Vancouver's first Art Battle sees competitors get down and dirty

Eight artists, ten canvases, and 20 minutes each: the Art Battle draws an electric and eclectic crowd of culturally curious onlookers.

The Art Battle, originating in Toronto, is an event that has painters compete against each other by painting in front of a live audience. Feb. 7 was the event’s first time in Vancouver, taking place at the appropriately named Raw Canvas wine bar.

At the event, the audience buzzes with anticipation comparable to the lively atmosphere of an underground cage match. In fact, back in Toronto, some of the battles did take place one-on-one in a cage built especially for the event, hidden in the basement of a local bar called Parts and Labour.

The battle itself is comprised of two rounds of four artists splashing, smearing, and spilling paint over canvases in an animal frenzy while the excited audience marches around the painters assessing the artistic progress. When the time is up, the brushes, like the gloves of a tired boxer, fall to the side, and the audience members vote for their favourite painting. The winners from each round face off in a heated final round until, after another 20 minutes, the victor of the art battle is determined.

All the art made during the night is put up for auction, and those failing to meet the minimum bid of $50 are ceremoniously burned.

Chris Pemberton, the creator of Toronto’s Art Battles, is shaping a radical new scene in partnership with Steve Merkley and Raw Canvas. Pemberton has brought the hype for the event from Toronto foster a new local community for the arts.

“It doesn’t have to be realistic, it just has to be awesome,” he says of the art they hoped would be created as a result of the night.

This intentionally vague and subjective condition has brought a diverse pallet of artists into the cage match including Jose Rivas, a 2010 graduate of Capilano University’s very own IDEA program who carried himself into the final round with an impassioned technicolour portrait with stern lips: “You can’t understand someone just by looking at them; that’s why I use so many colours,” Jose explains.

Jose’s adversary in the final round, and the final champion of Vancouver’s first Art Battle, was Yared Nigussu, with a splash-heavy and somber portrait of a man with obscured eyes: “Eyes can hide a lot of stories,” Nigussu explains. “That’s an infinite source of inspiration for me.”

Nigussu has made live painting a large part of his career as an artist, and as such was well prepared for the night’s battle.

Competition was fierce, and at the end of the night, none of the paintings needed to be burnt, a bittersweet result that will no doubt have pyroenthusiasts coming back for the next battle on March 6.

Raw Canvas is planning on holding monthly Art Battles, and they hope to be sending some of our own local champions to Toronto this summer with money earned from tickets, alcohol, and the auctioned art. How many artists they send depends on the success of the Battles locally, which means that the long line and waitlist at the door could be a good sign for artists looking to make their competitive debut out East.

//Liam Park, writer
//Graphics by Karen Picketts

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