Good Peeps – Buzzing with the Bee Kingdom
PRINCES OF THE KINGDOM: (Left to right) Ryan Marsh Fairweather, Kai Georg Scholefield, Tim Belliveau and Phillip Bandura make up Bee Kingdom, a glassblowing collective and business, in their backyard hot-glass studio in northwest Calgary.
Photos by Amy Jo Espetveidt, Quadrophonic Image
Names: Ryan Marsh Fairweather, Kai Georg Scholefield, Tim Belliveau and Phillip Bandura
Occupation: Glassblowing. Fine art. Design.
A small house tucked in Mount Pleasant is home to a hive of activity.
Bee Kingdom – named so for their busy pace, their studio kingdom and the fact that hot glass has a similar texture to honey – consists of Ryan Marsh Fairweather, Kai Georg Scholefield, Tim Belliveau and Phillip Bandura. Their studio is nestled in the back of a quaint old house that belonged to Phillip’s grandmother and radiates heat, their hot shop. This is where the Bees ply their works in glass, bending, shaping, creating. In the house, their pieces glisten on clean white shelves, work stations are set up for thinking and creating and Kai lives there full time with his girlfriend and cat (the true king of the kingdom) Toby.
Kai greeted me at the door warmly and buzzing with excitement. He gave me the tour, showed me the studio, explained their works, the history and even quickly whipped up a glass flower while chatting. Soon the other Bees arrived and we sat down for a relaxed talk of all things business, glass and why they love Calgary.
What is Bee Kingdom?
PHILLIP: Bee Kingdom is a collection of artists that specialize in working with glass and glass blowing. We work both conceptually as a group and individually. The we also have a number of things we do that are more on a production basis, things that help us make a living for ourselves and be artists full time. Some of the things we do to support us are commissions – corporate commissions and private commissions – on pieces that someone might have an idea of what they would like for their office or their home. We take that idea and turn it into a piece that’s specific to them and that is unique. We also will do work where we make glasses. Right now we have a line of scotch glasses that we’ve come up with and beer steins. These are some of the things we do to try to bring in money on a regular basis and what that allows us to do is work on some more edgier work that’s more conceptual that each of us work on individually.
How did the Bee Kingdom get started?
RYAN: We all met at the Alberta College of Art and Design back in between 2001 and graduation in 2005. In 2003, we were approaching our fourth and final year and we were thinking that this is our final year, what do we do when we graduate. We’re working here with glass and how do we do that [after graduation]. Phillip brought that information to his mother and they talked about it and it turned out that this house we’re in now was his grandmother’s and it had become available. Because it was in his family we got permission to convert the garage into a studio space. At the time it was me, Tim and Phillip and we all started to move in between third and fourth year. In our fourth year we knew we were going to move towards our shop as it is now, so we spent that year building up equipment and thinking about how we were going to run [it]. It’s very different than how we planned it. But, yeah, we started pretty early – before graduation.
TIM: It started with the three of us [Tim, Ryan and Phillip] building the studio back in college but we’ve known Kai the whole time. He joined on officially this past year. So this is his first year with the collective but he’s actually worked with us a number of times. We all graduated together. He was almost in the collective on his own for years before he officially joined.
What’s it like working together?
TIM: We always say glass blowing requires a team to do anything large or complex just because the nature of the medium. It’s a very difficult one to work with. It is possible to do some of the things on your own but it’s slower and more difficult, less likely to work. Efficiency is kind of the name of the game. It’s a very expensive thing to do and having a team allows you to break up the tasks. These days we can have someone glass blowing, someone doing the accounting and somebody’s also managing the contacts, doing Twitter updates. We kind of split the work. And as a team, we work really hard transferring that information between ourselves really smoothly. I think that the best thing for us is, we never get too specialized, we all learn a lot of different skills and train each other in anything if one of us is not so good at it. It’s like a post college education. Also, if you’re having trouble with something there’s someone there to back you up – if you can’t make an event or you feel like it’s a technique you can’t quite manage. It’s pretty indispensable in what we do. A team this solid is pretty rare.
RYAN: In the community that is created at the art college, your studio space is very communal and there’s always someone around that you can communicate with, you can bounce ideas off each other. There’s a support group there and that’s something we wanted to capture and continue with after graduation. It was really natural for us to move with that model and bring it out into this studio.
PHILLIP: I think that if you look into the history of a lot of artists that have made a career out of being artists, you’ll see they’re involved in an artist community. It feels like it’s something new we’re doing but we’re actually following an old tradition. Also, letting people know that that is something that happens in the arts [needs to happen]. In history, if you look at the art of Picasso or Salvador Dali and the people they were hanging out with, they were around a lot of other creative people. So we’re just bringing that into where we’re working in a group more collaboratively. Part of that is the martial but all of us have interest in working with other materials. Glassblowing is very showy and what helped us get our break but all of us work in other mediums as well.
KAI: When you are creating new ideas it’s really important to have a sounding board because sometimes you can get into your own vacuum and not realize it. It’s really good to have people who know your work. It’s not just about having someone that speaks to your work that matters, it’s about having someone who knows your history. The job of every artist is to communicate effectively, their ideas, and you can lose that if you don’t have a community that understands where you’re coming from. What I have found, especially since joining this past year, is that it’s much easier to find your own voice. Having worked together for years, they’re very good at pulling apart your ideas and your motivation.
PHILLIP: And making fun of you. I also think being a collective allows you to take risks that might be harder on your own. When we sell any of our artwork, it goes into a main pool and we pay ourselves out of that. So if any of us sell work it benefits all of us. Any artist goes through certain periods where they sell more work, or they sell less work and that creates a certain amount of instability. In a team there’s less of a risk. You know that if I try something new I’m not jeopardizing my whole career on it. And that’s really neat. It’s a massive difference in being able to be creative but there’s always still the responsibility where everyone in the group wants to be selling their work. It just allows for that little bit of extra.
TIM: You can’t expect a good idea to be a profitable idea. And that’s really what we’re insuring against. We’re just socializing it so we can survive the down-times otherwise you never know if what you’re working with is going to be survivable.
KAI: With a collective you don’t necessarily have to be working on the business all the time because we actually don’t understand the business. We just make what we make and then sometimes it sells and sometimes it doesn’t. With more people constantly trying to come up with new ideas, it helps out. There was a time when Tim’s pieces, he makes these crustaceans, those were our big sellers. At one point Ryan was working on these guys called Electrophauns, and those were a constant seller. But Phillip for the longest time was doing a lot of conceptual stuff that wasn’t quite selling and he took a huge risk in making the Freedomco Bombs and they ended up being a HUGE hit. There’s no market speculation. We can try to divine that somehow but generally we just do what we do best and people respond to that.
THE FINAL PIECES: In the Kingdom, all four collaborate together to create art. And because what’s popular changes, all sales go into a pot that they pay themselves out of. They explained how it’s great because while one type of work might be very popular right now (like the Freedomco Bombs pictured above), another won’t be. Their business system even earned them an invite to present at Mount Royal University to Business majors, a huge honour and a giant compliment.
What do you have on the go right now?
RYAN: What’s next for Bee Kingdom is we just got a couple of grants. The one we’re finishing up right now is for a traveling exhibition which we’ve never really done before. We’ve done some one off exhibitions, but in this case we’ve got a grant to put together an exhibition with nothing to sell but it will go to a public gallery and travel around for a couple of years. We’ve got our next grant to put together our next exhibition called SUPERCUTE. It doesn’t represent all of our work, it represents our philosophy, our personality more than our work. That’s going to be in October at the Ruberto-Ostberg Gallery – October 12 to November 3. The other longer term project is getting a public space. We’re not exactly sure what it’s going to look like, or if it’s going to come to fruition or not but we’re exploring it.
And you’re also hosting classes?
RYAN: I remember Kai and I were talking about looking for ways to make a bit of extra money and I remember putting out the idea. I Tweeted it and with in that day three people had asked to book a spot. So that worked out great off the bat. A lot of our ideas take a long time to manifest, but the classes were the quickest acting project we took forward.
KAI: We do three things outside the collective. One is we do private events where people come and watch us blow glass and they pay an admission fee. We make a piece [there] and we raffle it off and someone is lucky enough to walk away with it at the end of the night. It’s really fun and pretty awesome. We do corporate team building. Then we do the classes and we’ve also been renting [our shop] to some of our colleagues. The idea behind a lot of those projects is giving people the experience of glassblowing. So they see not just the product but also sharing the experience. It’s a very interesting, showy and physical, memorable experience. And we hassle each other in front of everyone. It’s kind of a performance that way. The individual gets to come in and experience the heat and the sweat. You’ve got to let people try it with a little piece of glass on the end, let them know how hard it is.
How about your travels?
KAI: Tim and Phillip just returned from Berlin on an almost year long project helping set up a studio. And in April, Ryan, myself, Ryan’s wife and my girlfriend went down to Berlin to participate in Pictoplasma, a character art festival, which is huge. Illustrators, graphic designers, sculptors and animators from all over the world come to this festival and we gave some live demonstrations there. We were the only, and first, glassblowers to be part of this festival, which is pretty rad. And we were also representing Calgary. We actually got a grant to go and participate in the festival from the Calgary 2012 initiative which is cool.
PHILLIP: That was really nice that the 2012 had a direct impact on us to be able to take in that event. We got to represent Calgary and what a lot of people don’t know is that Calgary is the center of glassblowing in the world. And that’s because the Alberta College of Art and Design is the only place in Canada you can get a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in glass. It’s one of the only places in the world you can do that. So when we travel else where to do demonstrations or shows – we do shows all over the world, Korea, Greece, Turkey – we go to those countries and we get to tell them Canada and Calgary is on the leading edge of contemporary glass art. And a lot of Calgarians don’t know that Calgary is at that center and is part of that. It’s one thing we always like to tell people. This city is known for a lot of different things but a lot of people don’t know that we have this glass community.
RYAN: The glass art history in Calgary is very rich. Just as rich as the oil industry. And people say that Calgary has no art or culture but there’s been this living, thriving glass community. There’s this heart in Canada and Calgary of glass. The North American art glass movement is only about 50 years old from the very beginning. Norman Faulkner who started the glass program at ACAD was a huge proponent of that.
THE BEEHIVE: The magic happens in a little house that’s been in Phillip’s family for three generations. This is the Bee Kingdom’s home. There’s a hot-glass studio in the back yard, a gallery in the living room and a living space, with their works throughout (including this awesome guy who is part of the Weathermachine Series and was hanging out in the studio).
And last question, what makes Calgary awesome for each of you?
PHILLIP: I think what that I’ve come to love about Calgary is the art community here is a small community but it’s not very cliquey. You get to know people. Calgary is very much a mono-culture in a lot of ways, everything kind of leads back to the oil industry. But I find if you do anything outside that everyone is excited about it. Anyone in the arts, or even people working downtown, there’s that want for something different. That sort of energy and want to find out what’s going on outside the downtown core really allows for a community that’s really accepting. So that allows for a lot of cross pollination.
TIM: Is that a bee reference?
PHILLIP: If you talk to artists in any field, be it writers or musicians or actors, exchanging ideas can allow for a lot of creativity.
RYAN: When we first told people we were starting a hot shop there was some cautious optimism but there was a lot of, “I really want to see how this goes,” but there was this other side of “yeeeaaaah, why don’t you go try that.” I think Calgary likes their entrepreneurs. The community has been really supportive. We’ve traveled a lot and going to places like Berlin, that was a big eye opener. Calgary might not be the biggest art community but what is here is dedicated to the arts and they’re very supportive.
PHILLIP: It’s like it’s illegal to say no here.
TIM: I think it’s a lot to do with curiosity. The city is changing all the time and a lot of people move through here. There’s always that buzz of what’s new and what’s happening. There’s new people discovering old things all the time. There’s this change over in the arts. There’s this change over in the media, and I think it’s really cool to have you guys speaking to us. And I think that because there’s all this newness going on there’s always new people to invite over and just keep changing what you do all the time. So in terms of when we were over in Europe, we found a lot of things are referenced to very very old history and that’s kind of impossible for most Calgarians. The kind of art we’re making is very much based on newness in an always changing landscape. The people that do stay here are very very supportive and I think what we haven’t said is we work very hard at this whole project, Bee Kingdom, is upheld by a very strong community support.
KAI: Thanks for stealing all my lines you jerks. But I would definitely say the support in Calgary is phenomenal. I think in other countries or cultural models there’s a certain memory that you have to permeate. Here in Calgary there’s a lot of embracement of what you’re doing. It’s like people come here and as long as you’re following the rules it’s, “I can’t believe you’re doing this. This is AMAZING!” It’s not that they’re shocked that you’re being creative, it’s just that they’re really excited about something different and something new. Calgary being so young, some people say Calgary is at a tipping point, that we’re about to go through some big cultural revolution. I’m not sure where we are on that time line but I would say in terms of maturity, Calgary is like going through puberty. We’re really really excited about everything. It’s pretty hormonal. But the community we’ve found here, one of our mandates is to work collaboratively and grow the community. That’s out of necessity for us but also becomes fulfilling in our lives. People that help us, we’ve surrounded ourselves with. Just being in [the community] of Mount Pleasant has been hugely supportive, we end up being more of a force than just four guys trying to make art work.
PHILLIP: And the other thing I want to point out that’s really exciting is having our new mayor. He’s been very supportive and we’ve had him over as a guest and we gave him a pair of our trademark yellow Chucks. He wears them around to different events and that’s just also such a sign of solidarity. He supports the arts and it’s become a symbol of him supporting all the arts not just us. It’s just so cool just to have him over. And the president of ACAD, Daniel Doz, has been very supportive and has come to our events and was over when the mayor was over. That sort of support and openness is great. We’ve also been invited to talk over at Mount Royal University in the Bissett School of Business which is really exciting too. They want us to come and talk to the business students about different types of business models. That has also been very exciting, we get to engage a community as a business as well. I think any artist that makes a living in the arts, you have to make money, and for us it ends up being a business. Being able to talk to people about that, it’s not something we’re trained in, but to get invited to talk about what we’re doing to students learning business is very gratifying.