Story by Lisa Wöhrle and Judi Burgess.
Fred Bilanzola (1956-2001), Judi Burgess, Raffaele Caterini, Paul Cvetich, John Kinsella, Janice Kovar, Paul Ropel-Morski and Lisa Wöhrle.
Getting started and DIY shows
It was a time of passion, elation and creative proliferation. As young artists, just graduating from McMaster, we were determined to maintain the sense of community, mutual support and friendship we had experienced in the studios at Mac. We inspired each other and were committed to continuing our work and finding ways to show it.
By forming ourselves into a collective, we felt we could support each other, take risks and be stronger together. We became “The Young Contemporaries”. The “young” part seemed to get old pretty quickly, and we soon dropped it. Two of us were already in our thirties by then. We became The Contemporaries, and exhibited together from 1986 to 1995. We started with seven members, added an eighth, and invited others to join us for various exhibitions during that period.
Commercial galleries and public galleries were not an option at first. We started off with independent DIY shows in alternative spaces and local galleries including The Broadway Cinema and The Hammer Gallery. We took over a space for an exhibition on Vine Street, off James North, before the Hamilton Artists Inc moved in. In Toronto, we rented an empty gallery space in Yorkville, and showed at the John B Aird Gallery.
We shared all the organizing work amongst members of the group, installing the artwork, writing press releases, getting invitations printed and mailed, and picking up the beer and wine for the opening night parties.
As time went on, we gained momentum and people started to pay attention to The Contemporaries. We showed at more established local galleries, including The Carnegie Gallery in Dundas. In 1992, the group presented the Seize and Desire exhibition at The Broadway, Hamilton’s repertory cinema. We got a full-colour two-page spread in the Hamilton Spectator. The article included a “Contemporaries Who’s Who”.
Our final exhibition as a group in the 90s was at the Grimsby Art Gallery. This was our first show at a public art gallery, and the first time we were paid CARFAC exhibition fees. After the Grimsby show, we essentially dispanded and each followed our own individual paths, as artists, arts managers, gallery workers, scenic painters, teachers, and parents
Bars and Bands
We spent a lot of time in bars, seeing bands, and especially supporting our friends’ art-punk bands, like The Dik Van Dykes and The Hated Uncles. John played bass guitar with the Uncles. At one gig at the Corktown Tavern, Paul Ropel-Morski did a live painting performance on stage with the Uncles. He painted expressively and flung the oil paint around energetically. The Corktown was not very happy with the messy results!
So many art exhibition openings and parties! There were plenty of huge, cheap live-in studio spaces available downtown at the time. Ralph Caterini had a space on King William. Denise Lisson and Jim Mullin operated The Hammer Gallery out of their live-work space on the third floor at 10 James Street North. The Contemporaries exhibited there as a group and some of us also had solo shows. Every exhibition opening was a party. In the mid-90s, Janice Kovar and Paul Enright lived in their studio on the fourth floor above Chesters, overlooking Gore Park. Janice remembers one epic New Year’s Eve party with 200+ people dancing. Everyone knew each other. Others heard about the party and wandered in throughout the night: wrestlers arrived (from somewhere?), bands that had finished their sets somewhere else came to the party. The police arrived too, but it was all somehow okay. Janice and Paul loved living and working in the same space, but eventually decided to move out. Janice was pregnant with twins and couldn’t manage the stairs.
Our friend and mentor, Fred Bilanzola
The Contemporaries recently met up at the North End Hamilton home of Judi Burgess and Paul Ropel-Morski to share stories of our memories of the Hamilton art scene in the late 80s and early 90s. It was good to get together, but there was a gaping hole where our friend Fred Bilanzola should be. When we were studying at McMaster, Fred was a few years older than most of us. He was a born teacher and mentor. Fred always seemed wise beyond his years and had a phenomenal memory. He shared with us his extensive knowledge of art, his love of good food and his obsession with an eclectic range of music. He was endlessly generous and supportive of his friends. Fred told us, “There will be a cold dark place in hell for artists who don’t do their work.” Our dear friend died in a car accident in 2001.
Credits and further reading
Courtesy of Hamilton Arts & Letters:
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