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Hamilton Planting an Artistic Seed in the Baltic
Stephen Near

The Hamilton Arts Council has been busy coordinating our latest arts residency in Estonia. Early in June, the Hamilton Spectator featured an article about this exciting initiative so we're reposting the article here as written by Graham Rockingham. This article was originally written and posted at the the spec.ca on June 01, 2018.

 

Cotton Factory owner Robert Zeidler, left, artist Tor Lukasik-Foss and Hamilton Arts Council executive director Annette Paiement. [Photo: Gary Yokoyama, The Hamilton Spectator]

Estonia isn't the sort of place that comes up in conversation when local artists sit down over coffee at the Mulberry.

The kind of chit chat that goes, "Have you heard what they're doing with digital manipulation at the Estonian Institute of Humanities?"

Or even, "I met the most darling transhuman ethicist from the University of Tartu the other day."

That may all change due to an extraordinary new collaboration between the Hamilton Arts Council, The Cotton Factory and the Estonian Artists Association, which is based in Tallinn, the tiny Baltic nation's capital.

It's an artist exchange. They send us one of theirs for a one-month residency and we send them one of ours. The plan is to make it an annual event.

Tor Lukasik-Foss, one of Hamilton's better known multi-genre artists, will venture to Estonia in September to create new work, deliver talks and mingle with fellow artists, maybe even have a beer with them.

Lukasik-Foss, who is of Norwegian descent, has never been to Estonia and knows none of its language, but feels confident he will be able to express himself through art.

Lukasik-Foss works in multiple forms of visual art, but is also a songwriter who performs under the name Tiny Bill Cody. He's already thinking about working traditional Baltic themes into his own unique way of storytelling.

"I want to do some songwriting while I'm there, contemporizing myth and folk tale as the basis," says Lukasik-Foss, who will take a month-long leave from his job as director of programs and education at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. "I'm hoping to write, perform and be as collaborative as possible."

So far, the Estonians are one ahead of us in terms of the exchange. Last October, they sent multimedia artist Marko Mäetamm, who spent a month working on new projects in a studio provided by The Cotton Factory and giving artist talks.

The experiment was considered a success and Mäetamm is returning in Hamilton for an exhibition of his art at the b contemporary gallery on James Street North from Sept. 4 to 29.

While Lukasik-Foss is in Estonia wowing the locals, Estonian artist Peeter Laurits, who works in photography and digital manipulation, will be working in Hamilton's Cotton Factory.

The exchange is the brainchild of Robert Zeidler, a Toronto transplant who bought the century-old Imperial Cotton building on Sherman North in 2014 for $4.7 million, renovated it, and turned it into a workspace for more than 110 artists, crafts workers, fashion designers, film and music makers.

Since his investment, Zeidler has become a huge advocate and patron of the Hamilton arts scene.

For the past year, he has set aside one studio for an "artist in residence" program, which provides free rent for two emerging artists over a three-month period.

The residencies are juried by the Hamilton Arts Council, with Zeidler eating the rental cost. So far nine young artists have benefited from the program. (The current artists — Stylo Starr, who specializes in collage, and Tanya Denyer, a quilter — will hold an artists' talk on June 14, 7 p.m., at the The Cotton Factory).

"It's been a big success and we think it's going to continue to be a success," says Zeidler. "It allows young artists to stay in Hamilton and not go seeking a residency in another city like Toronto."

Last year, Zeidler decided to broaden the residency's horizon to include an international exchange component. But with what country?

He started doing research and discovered a lively artistic community in Estonia, population less than 1.4 million.

"The whole Baltic art scene is exploding right now and has been for the last 15 years," says Zeidler. "And because the country is so small, the artists have to have an international perspective. To be successful, they have to get out and be international."

Zeidler met the Estonian ambassador to Canada and was even more impressed.

"She came to Hamilton to visit the local Estonian community," he says. "I was quite inspired by her. She spoke about the arts and freedom, and I thought, this is exactly who we need to partner with."

Zeidler's Cotton Factory funded Mäetamm's trip here last year, including his flight, apartment rent, and a weekly honorarium.

The Cotton Factory is doing the same for Lukasik-Foss and Laurits, as well as a trip to Estonia next in mid-June by Hamilton Arts Council executive director Annette Paiement.

The Arts Council is responsible for selecting the Hamilton participants in the exchange, making sure things run smoothly on the Estonian end, as well as helping to find new sources of funding.

"I'll be making sure that the residency is set up well for Tor when he arrives in September," Paiement says. "The goal is to create good relations, to investigate other possible opportunities and partnerships so that we can keep the program going and expand it over many years."

 

By Graham Rockingham. Graham is the Hamilton Spectator's music editor. He can be reached at grockingham@thespec.com, 905-526-3331. Follow him @RockatTheSpec.