Thursday, July 29, 2010

Raw Canvas, Yaletown, Vancouver

Yaletown is a very trendy neighbourhood – Pink Lime Salon and Bar, divine vines: contemporary floral design, Kosmic Scizzors, Bombay Brow Bar (“rock your brow. indian style”). The old warehouse loading docks are now home to brand-name restaurant patios. Yaletown is a place to see and be seen.

Challenging Stereotypes
Raw Canvas, with its mismatched wooden chairs, easels and paint, seems out of place. But Steve Merkley likes to challenge stereotypes. His first Yaletown business was a yoga studio.

“I wanted to put yoga, a deep practice, in what is perceived to be the most superficial place [in Vancouver] and see what happens.” Now, he has opened Raw Canvas, a combination of social space and art studio.

The restaurant area in Raw Canvas is warm and welcoming. There’s art on the walls and a simple but interesting menu. It’s a comfortable place for a glass of wine and a good book or a quiet conversation with a friend.

And don’t be lulled into thinking that a grilled cheese sandwich is pretty pedestrian. With two kinds of artisan cheeses and sun-dried tomato marmalade, it’s anything but. And a glass of Lotusland’s organic Ortega wine was irresistible. (It was good!)

The Art of Healing
But Raw Canvas is much more than just a restaurant. It’s also a public art studio. Just purchase a canvas and paint. Although Steve says very few individuals do. “Most people who aren’t artists need company,” he explains. Most of the drop-in artists are couples on dates or groups (birthday parties, stagettes). Businesses rent the facility for team-building exercises.

“Art is fundamental to our well being,” says Steve, “but the education system has sucked the imagination and creativity out of us. My vision for this place is built on tapping into people’s innate creativity. If you can forget about your finances, your relationship, your career for an hour or two and feel like a kid and be natural, that’s healing.”

Raw Canvas also sponsors an open mike session every Monday, a poetry reading every second Wednesday, and a band once a week. The back wall is the canvas for a performance piece, which changes every month.

Ideology and Connection
“I want people to create, to reach inside themselves and be free, just for an hour, of what they think they are, those limiting beliefs,” says Steve. “I want to give people the experience, through yoga or art, of connecting to their deeper self, beyond identity and social roles.”

Steve’s desire to make connections extends beyond the art studio to his choice of food, wine and supplies. He tries to strike a balance between organic, local and handmade. But it’s particularly important that the products are made by hand and not mass produced by machine. “The key for us is knowing that not a lot of machines have touched it,” he says. “It’s made by people like my parents who have farmed their land for generations.”

Steve uses wine as an example. He chooses wines, like Lotusland, that have been made on the premises in small batches using hand-picked grapes. The quality of the wine is determined by the terroir, the heart and soul of the land, rather than being artificially manipulated using additives and different types of yeast.

Steve buys high-quality paint from a small Granville Island business, even though it costs four times as much as paint from China. The secondhand furniture was a deliberate choice, even though it was far more expensive than new furniture. The refillable paint system is zero waste, and he uses environmentally-friendly cleaning products.

Franchise Opportunities
Steve has strong ideological principles, but he’s also a businessman. The combination of art studio and social space is unique, and he plans to franchise the concept.

Now, this isn’t your typical franchise. Steve’s dream is to create a community of like-minded people who want to run a fun business. They’ll pay a small fee for the brand and receive advice on getting started, but they’ll have a lot of independence.

However, they’ll also share and collaborate with each other. So one month Raw Canvas in Germany will be responsible for the website and blog, while another month it will be the branch in Seattle or Montreal. They’ll share live streamings of their performance art. “I would love to have a community of 10 to 20 businesses – lines of energy, pockets of creativity, all sharing with each other,” says Steve.

Visit Raw Canvas at 1046 Hamilton Street in Yaletown if you like good food, if you want a comfortable place to sit and have a drink, if you want to paint, or if you are intrigued by their ideology. It’s a place that works on many different levels – and a welcome change from the bland conformity of multinational restaurant chains.

My thanks to Steve Merkley for taking the time to share his thoughts and dreams. And my thanks for the lunch, which was delicious.

1 comment:

Stephanie V said...

I knew it sounded interesting. Looks like you got a good interview.