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Artists repurpose old school

Posted on December 21, 2016 by Richard Amery

A group of Lethbridge artists have repurposed an old school to make art together. Jeanne Kollee and Rick Gillis have made the decommissioned McNally School their artistic home for the past two years with a cadre of artists including Ann-Laure Djaballah, Aaron Hagen, Pam Vera, Leila Armstrong, Annie Martin, Kasia Sosnowski, Wende Luco and Robert Bechtel.
Each of them took over a former classroom in the renamed McNally Community Hall, located two kilometres south of Highway 4 on McNally Road, though Kollee and Gillis share a room, while Bechtel shares the basement with the stained glass guild.
It is a beautiful setting for a studio; the old schoolhouse, which was built in 1947, is nestled in the countryside just at the edge of Lethbridge. The floors are beautiful hardwood and the artists have hung their art on the walls of long halls which used to host rows of students’ lockers, which were removed and sold when the school was decommissioned in 1989.
“It’s a full building; we actually have a waiting list to get space here,” said Gillis, who has used the studio to create many of his works for several exhibitions coming up in January including a group exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the University of Lethbridge and his own solo exhibition opening, Jan. 7 at Casa called “The Age of Man.”
“All of the works are allegorical. Just about all of the pieces were created here or my basement. There are a number of paintings and a lot other projects and I’ve assembled some photographs for it. I’ve been working on a more sentimental series,” Gillis said, adding he is pleased with the new space.
“There’s lot of room in the halls to organize works for exhibitions, so all we have to do is truck it out,” Gillis said.
Kollee is continuing work on her “Unter Dem Messer” exhibition which ran June 25-Sept. 2 at Casa.
“I’m going to do six or seven more canvasses for it. I’ve applied for other arts groups, too,” Kollee said, adding they Kollee and Gillis were part of a collective of artists called the Potemkin Collective, which used to work in the basement of the old firehall downtown. When the firehall location became untenable, they moved to a location above Adam’s book store. But when the landlord sold the building housing their studio above the store and the group disbanded, they had to move again.
“We’ve been using a lot of different spaces for art, which we used to do all the time with the Potemkin. So we were looking for a space when we moved out of the space above Adam’s book store, and this place came available,” Gillis said, adding they discovered the location through the Allied Arts Council. Leila Armstrong and Robert Bechtel were already ensconced there
“I think Annie was here first,” Gillis said, adding he and Kollee got the last two spaces in the studio.
“You don’t find spaces like this like this, so we considerer this to be a lucky find,” he continued.
“The McNally Community Association were looking for something to do with the rest of the building,” Kollee said, adding they had been renting out the other half for special events like weddings, showers and get togethers.
The Southern Accord Chorus rehearse there as the former gym has been repurposed into a multi-purpose room and even a theatre as the old school stage was left intact.
“It’s bright and there’s lots of space,” Kollee added.
“It’s still somewhat close to town. Unless you live on the west side, we’re only 15 minutes away from anywhere in the city. And it’s on a major school route, so the roads are plowed,” Gillis added.
“Sometime Rick and I come here together, sometimes on our own,” Kollee said, observing the former science room has been divided into an individual studio as well as a common kitchen including two sinks, the original cupboards and a giant wooden table dead set in the middle for all of the artists to gather and use.
“We can do potlucks here and we meet every month to play poker,” Kollee continued.
“We take care of the hardwood floor. I’ve spilled paint on it, but it was acrylic, so it cleaned up easily,” Gillis said.
While the studio isn’t technically open to the public, if people want an excuse to take a drive in the country and see some art, the artists are happy to set up personal appointments with them.
“Last week we had clients who came in to buy some art. People like to come and see artists at work,” Kollee said, adding the McNally studio also holds open houses as they did last winter.
“We did two open houses which were successful.
“We’d like to have a two open houses a year,” Kollee said.
More information is available at http://www.mcnallycommunity.ca/.

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