Interview with Denise Lisson, February 3rd, 2020.
Story by Romina Campanella.
The following was written in collaboration with McMaster University’s Art History 4X03 course, Winter 2020. Lead by Dr. Angela Sheng and BCL’s Alexis Moline, students conducted first hand research on their chosen subjects and many had the opportunity to meet with the artists in person. BCL gratefully appreciates the care and dedication the students demonstrated in forging personal and engaging stories in collaboration with the artists in their Hamilton community.
Walking through the bustle of Hamilton’s James Street North in the early 1990s, it would be easy to miss one of the city’s most notable and unique artistic attractions. In an unassuming loft on the second floor of 10 James Street North, artist Jim Mullin and art advocate Denise Lisson created The Hammer Gallery in 1990, filling a much-needed gap in the city’s artistic scene. During its five years of operation, The Hammer Gallery exhibited approximately eighty-five local artists. Many among them have gone on to make notable names for themselves on a national, and even international scale. The grassroots gallery prided itself on exhibiting as many artists as possible. It never turned anyone away, giving artists a safe and accepting space to show their work. By 1995, the gallery had become extremely popular among Hamilton’s art enthusiasts, and pressure to go commercial combined with a desire to pursue other artistic endeavors led Mullin and Lisson to close the gallery. In the five years it ran, The Hammer Gallery became one of Hamilton’s most notable art centres, exemplifying the city’s growth from an industrial port to one of Ontario’s major art hubs.
During the early 90s, it was difficult for Hamilton’s artists to find a space to show their work. There were several galleries in the city, including the notable Art Gallery of Hamilton, however, it was often difficult for lesser known artists to get accepted into these galleries, and those that did often had to endure a lengthy wait before their art was actually put on show. Mullin and Lisson recognized this problem, and filled this void for artists by allowing anyone to exhibit at The Hamer Gallery. Mullin and Lisson’s “open-door” policy resulted in a diverse array of artistic styles and mediums on view at The Hammer Gallery, creating a unique space within Hamilton’s arts scene. Some of the notable artists that passed through the gallery include textile artist Anna Torma, sculptor Marriane Reim, photographer James Williams, and work from local collective, The Young Contemporaries. The gallery regularly put on group shows as a way to exhibit as many artists and works as possible. These shows often included a theme, such as “Earth Day”, “Found Object”, or “Black History”. The Hammer Gallery’s closing show in 1995 featured work from internationally renowned printmaker, installation artist, and close friend of the gallery Jeannie Thib. Having such a prolific artist exhibit in The Hammer Gallery is a testament to the grassroots organization’s growth from a small, unassuming gallery to a coveted exhibition space and major focal point in Hamilton’s art scene.
Looking back, Lisson, who now teaches theatre design at Sheridan College, reminisces about her time with The Hammer Gallery fondly, remembering the vibrancy of Hamilton’s art scene in the 90s and the excitement of being able to contribute to it alongside Mullin. During the gallery’s operation, Mullin took a more curatorial role while Lisson acted as an advocate for the gallery and for Hamilton’s artists, particularly through the various promotional pieces she wrote for local papers. She reflects on the spirit of Hamilton’s art scene in the 90s and the strong sense of community shared by those involved in it. Lisson found Hamilton’s large community of artists to be extremely supportive of each other with little competitiveness, which inspired her advocacy. While the city has changed a lot since the 90s, she continues to feel that community spirit through the continued vibrancy of the local arts scene. Reflecting on her and Mullin’s work, she is proud of the contributions they made to the arts in Hamilton, and encourages young artists today to do the same by getting themselves out there as much as possible and not taking no for an answer.
After the Hammer Gallery closed in 1995, its work did not end because it was transformed into The Hammer Collective. The Hammer Collective was very successful in its own right and went on to participate in the OH! Canada Project at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1996. Although the Hammer Gallery was only open for a few years, its impact on Hamilton’s art scene cannot be overstated. It allowed local artists a comfortable place to exhibit their work without restrictions and was a launching pad for several successful careers in the arts. The growing success of the gallery throughout the early 90s is a reflection of Hamilton’s transition from industrial city to thriving art centre, making the gallery an important part of the city’s cultural legacy.
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