building permits, and navigating parking delegations – among other headaches.
After dealing with the bureaucracy of the city, Johnsgaard and Llewellyn persevered and were finally able to officially open the space in 2016.
“The main issue we found with starting Voltage One was the misconception and wrong understanding of what we were actually going to be doing with the business,” explains Johnsgaard. “The long and short is to provide a safe and affordable place for local artists to do their creative work and not have to worry about spilling a can of paint. They don’t have to worry about losing their damage deposit.”
“Art is messy. If we can’t be messy in a space, it’s going to be a problem,” adds Llewellyn.
The work that the artists are doing is not just on the canvas; the whole space was transformed into a living art piece with each artist putting their own touch on the garage. Some artists took residency in the studio for only a few weeks, while some remained in the space since opening day.
As more artists started calling Voltage home, Johnsgaard and Llewellyn had more people to help with the garage.
Everyone’s varying backgrounds provided the unique experience, skills, and labour required to keep the space up and running.
Although Voltage’s old space is now gone, it isn’t gone forever. In fact, Voltage Two is in the works and will be bigger and better than before.
This time around, Johnsgaard and Llewellyn are prepared for the battle to get Voltage Two up and running. Now that they have established themselves, people are more willing to help.
“The first time, it was literally Andrea and myself, so it was a lot more challenging because we didn’t have people to lean on when we had issues or when we needed to vent. This time around, we have a lot of people that are more than willing to give us a hand with work that needs to be done,” comments Johnsgaard.
“City council has helped us with this new space extensively,” admits Llewellyn.
Llewellyn and Johnsgaard are hoping that city support for repurposing of unused empty lots and buildings increases and more spaces can be transformed. Voltage aims to inspire the city to take advantage of these empty spaces.
Johnsgaard and Llewellyn are proud of what they have created.
“Now Voltage has an identity. We are into urban-based art. When I say that, I don’t mean hip-hop, I mean it has an urban-city feel—it incorporates found materials,” explains Llewellyn.
“The whole concept of Voltage is art,” continues Llewellyn. “It’s a statement as a building, as a concept. It’s a piece of art. It makes a statement on current issues, on politics in Calgary, and on use of buildings and societal issues.”
For those inspired by the work of the Voltage family, Johnsgaard has a few lasting words of advice.
“To show people that anything is possible, don’t be afraid to ask for help and don’t be afraid of a little hard work. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. It makes it that much more worthwhile.”
Although they’ve yet to reveal their new location, keep an eye open for Voltage Two in the coming months.