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Heavens to Mergatroid! Stories and creativity galore inside unsuspecting building

20th annual Eastside Culture Crawl full of surprises

Peel back the roof of the Mergatroid Building and it would reveal about two dozen little compartments. If this were a brain, these spaces would all have frontal and parietal characteristics — the cogs involved in the creative process.

From the outside, the building of artist studios is unremarkable save its exterior, painted a Martian green. It sits on the corner of Vernon and Parker streets in a historic manufacturing area of East Vancouver. It’s not a particularly scenic part of the city, but it comes alive with hoards of people during the four days artists in the area fling open their doors to the public for the Eastside Culture Crawl.

Inside the Mergatroid is Anyuta Gusakova’s studio where it’s clear there’s no shortage of imagination. The Vancouver multimedia artist had several dreamlike paintings from her Princess Power series on display during the Crawl this past Thursday to Sunday along with her playful, ceramic Magic Pets. It’s no surprise the delicate quality and precise craftsmanship of the art comes from years of study and training. There’s an extra appreciation for the work, and Gusakova’s struggle to execute, upon discovering she grew up in Russia where, in her view, artistic freedom is not encouraged. Born in Vladivostok, Gusakova was pushed to get a degree in an academic language school. Part of her training included a student exchange in Victoria in 1994 when she was 20 and, after a half-day visit to Vancouver that only exposed her to “the skyline, the ocean, and the aquarium,” she fell in love with the city.

Gusakova moved to Moscow and graduated with a classical art degree from Stroganov Academy. Still, she yearned for the freedom to create.

“In Victoria, it changed me completely. It gave me this feeling that I have the right to be myself. If people treat me badly, I have the right to protect myself. In Russia, my own pieces were frowned upon. They don’t want you to be yourself, they want you to look like the pieces in the art book,” she said.

Gusakova moved to Vancouver in 2008 with her daughter and husband. She attended her first Crawl seven years ago, and will never forget a comment from a Crawler who admired one of Gusakova’s classical pieces.

“They said, ‘This looks incredible, it looks like it’s right out of the art book! But, where are you in it?’” Gusakova recalled. “I was like, really! It was the feeling I can be free, finally. It was a life-changing comment.”

It’s the conversations that keep ceramic artist Russell Hackney coming back. Hackney, located just down the hall and around the corner from Gusakova’s studio, has displayed for half the Crawl’s 20 years.

“I just love it. People come into the studio and I get to have conversations,” he said. “I learn from what people say about my work and what people connect it to.” Hackney motioned to the wall of beautiful jugs as part of his Cabin Vibe series. They featured pale colours with a simple design on some pieces with dark teal on the lower half with a star or cross symbol in reverse.

“Three or four people have told me they’ve connected this to the Second World War, and the ’40s or the ’50s with the colours. It wasn’t my intention, but I see it.”

Around the corner from Russell Hackney Ceramics was Donald Dawson who operates Donald’s Innovations and Repairs. Some of his work is industrial in nature, his custom metal fittings for boats and homes, for example. Some of his work helps handicapped dogs walk as he builds and modifies canine custom mobility aids. Yet still, some of his work is teaching blacksmithing. Wife Miriam Linderman wrote down comments of Crawlers as they entered the studio. The couple agreed the best comment was, “This place smells like my grandfather’s workshop.”

If one relied on their nose, they would end up a floor higher at the Wood Shop Workers Co-op. The warm smell of wood shavings was for sale in little canvas bags in the shop, which also featured a gorgeous dining table, wall accents, mid-century influenced planters and — heavens to Mergatroid — poo stools. This device, a wood foot stool made by Jake Maughan of Maughan Made, was influenced by his wife whose family has a history of colon disease. On the recommendation of her doctor, she was told to elevate her feet. This helps relax the puborectalis muscle and unkink the colon, explained Maughan.

“My wife wanted one for her birthday so I said I’d make her one. Now I’m weirdly passionate about poop stools because of how awesome it is,” said Maughan of his Stool Stool. “I warned my shopmates, I’m going to be talking about this all weekend long.”

There weren’t any complaints from fellow woodworker Marilyn Oberg. Her wife bought her the membership to the co-op as a Christmas gift last year, and the shop has become Oberg’s home away from work as a paramedic.

“Before the Crawl, it was like a bunch of elves in here zooming around doing things. I’m so proud of them,” she said of her shopmates. “Their work is so beautiful. It’s respectful to the wood, respectful to the art and they are such nice, gentle people.”