A guest interview with Karen Gimbel, co-owner of Bluerock Gallery
It’s a blustery January day in southern Alberta, and I am happy to stop my car after a two-hour drive from Canmore and walk into the warm haven called Bluerock Gallery.
Here I find a welcoming space full of art, but also a busy hub of activity on this winter Wednesday just before lunch: several customers looking around, Isis at the cash answering questions, and Karen Gimbel walking around the space with purpose.
It seems the furnace on their 90-year-old building is being temperamental and she’s on the phone trying to find a solution. She’s also greeting customers (regulars), waving to me who is here to bring her art, and saying to Isis: “I’m just going to the thermostat to see if it and the furnace will talk to each other!”
All in a day’s work for this gallery owner. I’m here for lunch, but Karen clearly has to get this issue solved before we go. I smile to myself because I have an excuse to linger in the gallery, a chance I don’t often get when I am making an art delivery and trying to get back in time to pick up children from school. (Today, my husband is on duty.)
This hub-bub of activity is a busy contrast to the very zen-like space that Karen and her staff have cultivated. Mellow music pipes from the speakers, and the space is filled with awe-inspiring original art, handmade fine craft, jewellery, textiles, books and journals, and even Persian carpets.
She is passionate about this space, and all the wonderful pieces it holds. “Every piece in the place carries the soul of the person who makes it,” she enthuses. “All of it adds to the life of the gallery.”
This beautiful space resides in Black Diamond, an unexpected location for an art gallery. A 35-minute drive south of Calgary, and far from the “gallery scene” in the big city, Black Diamond is one of several small towns in Alberta’s southern foothills. It has a two-block main street, no traffic lights, no parking meters, one hotel, and a population of only about 2,300 people. So, to also find a thriving art gallery here – that spans two buildings – is a bit of a surprise.
“We’re about as far from Costco as you can get,” Karen laughs. “But then, I don’t swim in popular culture, and never really have. That’s allowed me to create this wonderful business from the heart. I came into it without a formal gallery background, but with a pure love of art and beauty.”
“I don’t think you could put this gallery anywhere else,” she continues. “People travelling Highway 22 are not in a hurry, they’re not trying to get anywhere fast. Or, they may have come from a day of recreation in Kananaskis Country, or often a day trip from Calgary. They come into the gallery in a mood to meander.”
Karen and husband Chris Weingarth, who is the other owner of the gallery, fell magically into this place. On a friend’s invitation, Karen visited Black Diamond in 2007 for an art opening at the (then) Terra Cotta Gallery, and was surprised to find she knew the owners from a previous connection in Calgary. It’s one of those amazing coincidences that doesn’t gel at the time, but has long-reaching consequences.
Karen loved what she saw at Terra Cotta, and exclaimed whimsically to owners Rob and Evonne: “I’d love to have a place like this someday!” Little did she know that she set an important piece of her future into motion.
Fast-forward to three years later, when Karen – who had been living in the US and had just returned to Calgary – received a call from Evonne. She said they were planning to sell Terra Cotta, and remembered what Karen had said. Would Karen be interested in taking it over?
“I remember being so surprised,” Karen recalls. “It came right out of the blue, but my whole life said ‘yes!’. It had my heart written all over it. Thankfully, Chris was willing to go on this journey with me.”
Now – almost three years in – Bluerock boasts over 2000-square-feet of gallery space, and has 150 regional artists and craftspeople under their wing. Under the stewardship of Karen and Chris, the gallery is a thriving business, and a place to connect with many of Alberta’s artists – some mainstream and some not.
Bluerock also has monthly art shows and openings, and the occasional special event like the “Rumi, Hafiz and Friends” in November 2012 that was a celebration of poetry and art from Persia.
Karen attributes their success in large part to the fact that they are a gallery that focusses on local artists. They proudly talk about their “100-mile art diet” emphasizing the fact that most artists live and work within 100 miles of the gallery.
“When we took over the gallery, we really wanted to build on the local aspect of what was already here. We also wanted to represent a larger variety of art, like fibre and metal arts,” Karen says. “Local was a concept that was so important to me, but I now see how much it matters to our customers. They love the fact that they are supporting southern Alberta art, and they feel a real connection to the artists that show here.”
Karen also carries an astounding variety of cards and books – not all of them local, but all of them unique. The collection is far from standard, and its eclectic mix means you can find that special something that isn’t easily found anywhere else. Here, cowboy postcards are next to Rumi poetry books, and gorgeously decorated belt buckles stand next to hand-bound books featuring “Wisdom of the World”.
“I’m a curator of the beautiful and unusual,” she explains. “Looking back, I realize I’ve been collecting art all my life. Everything in the gallery is carefully selected. I’m not really trying to please anyone, but rather I’m bringing in pieces that inspire me. But, I have also learned over the years what resonates with the customers and the spirit of this place.”
Karen herself is an artist, and although the business keeps her very busy, and her art sometimes takes a back seat for now, she knows her artist’s heart is the key to Bluerock Gallery. She says her greatest joy is being surrounded by gorgeous pieces every day, and sharing her love of art and beauty with others.
“Bluerock Gallery, and the community of Black Diamond, has given us such a gift,” she says. “This is the place where my whole life has come together. My philosophy is that your work should be in service to what you love. I never understood working at a job I hated so I could someday retire to do what I love.”
“I can see doing this for a very long time. I’m lucky enough to have found a way to feed my spirit while also having the privilege of serving others in the same way by connecting my customers and my artists,” she says. “How fulfilling is that?”
For more information on Bluerock Gallery, an online catalogue of their art and artists, and a schedule of their 2013 shows, visit bluerockgallery.ca.