Beauty, innovation, and fun at the Eastside Culture Crawl

From chainsaw sculpting to mural colouring, Vancouver’s celebrated Eastside Culture Crawl returns Nov. 16–19, featuring art making events and over 500 artists, including Sandeep Johal, Roman KOKO Kuzmichev, and Serena Chu, in its staple open studio walk.

Sandeep Johal. | Photo by Rachel Pick

Johal fondly remembers the celebratory atmosphere of last year’s Crawl – her first as an artist – inside her studio at 281 Industrial Avenue. Preparing a variety of artwork, including drawing studies and embroidery, Johal looks forward to a similar camaraderie at this year’s event while showcasing her distinct visual style, which combines Indo-folk aesthetics with feminine artistry in honour of her family’s Punjabi heritage.

“When South Asian folks see it, they know it’s made by a South Asian hand, and they feel seen, heard, and represented, and they know these spaces are for them too,” says Johal, who grew up in Kelowna without easy access to artistic mentors.

Expressing her cultural pride, Johal draws inspiration from the colours, floral patterns, and figurative designs commonly used in Indo-aesthetics. Johal’s work also addresses gender violence, a topic she has been exploring since her art school days at Langara College where she addressed honour killings in British Columbia through the creation of three prints. When portraying these stories, Johal steers away from shock value with an approach that de-centers the artist and honours these women.

“My instructor said I took a really ugly topic and presented it in this really aesthetically beautiful [and] digestible way,” says Johal. “I thought if I ever do this type of work again, I have to do it through a lens of beauty.”

Johal wants viewers to remain with their discomfort, research these stories, and create conversations about them. Reminiscent of her signature mural work, those visiting her studio will also see a workspace that includes walls up to a height of six feet. For emerging artists, Johal advises that they work to identify their own artistic voice.

“You make the work that you want to make, and people will feel the authenticity and you’ll find your audience,” says Johal.

Modernizing wood artistry

KOKO, a wood sculptor and first time Crawl artist, looks forward to exhibiting art from his two collections, the WINDOWINDOW and Animalistic series, at the MakerLabs on 780 East Cordova Street. Inspired by a friend who taught him chainsaw carving, KOKO’s Animalistic pieces are an interpretation of inter-design sculptures. His WINDOWINDOW collection, first developed in July 2021, was also inspired by those around him.

“Everybody who starts looking at these windows, they always ask why the window is here,” says KOKO.

Serena Chu, artist

According to KOKO, this theme originated when his family and friends commented on his sculpture that had a square hole. Their different suggestions, such as turning it into a light switch, sparked his desire to experiment with motifs of seeing through the window. KOKO’s artistic career has indeed been marked by experimentation – with ideas, materials, and techniques – an approach he encourages when exploring wood artistry.

“Don’t try to make everything perfect because it’s not necessary,” says KOKO while asserting that woodworking is a fairly accessible skill. “I really want to inspire more people to work with wood.”

KOKO first learned wood working in community woodshop classes focused on items of utility, such as cutting boards. When the artistic need to learn traditional wood carving arose, he started experimenting with power carving, a technique more accessible while allowing for his desired results. For KOKO, whose move from Russia to Canada in April 2022 led to new experimentations with Canadian wood, sculpting requires introspective, bravery, and openness.

“It’s important to understand yourself, your soul, and your heart, and be brave to be open to create with it,” says KOKO.

KOKO will be demonstrating his power carving techniques on Nov. 18 in a special Crawl event. While he’s still sketching the creation, he notes it’ll probably be an addition to one of his two collections. For KOKO, exhibiting his freestanding sculptures and wall hanging murals is both a milestone in his family’s settlement in Canada and his own artistic career.

For the love of colour

Chu, a mural and ceramics artist, will be showcasing her studio at 1630 Pandora Street with a variety of artwork, including pottery and watercolour paintings for sale as well as a life-size mural for colouring. Well-known for her large murals that foster community, Chu started creating them while attending art school at York University.

An art piece by Roman Kuzmichev. | Photo courtesy of Roman Kuzmichev

“One professor just told me to keep going bigger and bigger – your personality is too big, you need to go bigger,” says Chu.

For this year’s Crawl, Chu has designed a seasons-themed mural with four quadrants, one for each of the four seasons, that visitors are encouraged to colour. Participants are also welcomed to sign their name or draw their own images in the center of the mural. Chu notes the design of seasons was chosen for its power as a conversation starter, which is a crucial aspect of her accessible approach to art.

“It’s an outlet to release stress, to have fun, to connect with other people,” says Chu. “We need to strip away [the idea] that art is only for the refined – so many artists just do it for themselves or for their families.”

Roman Kuzmichev. | Photo by Ekaterina Menshikova

Visitors may also see Chu’s kiln and wheels, highlighting her ceramics work which started in 2016 and involves incorporating contrasting principles, such as smooth versus texture. As an art teacher, Chu encourages students to use colour, similar to how her murals foster community through shared fun – an experience she has been able to witness at her previous mural events. For Chu, seeing introverts participate on their own terms and seniors exploring their child-like qualities have been highly memorable.

“People start chatting with each other, ask why you picked one image to colour over the other, it is collaborative,” says Chu. “I love that it reaches a community that is not always reached.”

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