Colloquially, the Western Oasis at the Calgary Stampede is called its best-kept secret.
Nestled each year in Hall E of the BMO Centre, the Western Showcase art show and accompanying wine garden might not get the same level of crowds as the Midway.
But for many of the artists who will be showcasing their work this year, the Western Oasis is anything but serene. It’ll be 10 full days of connecting with collectors, from dawn till dusk, generating a year’s worth of revenue in just those handful of days.
All while having spent the previous year creating every single work fresh for the show—no prints or reproductions on sale here.
“Everybody’s super excited to be here and to have things feeling a little bit back more to the show that we wanted it to look like and haven’t been able to do for the last couple of years,” said Lisa Douglas, Chair for the Western Showcase.
On display this year will be 46 artists in their art studios, of which five are brand new to the Calgary Stampede. Returning in grander form are the showcase of Grade 12 student scholarship works, mini-masterpiece gallery (all works under $300), Window on the West musical performance stage, Kitchen Theatre culinary arts area, and photographic arts display.
The Kitchen Theatre is one of the Western Oasis locations that wasn’t at the Stampede last year.
The display of photographs this year is eschewing the regular competition aspect, instead showing off the top works from the past decade alongside more local entries from six southern Alberta camera clubs.
Wine garden larger, thematic elements changed
The ever-popular wine garden has also been expanded, and opened up. The entire venue is now licensed, allowing patrons to enjoy a glass while chatting with artists or taking in one of the performances.
“I think it just opens up the opportunity for people to have that connection and that conversation with these experts, these artists, and people that we’re highlighting and showcasing, but to do it in a way where you can relax and have a drink, and just sort of enjoy the space and,” said Douglas.
Visitors will notice that the water features present in past years are not being used this year. Douglas said that with uncertainty about planning for the show, and with a number of elements out of their control leading up to the show, the decision was made to substitute the decor with a more Western theme.
She said that hopefully some of the fan favourite elements will be back next year, in an updated form.
“We’re always looking for change and innovation, and how do we reinvent ourselves—we want to have certain elements that stay the same, but we also want to feel different.”
And part of that continuation means ensuring that the 40 years of history and heritage that goes along with the Western Showcase remains at the forefront for visitors. That means keeping the creative arts and craft displays, which include among other things, some of the best in quilting outside of the yearly festival of quilts show at Heritage Park.
The big show for many artists
Douglas said that the show often serves as one of the most important art shows of the years for the artists selected to participate in the Western Showcase. For many, the 10 days of selling would represent an entire year’s worth of revenue.
As one person LiveWire Calgary spoke to about the show said, the artists have to be every bit as tough as the rodeo athletes just a few doors down, taking on that challenge.
She said it also provides collectors and visitors an opportunity to view and purchase art that they wouldn’t have seen elsewhere, and to build long term interest in particular artists.
“The relationship side of it I think is important,” she said.
“It’s a little bit nerve-racking, but also just a really great opportunity for artists to connect with collectors, new clients, and hopefully expose guests to something that maybe they haven’t seen before. Or, something that maybe they wouldn’t have seen in another venue or in another in another festival.”
Bringing the real west into the BMO Centre
Neil Hamelin, an oil painting artist who specializes in hyper-realistic renditions of Western life, was one of the artists setting up on July 6, just two days before the start of the Stampede.
All of the paintings he has on display this year are scenes within kilometres of his home in southern Alberta. After several years of successful showings starting in 2016, Hamelin and his wife moved from B.C. to Alberta to be fully connected to prairie communities.
Showing at the Stampede means everything to Hamelin.
“It’s one of the reasons which we relocated out here. We had done a show at Calgary Stampede, and it was being out at the Stampede, and meeting the people, and seeing the attraction people had to the art,” he said.
“Calgary is the most amazing city. There’s so much support for the arts in this province compared to any other province in Canada.”
Cheri Hamelin, Neil’s wife and business manager, said that they were excited for the return of the full event this year. Even though, she said, they did very well in terms of sales in last year’s much smaller Stampede experience. It’s something she attributed to the fighting spirit of Albertans in the face of adversity.
“For everybody who takes a step forward, I feel like a lot of Albertans take a couple steps forward. Like let’s bring this province back to what it is and support the local people,'” she said.
Neil Hamelin said that he has been in his studio for most of the past year. He started the day after the last Stampede ended to prepare for this show. Still, he said, it’s not just about making sales.
“Of course we need sales but it’s not about the sales for us. It’s about being able to actually share what we’ve put so much work into over the last year,” he said.
And as for the people who buy one of Neil’s paintings, Cheri said that is just the start of the social aspect. That’s what comes with taking something so personally intense as the real relationships and the real people the paintings depict.
“We very rarely sell a painting to somebody that we don’t, at some point, catch up with and have a social aspect with,” she said.
“It’s, ‘you’re now part of our family, whether you like it or not,'” she laughed.
Showing at Western Showcase a big deal
Calgary-based Brenda Banda Johnson was prepping for her second showing at the Stampede, after participating in last year’s smaller showcase. Banda Johnson’s an acrylic artist who creates using a palette knife.
“I’m excited to have an opportunity to do this show, and then I’d have it within a normal time,” she said.
She said that being able to participate is a big deal for artists.
“It feels like if you’re doing this show, you’ve sort of made it as an artist. It legitimizes your work in a way.”
Banda Johnson, who has her own gallery in Calgary, said that the show opens up opportunities to present to entirely different types of people. That includes international visitors who have come to the Stampede.
She said that it was also exciting to spend time in the company of other artists. She enjoys seeing the work that they’ve produced. Of her own work, she said that she has a few Grizzly Bear paintings that she’s looking forward to seeing people’s reactions to.
“That’s the thing when you’re doing something a little bit different than you used to do, and of course, one of my things that I do regularly is big stormy prairie skies,” she said.
And as for that storm, Banda Johnson was furiously painting right up to the start of the show installation.
“It’s been crazy. A lot of late nights. I was working until 11:30 last night on my last piece, which is drying right now.”
For full details on the show, including a list of artists presenting their works, see the Calgary Stampede’s Western Oasis website.