When you pop into your friendly neighbourhood corner store, one of the last things you would expect to see is a solid bronze banana.
Or, for that matter, a bronze avocado. Or a bronze potato. Or a five-pound bronze can of pop. All nonchalantly placed throughout the shelves, exactly where they would normally be found.
Those and several other eye-catching castings of perfectly regular corner store items have been causing customers to react with a mixture of confusion and delight for the past two weeks at the venerable McGill Grocery, at 2691 McGill St. in East Vancouver.
“We’ve definitely had some customers who are dumbfounded when they see the pieces,” co-owner Harry Mah told me.
Mah is a longtime community leader of the Burrardview annex of Hasting-Sunrise, where McGill Grocery is the beating heart. Many refer to Mah as the unofficial mayor of the neighbourhood. Mah runs the store with his brothers, Peter and Charles.
The Mahs inherited McGill Grocery from their mother, Oy Hee Mah, who purchased it in 1977, after the family immigrated from Toishan, China. According to Harry, a store of some kind has been in operation on that corner of McGill and Slocan dating back to at least the 1930s.
So what of the bronze castings currently found throughout the store — items that my kids think are part of some kind of awesome treasure hunt?
They are the creations of emerging artist Lexie Owen. The gleaming groceries are a portion of Owen’s most recent installation entitled, fittingly, Corner Store. The other half of the exhibit can be found at Access Gallery at 222 East Georgia in Chinatown, where a miniature corner store has been recreated in the gallery.
Owen has been the artist-in-residence at Burrardview Park Fieldhouse — located a block and a half away from McGill Grocery — for the past four years, and considers herself a social practice artist.
“I’m really interesting in social structures and how those social structures materialize in the way that we relate to the world,” Owen, an Emily Carr graduate, explained to me.
“It’s become very apparent during my time in this neighbourhood of just how valued McGill Grocery is, especially the way the Mah brothers interact with this community,” Owen continued.
“I really wanted to find a way to recognize that, and I also realized that they were already doing what the city wanted me to do with my residency, which is to create community engagement.”
The interaction Owen speaks of is the friendly Mah brothers’ uncanny knack for not only knowing seemingly all of their customers names, but their kids’ names and their grandparents’ names. The Mahs treat those who walk into their store more like friends stopping in for a visit rather than clientele. People hang out. It’s like Cheers without the beer. And even though it’s small, McGill Grocery always seems to have that one exact thing you need.
“Just the fact that they’re now second-generation running a corner store is pretty remarkable in this day and age,” added Owen. “Ever since I started the residency, Harry in particular has always been really supportive, so I eventually just asked Harry if I could place some sculptures in the store. He said ‘yes’ without hesitation.”
It turned out that Mah was looking for a way to raise Owen’s profile in the neighbourhood.
“Even though she had done various community projects, there were people who didn’t know she was even in the fieldhouse, let alone what she was doing,” said Mah. “So when Lexie approached me with this idea, I said sure, perfect, go for it.”
Since then, McGill Grocery customers have been hands-on with the art, curiously hefting the heavy, solid bronze casts (the can of beans tops out at 10 pounds). And the Mah brothers have found themselves as inadvertent curators, explaining the art to their bemused customers. Some folks have even offered to buy certain pieces, such as the bronze banana.
“We explain to them that this is art, and that art can exist anywhere, that beauty can be found in everyday items,” said Mah. “What Lexie has done is taken the art out of the gallery and put it in the store, and put our store products into the gallery.”
The Corner Store exhibit runs concurrently at McGill Grocery and Access Gallery until the end of October. Before Owen’s residency at the Burrardview Park Fieldhouse wraps up at the end of this year, she’s planning a Corner Store walk of the neighbourhood on Saturday, Oct. 27 from 1 to 3 p.m., and a Fieldhouse Arts Salon in November, inviting everyone in the neighbourhood with a creative practice to display their work.
No word on the price of the bronze banana.