Edmonton Things To Do: Art Gallery of Alberta Adult Drop-In Studio

Tons of Ideas by Vera Gartley

Earlier this summer, I was making plans with a friend of mine. Due to scheduling conflicts, it was somewhat difficult to find a time that worked for both of us to get together. Futhermore, I didn’t want to do our typical thing of just going for dinner or doing a Paint Nite event. So, I started to scour the internet for ideas of what else we could do in Edmonton.

Honestly, I don’t even know how I eventually ended up on the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) website, but I did. What I found is that they actually offer a weekly Adult Drop-In Studio every Wednesday night. While that particular day of the week didn’t work for her, I was intrigued and I wanted to check out a few of those sessions for myself. I gathered other friends of mine and I made it to three different classes over the span of September.

The first one I went to, I phoned ahead to reserve spaces for me and my friends because I wasn’t sure what kind of attendance to expect (there is a maximum of 20 spaces). You are able to hold spots the day of the drop-in, but you do have to provide payment info at that time. You can phone it in and pick up the tickets at guest services upon arrival at the gallery, or you can walk-in and pay in person.

Tickets are $18 plus tax per person and that includes all of the materials that you’ll be using. The price point is stellar for a two hour activity, especially when compared to the majority of other creative events running throughout the city.

As it turns out, reservations weren’t really necessary. Only half a dozen people showed up for printmaking the first night. Initially, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of direction. The website had indicated that we would be doing lino carving with a theme of cityscapes. Yet, it pretty much turned into a freestyle situation in that we weren’t at all limited. Everyone was allowed to design whatever they wanted, and guidance only came into play once we started doing more of the printmaking itself.

In fact, I loved printmaking so much that I made my way to Delta Art & Drafting Supply that weekend in order to pick up all of the materials needed to do the same thing at home (I have a couple of special projects planned). Thankfully, there was a sale going on.

The following week, my colleague and I ventured out into the cold to make it to the AGA for their Floral Studies drop-in. We arrived a little bit late, but, once we paid, we managed to catch the group of about ten people as they were heading up to the galleries. The instructor for the night wanted us to take inspiration from an exhibit called Vanitas by artist Samantha Walrod. She turned the RBC Work Room (a studio-like residence space) from an empty gallery into several pieces of finished art that explored the idea of life and loss using floral imagery and the passing of time. Her work utilizes layering through multiple mediums like collage, ink and paint.

I was kind of hoping that we would be doing something similar to what we’d seen. Instead, the focus was more on learning to work with chalk pastels and acrylic paints together. Not quite what I expected. Still, I managed to learn some new ways of applying colour and paint to paper, as well as creating my own colours using pigments from the chalk pastels and mixing it with the acrylics.

Finished Japanese stab bounded books.

The final session that I made it to was about book binding. I failed to take photos during this one, but I do have a picture of the finished products. We were taught how to put our own travel journals together using just paper, a couple of binder clips, a push pin, a needle and some thread. We used a simple Japanese stab process, which is easily searchable on Google or YouTube. After we each completed two books, we took them up to the James Wilson Morris gallery where we practiced our sketching techniques (i.e. shading, blind contour, gesture, etc.).

All of these turned out to be fun in their own unique ways. I’ve got my eye on a silk screening class in early-November, but in the meantime, they have a variety of other drop-ins like plaster casting or slow stitch through October. Additionally, if you show up to the gallery early, you can take advantage of the All Access Evenings. Those happen every Tuesday and Wednesday from 5pm to 8pm and it grants all patrons entrance to the exhibits for free.

The Art Gallery of Alberta is definitely making an effort to increase the accessibility and affordability of art and art-related activities. Don’t miss out. Sure, not every workshop is going to call to you, but in the scope of a year, there’s bound to be something that will get your creative juices flowing. Keep an eye on the AGA calendar and carve out some time at this local gem of an institution.

Edmonton Event Preview: Vignettes Design Series 2018 & Nuit Blanche

Salvador Dali is hidden in one of the Vignettes rooms.

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to attend the 2018 Vignettes Design Series VIP Gala. It was held inside Edmonton City Centre in the old ATB Branch on the ground floor (next to the 101 Street West Entrance). When we arrived, we found a huge line already snaking across the mall. It seemed that we were in for a less than exclusive event.

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When we finally made it into the Vignettes space, we were each welcomed with a tiny disposable cocktail glass filled with a couple of sips of sangria. After that, all other food (aside from what was available in the Sanctuary room) and drinks required ticket purchases at an additional cost. Needless to say, for a $40 price tag per guest, I wasn’t too impressed with how this event was executed. It became much too packed way too quickly, making it extremely difficult to maneuver around (architecturally, the overall footprint is small).

Mostly, my hope of getting to mix and mingle in-person with the artists that had worked on the individual rooms was dashed. They were much too busy with the hoards of other guests that had also paid to get into this party. While I do understand that the money collected from ticket sales does go back into the creation of future Vignettes events, I would rather that the organizers made it a little more low key. Spend less money on getting a DJ (it’s so hard to talk or hear) and expensive catering and allow people who want a more in-depth experience to get just that.

Still, I don’t want to take away from the creativity of the work or the artists themselves. They did a phenomenal job transforming mundane offices, closets and walls into over a dozen fantastical or modern spaces. My favourites included a hidden bar, a rainforest (designed by a 4th grader and built by her father), a living space that utilized hydroponics (FRESCO Culinary provided snacks!), and The Grand Palastrio where time is questioned.

Thankfully, the Vignettes gallery will be open to the public every Thursday to Saturday for a month starting on Friday, September 28 and running until Saturday, October 27. While it won’t have the same crazy atmosphere of the VIP Gala (if that’s more your thing), tickets are only $15 per person and they will have timed entrances to help mitigate overcrowding. I expect that this setup will give visitors a chance to really engage with what’s in front of them without feeling rushed to move along. If you can fit this into your schedule before it’s gone, I do recommend taking the time to see this.

The Grand Palastrio

The launch of the public gallery for Vignettes also coincides with Nuit Blanche Edmonton 2018. The latter is a free late-night contemporary art party that takes place from 7pm on Saturday, September 29 to 7am on Sunday, September 30. Nuit Blanche is in its second full scale iteration (technically the third year in the city though), and this particular event happens for just the one evening throughout the downtown area. To find out what’s in store for this year’s programming, click here. Vignettes has been incorporated into Nuit Blanche and, based on the ticketing site, it appears as though they will not be charging for entry into that area during Nuit Blanche hours. However, you may want to check with Vignettes in advance just to be sure.

Nuit Blanche is an experience like no other with a lot of volunteers working behind the scenes to get the exhibits up and running (I was one in 2015). Although the weather forecast is looking chilly on Saturday night, venture out! Bundle up in a warm coat with a hat and gloves, and maybe bring a thermos with your favourite hot beverage. Participating works come from artists across the globe, and everyone who attends is bound to discover something that they fall in love with.

Edmonton Business Review: Escape City

Friends and escape rooms = fun!

I’ve been hooked on escape rooms ever since they were initially introduced to Edmonton back around 2014. I lapped them up and I would go on gaming sprees, usually dragging along a newbie or two. When we left, they were addicted as well. For those who don’t yet know, an escape room is an immersive experience whereby a group is “locked” in a themed room and they have to work together to solve riddles, clues and puzzles in order to breakout. They typically range between 45 to 60 minutes in length and cost about $25 per person to play.

About a year after I delved into that world, more businesses in this vein finally started to pop up, including one of my all time faves, Escape City. Located on 59 Avenue and 104 Street (Calgary Trail), it’s tucked away in the corner of an old strip mall. Walking through the doors, there has always been someone sitting behind the counter to greet patrons. Otherwise, it’s a very minimalist space with white walls, a couple of long benches, and cabinets for lockers. A large bulletin board next to the till showcases the teams who have broken out of their rooms in record time (Note: the times listed are remaining minutes in the game, not total minutes played). On the opposite side of the room is an accent wall with “Escape City” scrawled in red, which is great for photo ops.

It’s ideal to arrive 15 minutes in advance of your allotted time to ensure everyone has a chance to pay and sign the waivers (if you’ve played here before, they do keep them on file, so you don’t have to sign it again). As with any other escape room place, you are not to bring in any of your belongings. Phones, especially, should be locked away as it’s all too easy to cheat or make the game easier with them on hand. Plus, it’s important that photos aren’t shared of the room and its puzzles because the whole point of playing is to be challenged. Where’s the fun in knowing in advance what’s going to happen?

When the team is ready to go, a staff member will lead the way. They’ll present the house rules: no lifting carpets, no pulling on things that are nailed down, no climbing, etc. Then, a video introduction is played before the countdown starts and the game begins.

As an early subscriber to Escape City’s newsletter, I was invited to beta test for them. The very first room I got to experience was Keller’s Magic Emporium. At the time, I didn’t realize it was rated as their easiest room. Admittedly, I found it to be too quick to work through as we got out with probably 20 minutes to spare on an available 45 minutes (sometimes I don’t care about breaking a record; I just want to be entertained for as long as possible while still breaking out). What I did like was that they found a way to personalize the game a bit. Everything was quite linear, and the design was superb. They utilized some locks in the room, but there were a lot of other styles of puzzles, too. This one is best for beginners.

A taste of The Cabin. Photo courtesy of Escape City.

My second go at one of their rooms was with The Cabin. This was a well-though-out game and our group was literally a minute away from solving the whole thing. Alas, we failed, but it was very close. While it is considered to be one of the more difficult challenges at Escape City, I believe our ultimate downfall with this particular room was the size of the space and the number of players. Most of the time I struggle to get more than four or five people to come out. In this case, I recall having seven or eight in all. With limbs everywhere, visuals were blocked, hindering our ability to fully grasp everything we were supposed to see. My recommendation with the majority of places I’ve been is to have no more than six people.

Room number three at Escape City was The Inheritance. I’d only just started dating Kirk at the time. He was so enamoured with The Cabin that, on a whim as we were passing by one night, he decided we should zip into the front doors an hour before closing to ask if we could play an impromptu game. The staff was happy to oblige. I feel like we used a lot of hints (you can have up to two, if you want your time to count towards their rankings; otherwise, you can have as many as needed). But, what do you expect when you only have two brains trying to decipher stuff like this at 10 o’clock in the evening? We managed though. There were a couple of puzzles that we solved without doing it the way the room was planned (it happens on occasion). We also wouldn’t have gotten out within the actual 45 minutes. Thankfully, the employees working that night were nice enough to give us extra time. It’s been designated with a three out of five star difficulty rating and I think that’s a fair assessment.

Adventure four was The Great Discovery. It’s no longer running, but this one had a lab storyline and made sure to encourage the use of multiple senses in order to solve the puzzles. Our team worked well together as each person brought something to the table, and we felt really accomplished when we escaped this room.

The Hunt for Arms Magee (previously known as Quarterback Sneak) was the fifth room played at Escape City. It’s also classified as middle of the road in terms of the overall challenge. I have to say though, this was most likely my least favourite out of the handful of games we’d played here at this point. I didn’t think the quality of the room itself or the production value was as high as the others. Mainly in the first half (the second portion had a fun element), the premise felt silly and oversimplified in comparison. This room was a joint effort between Escape City and Explore Edmonton. It was originally meant to tie into the Grey Cup and pitted the idea of the Edmonton Eskimos against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. I thought they just tried way too hard to tie in Edmonton elements. They’re best left to making rooms where the imaginations of the designers aren’t hindered by the tourism board’s vision.

We excelled at Neurological! Also, this is apparently my lucky shirt.

Approximately ten months later, I finally found an excuse to go back. This time, we were celebrating Escape City’s third birthday (August 2018). It’s crazy to think that they’ve graced us with their presence for this long and even weirder to realize I hadn’t played any escape rooms in over half a year. We tried our hand at Neurological, one of their hardest. I’ve been told by many people who tackled it before me to go with a large group (eight to ten). In the end, I managed to wrangle together a total of five people. Needless to say, I was a bit concerned that we didn’t have enough brain power. Turns out, that worry was unnecessary. We demolished this room! Unlike the others, you start with 60 minutes on the timer, and we completed it with 11 minutes left to go. This one splits the team up at the beginning and the goal is to come back together to alight all the senses. It required clear communication and a lot of teamwork to succeed. We were told at the end that only 14 per cent of of the people who play this one break out, so we felt like superstars.

For those that want to hang out a little longer, you can either get there early or stay for a bit at the end and commiserate over a drink because, surprisingly, Escape City does sell cans of beer and a few other non-alcoholic beverages. Basically, it’s a great option for parties of any kind. While I’m not likely to throw a shindig here myself, they sure do know how to reel me back in. Seeing as how I had pretty much tackled all of their rooms, I wasn’t expecting to be return again any time soon. But, lo and behold, for their anniversary, they’ve just launched a new one called Frank’s Revenge about an uncle looking to even the score. If I have my way, curse be damned. Our winning streak has to live on! I’ll be back with friends in tow!

Edmonton Business Review: Board N Brew

The interior of Board N Brew.

There’s been an influx of board game cafes in Edmonton over the past few years. One of the newest ones is Board N Brew. Situated on 99 Avenue and 103 Street, it’s probably the most spacious and better designed spots of its kind in the city, and it’s only a hop, skip, and jump away from my office. It’s sort of easy to miss though. Unless it happens to be on your route to and from work, there’s a good chance you’d be unaware of its existence.

Alcohol is served here.

Now open for about 15 months, I gathered some friends for an evening of board games after work in the middle May. Since groups can reserve space before 8pm, I took the opportunity to book us a table just in case. The six of us trickled in between 4:15pm to 5:30pm on a Wednesday night. At first, the staff seemed to be attentive. Someone came over a few minutes after we arrived to take drink orders (a can of Stiegl Radler was $6.50), and another returned a short while later to put through any food we wanted.

The menu is quite succinct with a focus on snackable items. However, they do offer Battista’s calzones and a few entrées that seemed to require more than a microwave or panini press to cook (most of the other board game cafes tend to stick with sandwiches and wraps). One such item was the Chicken & Waffles ($15), which I opted to try.

Chicken & Waffles with Kettle Chips

Really, when it comes down to it, this is a fairly simple dish. It requires batter, a waffle maker, chicken, a fryer, and some maple syrup. I found the waffles to be good. They were crisp, but still a touch fluffy on the inside. The chicken was breaded and seasoned nicely. The meat was clearly solid white chicken breast and it was still juicy. Whatever herbs and spices they used had some heat to it, too, giving the meal some added flavour. A cup of maple syrup sat on the side, so I was able to apply it as I felt was necessary. Served with the waffles was a bowl of plain kettle chips. I’m not sure what brand they were. I doubt they make them in-house or anything. I would have preferred a dip to go with them. Thankfully, my friend gave me her leftovers from her Naan Sampler, so I could have something to jazz them up.

After our mains were had, that’s when the service went down hill. They kept forgetting to bring over things people had ordered (not unlike my previous experiences at places like The Gamers’ Lodge or even at Table Top Cafe on occasion), and they eventually stopped checking on us.

Board Game Legend

Staff aside, Board N Brew is awesome when it comes to their selection of games. At a rate of $5 per person to play as long as you want, it’s worth it. I love their game legend, which breaks down how they’ve sorted everything on the shelves. It makes it easy to find what one is looking for. Also, maybe it’s because the place is relatively new, but most of the cards and pieces in the games we chose to play — Cards Against Humanity, Taboo, Spank the Yeti, Rhino Hero, and Rhino Hero Super Battle — were clean and in excellent condition. I really appreciated that as I’m a bit of a germophobe and feel absolutely disgusted when I come into contact with sticky surfaces. So, score one for Board N Brew in this respect!

As I mentioned previously, the layout of the venue is great. Large booths that seat six people each line all of the windows. Other configurable tables are located in the center of the space. At the back, there are two private rooms. Both can be booked in advance, although they do require minimum spends. The lighting is also pretty good, especially during the day when sunlight comes streaming right in. Staffers are also supposed to be able to assist with game explanations, but it depends on whether or not they’ve played it before.

Overall, we had a wonderful time. Sure, the staff can use some additional training to bring the service level up. Otherwise, the food and drinks were satisfactory (for the majority of us; likely to each their own), the shop was orderly, and, best of all, it was an incredibly affordable outing.

Edmonton Things To Do: 4Cats Arts Studio

Me with my finished piece.

Recently, my friend and I wanted to get together to do something crafty. But, we didn’t know what. A number of events we’d found — everything from cross stitching to terrarium building — were just a bit too pricey. So, I did some digging. Eventually, I came across 4Cats Arts Studios.

The company, founded in Victoria, British Columbia, has been around since 2005. Within six years, they had franchised out their name and business structure to locations across Canada, the United States, and Australia. In the Edmonton area, there are now three studios. One is in St. Albert, the second is in the north of the city, and the third sits in the southeastern neighbourhood of Summerside (this is the one we went to).

They hold a variety of workshops for kids and adults where patrons can paint canvases, decorate mugs or bowls, create clay planters, or mould figurines. Prices are $25 per participant, but they offer two spots for $35 when registering together. Currently, it looks like a variety of sessions are available through to the end of June. Then, in the summer months of July to August, 4Cats will strictly be running summer camps.

The two of us ended up enrolling in a painting workshop called ‘I Dream In Gold.’ It took place on a Friday evening at 6:30pm. We bused it there from Century Park, which was quite convenient as transport stops right on the block of the storefront. Arriving a little early, we used the time to snap photos of the studio space. It’s bright and colourful, likely drawing the attention of the kids who come in for classes. There were rolled and stretched canvases tucked everywhere, too, probably awaiting pick up. 4Cats even has a number of branded products for sale, including tempera paints (regular and glitter), gold foil sheets, note books, figurine kits, etc.

Check out this fun room!

As the start time drew closer, we were taken to the back room. The three open walls (artfully splattered in paint) had been stapled with about a dozen square-shaped black canvas sheets. There were no chairs. This was standing only. If one isn’t too keen on putting their personal belongings out of sight in the adjoining area, I suggest wearing pants with pockets to hold phones and cards/cash (keep it light) as there isn’t really space to keep things nearby. Tucking items underneath the benches may be possible, but I didn’t try that. I decided to turn my jacket inside out and wrap it around my purse, letting those items sit on the bench below my canvas. It kind of worked for me. Still, there’s a chance of getting stuff dirty that way, so make a judgement call.

Other participants working on their pieces. They all turned out so differently!

Similar to Paint Nite, there is a host/instructor who will take everyone through the process of completing the piece step-by-step. She worked through faster and, when needed, she asked the participants to pause as she showed the next stage. This allowed us to go at our own pace while still seeing what was ahead. They actually had a number of  paint jars opened with a bunch of different colours available for use. Also, rather than brushes at 4Cats, for this workshop, we mostly used sponges to apply the colours. As a result, our hands were a total mess afterwards. To clean up, they had a washing station that consisted of a bucket of soapy water and a communal hand towel. I opted to use the sink in their washroom instead.

Once we were satisfied with our paint application, we grabbed some brushes, glue, and gold foil to decorate our canvases. I only used one metallic sheet, but several people opted to add more. The foil itself is super delicate, tending to break apart very easily as it’s manipulated. If there’s anything sticky on one’s hands, the gold will also stay there rather than adhering to the canvas. I do love how it brings dimension to the art though, and I’d be happy to try this medium again.

I think the whole workshop took a total of an hour and a half from beginning to end. Since the paints dry quickly, the art can be taken home on the same night. However, the canvas won’t be mounted or framed. Having it stretched on a wooden frame costs an additional $25 when the service is purchased the day of or $35 should one choose to return later. Leaving it behind for stretching means another trip back when it’s ready (my friend was told it could be about two to three weeks). I, on the other hand, chose to carry my canvas as is. I’ll figure out what to do with it on my own.

Considering the cost per person, 4Cats Arts Studio is quite affordable for a creative night out with friends or with the kiddos, especially if extra services aren’t required of 4Cats after the fact. It’s not really going to break the bank compared to many other crafty options in Edmonton, and it’ll get the artistic juices flowing all the same.