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Industry & Art in Whitehorse

by Darrell Hookey

A Guide to Whitehorse

    New York City has its Soho District; Paris has its Montmartre; and Whitehorse has its ... McRae Industrial Park. To be more specific, the highest concentration of artists in Whitehorse is in the Rosati Construction Building.

    It was once a 16 by 33-meter warehouse full of cardboard and bags of sand for a sandblasting operation until Nerissa Rosati bought it eight years ago. Today it houses studios for painters, videographers, photographers, writers and potters.

    Yet as funky as the tenants tend to be, the building still looks like a warehouse. The flat roof, industrial metal siding and large parking lot ringed with sheds are a sharp contrast to the business of creating beauty within.

    Rosati, too, is a study of contrast. She swings a hammer for a living. Renovating homes means she is a carpenter, drywaller, painter and anything else needed to get the job done. Her well-worn jeans will attest to all of that.

    Yet she has a fondness for art. The home she built in the top far corner of the warehouse, with the pine ceiling and maple hardwood floor, respectfully showcases an eclectic mix of art. Just inside the ground-level entrance is "Roxanne's Room", a quirky and engaging collection of old books, eight-track tapes, mixmasters turned into lamps and a door from an abandoned Cadillac. All are displayed beneath a sharply dressed mannequin (Roxanne) sitting atop a Fargo truck hood. In the living room, a Salvador Dali print on one wall faces a Bill Barnie acrylic painting on the other while a collection of car parts grace a pony wall. Car parts?

    "It's the right kind of tacky," she explains. "I enjoy art." And she enjoys artists. She finds her tenants to be "a fun bunch of positive people who are on their way up".

    From time to time there will be bands renting space to practise their music. They tend to practise late into the night, but she enjoys listening to them get better and better. Say No More/Mantis rented space in her building once and Inconnu was there. Kim Barlow as well.

    Rosati was impressed by one group in particular, Hoop. It was getting ready for a trip to Australia and worked extremely hard. Listening through the walls, she could tell when they started to gel. With space starting at $150 a month, "starving artists" and young bands can afford to pursue their crafts.

    But do not call Rosati a "patron of the arts". She flatly denies it, instead suggesting she is just a business person satisfying a need. Nevertheless, she is appreciated in the arts community. Rosati has gained a reputation for being flexible.

    "That-woman-in-McRae-who-rents-studio-space" is how Patrick Royle knew her six years ago when he was looking for a new home for Raven Pottery. The room he would rent was just floor joists when he first saw it. Rosati was prepared to finish the room to suit his needs. Today the room is just bare bones with conduits running down the unfinished walls to electrical switches. That is all Royle wanted. "My customers know this is a working studio," he says. Even the hallway leading to his studio has a half-done feel to it.

    Rosati's tenants do not want to pay extra for track lighting, carpeting and artificial ferns. And without the trappings of an "office-to-impress", artists could afford her rates. Even non-artist tenants, such as Icefield Instruments, are just there to work.

    Rosati never set out to attract artists. Along with her home -- in the corner that offers the best view of Grey Mountain, Golden Horn and the Yukon River -- she built two "spaces". She advertised them as a shop/office/studio. By the response, she soon discovered there is a need in Whitehorse for space away from the high rent and restrictive bylaws of downtown. Zoned for heavy industrial, her tenants could make noise, kick up dust and create fumes.

    Since the building is in an industrial park, tenants can't expect bylaw officers to solve disputes. Rosati says this encourages each tenant to solve conflicts amicably themselves. Sometimes all that is needed is Rosati's renovating skills to neutralize a problem. Rosati found that many of her tenants just needed space for a few months to spread out. Some had been working out of their homes and found they were getting cramped. Others just needed storage space for a while.

    Joyce Majiski just needed affordable space when she moved in five years ago. The multi-faceted artist appreciated the fact Rosati understands artists and the business they are in. She has even been known to accept art as payment for rent when things get tight. Then there is her flexibility, says Majiski. "If she doesn't have it, she'll build it."

    Attracting a steady stream of artists has helped form a sense of community, says Majiski. She wishes there were more artists in the building to establish a dialogue. Recently, the artists in the building staged their third and most successful open house. Customers and friends of each artist were introduced to the others. "This is the closest we have to a center of art," said Majiski.

    Royle, too, feels a little sense of community in the building. Yet it is tempered by the understanding among artists that each are there to concentrate. In fact, he gets more visits from the engineers at Icefield Instruments than the other artists. Sometimes they need his kiln to heat metal to a particular temperature. And sometimes he needs their help to diagnose a problem with the kiln. It is a sense of community Rosati enjoys as well.

    She and children are always welcome to visit Ava Christl, an oil painter, in her studio. She was one of her first tenants, along with Janet Moore who has rented space at different times over the years.

    As more prospective tenants appeared and as time permitted, Rosati would spend her evenings extending the floor, putting up walls and finishing it to suit their needs. Today, standing in her two-storey garage, Rosati looks up at the expanding second floor. She figures she is done for now.

    Of course, if somebody really needed space, there is a skid shack outside she is willing to fix up.