Conversations In Art

Conversation with Nicole Chernish

December 22, 2021 Moe Kafer Season 1 Episode 7
Conversation with Nicole Chernish
Conversations In Art
More Info
Conversations In Art
Conversation with Nicole Chernish
Dec 22, 2021 Season 1 Episode 7
Moe Kafer

Join host Moe Kafer as she has a chat with Smithers Art Gallery manager Nicole Chernish on the challenges of being an artist, running a successful gallery and being a champion for all things art. 

To see more about Smithers Art Gallery

To see more about our sponsors go to

Roadhouse Smithers
Upscale casual restaurant in Smithers BC serving Internationally-inspired comfort food.

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Show Notes Transcript

Join host Moe Kafer as she has a chat with Smithers Art Gallery manager Nicole Chernish on the challenges of being an artist, running a successful gallery and being a champion for all things art. 

To see more about Smithers Art Gallery

To see more about our sponsors go to

Roadhouse Smithers
Upscale casual restaurant in Smithers BC serving Internationally-inspired comfort food.

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I may receive a commission at no extra cost to you.

Yeah, the whole point was just to get to know the artists that are in the valley and to get a sense of why  does this place nurture artists so well,

yeah. Yeah. And it does. I mean that it's a phenomenal space. You just see inspiration. We just had a show in here, the Skeena salmon show. So it's artists from Smithers and beyond, and they're all painting about the Skeena  salmon watershed and everything was different. We had school groups coming through.

We had people coming through there looking, trying to pick their favorite for the people's choice award. And people couldn't do it. Of course, because there was just so much phenomenal work, but just the variety, not only in subject matter, but just all the different media that people use here. Absolutely inspiring.

And I think it gives people the sense of not having to look at what other artists are doing in other locations. And they're able to really develop and try new things and do things differently.

I think that when you're in a setting where you're comparing yourself to other artists, because you're in an urban center and you're walking past a gallery on every street corner and you're looking at what's coming out of the various colleges and universities and things like that.

It's very easy to get stuck into. This is what I do. This is how I do it, but it's so much more freeing here because artists have a real relationship with each other. They have a relationship with the land. They have a relationship with what's going on around them. And so it really does inspire them to take risks and to do different things.

That's really interesting because everybody that I have interviewed has such different styles and they're totally coming at it from a different perspective. 

Absolutely.  but the interesting thing is that they talk to each other and they collaborate. And so they grow within that as well. So often being an artist, I think can be quite isolating because you work in your studio and you're doing your pieces, but in a small community, you run into people everywhere.

But you don't necessarily compare what you're doing. You're looking at, oh, what is it that you're doing? That's interesting and different. And how does that inspire me to look at things a little bit differently? So I just find the creativity in the valley and beyond is just phenomenal.

And are you yourself an artist? 

Absolutely not. No, not at all. So I actually have a degree in recreation administration and my major was cultural tourism. So I've always been super passionate about the arts. I was a dancer played, the oboe acted  did those kinds of things, but not art. And I think that actually serves me quite well.

I love the arts. I love visual arts. My house is full of art. But really in what I do, you need to be an administrator. Artists are asked to be a lot of. And what they're really great at is art. What they're great at is creating So you need someone who's there to champion what they do and to provide access to resources and galleries.

And  how do you take those next steps? So I think it's important to have someone who has that administrative background. So I have all the business courses and all those different kinds of things. And I think that helps move art in our region forward. And that really is what I'm passionate about is helping.

Grow where they want to grow and provide them a space.

Great. So what is your position here? 

I'm manager at the Smithers art gallery. 

And how long have you been here? 

Three years. Three years and years. 

And where did you come from? 

I came from Calgary where I was. Absolutely nothing to do with arts.

I was strictly an administrator for 10 years. But it really helped me figure out all the things I needed to do to be able to apply for grants and to be able to do all the financial statements and all the boring things that administrators have to do that kind of compliments the amazing creativity that happens in the space.

. And how did you find your way to. This job, 

there was a job posting when I first arrived and I actually didn't apply until the very last day because I thought it's not possible. It's too perfect. It's what my background is. It's what I'm passionate about. If I could say to someone what my dream job was going to be, this would be it.

And so I thought there's no way I'm going to be qualified. There's no way they're going to want me. And my husband and my son, especially. Seriously, just put your application and here I am. So it's all worked out. 

Yeah. The community is really lucky to have, such a good champion behind them.

Oh, thank you so much. I just feel like it's actually super easy to do not the work necessarily, but the why for the work is it makes it easy to do because you see the difference that you're making. We're really trying hard here at the gallery to make some changes in terms of how we approach things, how we approach artists, how we approach exhibitions and what we're doing here.

And that is very deliberate to get out into the community, to meet artists where they are and help them take those next steps. I think that was a little bit missing in the past because we had. Just not as much staff, we had not as many opportunities. Now that we've freed up a bit of time and space prioritizing artists, because let's be real, you can't have an art gallery without artists.

I think that has been super important. 

And what have been your biggest challenges in working with artists? 

Finding them. Honestly. So we have an incredibly creative community. There is a very strong kind of core group of people that are visible. And there are a lot of other artists out there that are not as visible trying to connect with people, especially out in the communities where we don't necessarily have those strong, deep roots, and really trying to foster that relationship because really, and truly.

You're not going to feel comfortable bringing your work to a space if you don't have a built-in relationship with that, with the gallery, with people, with artists. So I think it's that's, my job is to get out there and meet people and find out what are their barriers? What are the things that are stopping you from bringing work in?

What can we do to facilitate that? One of the things we're doing this year, Super excited about we're doing a group indigenous curated show. So we are going out and talking to artists and having them bring their work here. We're working our lead curator on that is Stephanie Anderson, who is a wet.

So at 10 artists, and she's really helping us to develop some of those relationships and to build into artists that aren't necessarily right here in this. Knocking on my door. Yeah. And do you find 

that artists are shy about their work or that, I imagine you have a. Gamut of people.

Absolutely. And there's a whole series of barriers. People who are shy about their work, people who say I don't have enough work to bring in. All there. It just, it's all of those different things. People who've gone through and traditional art school have a sense of what they need to do to prepare, to apply for an exhibition people who've not gone through that tradition.

Art school experience don't necessarily know what an artist statement is. What's an artist, bio. What do you mean by CV? What is it that you want for me to be able to put my art in? How do I take great photos of my art so that it's representative when you're looking at it as a selection committee. So these are all things that we're trying to work towards to just make it.

And try and make it a positive experience for people. And that's one of the reasons that group show is really exciting because you don't have to fill the whole gallery. You can bring one or two pieces in. And so we're trying to provide opportunities that way to have access for artists to say, oh yeah, this is my gallery.

This is my space. 

Okay. And have you, what have you what has been your sort of gym find? 

Oh, the gem fine. That's a tough one. I get excited every single time I meet a new artist because there I haven't experienced before. So I just I see this work and I get excited about it. I think the relationships that we're building, where we're really starting to build, develop a really good relationship with artists and Hazleton, which is super exciting.

We all call ourselves to Smithers art gallery, but we're not about Smithers. We are about the whole region and that's one of the things actually that's probably the gym is the recognition that we are more of a regional and Northern BC gallery artists that are in the north. Don't have a lot of opportunities to get into a gallery space.

And so developing relationships with other galleries as well as other artists is super important because. You then can develop this corridor and we become stronger when we're together instead of regionalizing, instead of making things smaller, the more we expand the stronger arts community is going to be.

Okay. Great. 

And do you find there's ever rivalry between artists or there's any kind of, one-up 

I haven't seen it. Yeah. I, artists are incredibly supportive of each other. I hear artists having conversations. About, what are you doing for social media? How are you managing this? What are you doing in terms of this thing?

Ship let's paint together. I just heard of a night where the artists got together and they had a critique night, so they all brought a piece and they talked about their work and they talked about what do you think? How could this be better? What? So I don't see it. I think it's quite supportive.

And is.

Has that has the face of being an artist changed with social media and all 

that kind of stuff? Absolutely. And I think you saw it very dramatically with COVID he bringing up COVID all the time, but I think that was important before now it's vital for artists. People are looking online, they're looking for art.

I had someone call me from Manitoba the other day who saw some work on our website. Can I purchase this piece? So people are looking for that and artists are having to change what they do and how they do it to stay accessible. It's not enough to just build a website. It's not enough to have a social media profile.

They have to be active all the time. 

That's a, and that's an entirely different skillset. 

Listen, that's exactly why if I can take the administrative. Around galleries out of the way for artists, they have enough other things they have to cope with because let's be real. It is not social media is not intuitive necessarily.

It is something that you have to learn and it's another piece and it is a struggle for a lot of artists to not only be creating. In the medium that they've chosen to express themselves, but also be creative in a medium, that's asking them to promote their material in a certain way. Yeah. And 

do you find that there's a barrier between success and artists by being so far in the north?

So remote? 

Sure. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And I think a lot of that comes down to opportunities. So we were talking earlier about this idea of Northern. Artists as a region, as opposed to just being community-based. And it is very important because a lot of funders are looking at if an artist wants to apply for a grant to pursue some type of work they have to have had.

They have to be classified as a professional artist in order to be classified as a professional artists, there are certain criteria you have to meet. And one of those criteria is having a paid Carfax show. Carfax has the Canadian artists representation from these artists can, again, I'm sorry for my pronunciation.

And they set some minimum standards around payment. Which is absolutely vital. I don't understand this whole idea of making work just to promote yourself and I'm not getting paid for it because not all art is going to sell. And that doesn't mean it doesn't have value. It, there absolutely is value in making work, whether it sells or not.

And in between selling pieces, you still have to outlay money and do all these things. It's kind of artists are still in that strange world. We feel like they don't deserve to be paid for their efforts. And I think it's anyway, so these Carfax fees are set out. And that is what funders use. You need to have two paid Carfax shows in order to receive funding from various councils, whether it's Canada council, federally BCRs council, things like that.

They are trying to work on that criteria. But right now that's what it is. And there are only two galleries in the north that pay that. So we've just become. So that's fantastic. So it means that if you're taking part in a group show, if you're taking part in a solo show, you will receive payment before you sell any work.

As you walk in the door, you have received payment. So it's going to help cover your paint costs, your canvas costs, all of those different kinds of things. It's a recognition for the artists that we see them. We see the work they're putting in, but it also allows them to get this professional artists, staff.

With funders so that they can then apply for funding other places so that they can fund their shows. So it's, it does a number of different things and I'm so proud of the gallery for taking this step. It's a little scary. But it is a fantastic way to show how we care about artists and how much we support them.


really exciting. Yes. 

Have you seen 

more people gravitating to the area because they see the.

Hard to say, I've only been here for three years, so that's hard to say, I certainly see a lot of creatives in this area, whether they're new or they're coming out of the woodwork because they feel like, oh, wait a second. There is a place for us to go. That's I'm not sure which it is but I certainly, it was one of the things that drew us to this community for sure was to say, There's a vibrant music scene.

There's a vibrant art scene. There's all of these things that go on in this community, which are these value added kinds of things that make you want to be part of a S of a community. And it for sure spoke to us. That's great. 

And so what was the process? What kind of hoops did you have to go through in order to become part of a certified gallery?

So for us we have, we will now be a professional visual arts organization, which is also very exciting because it opens up opportunities for us in terms of funding so that we can do more. And that is that's fabulous. The more, the curated show, the way we were able to do that was we applied for funding and that could happen.

So th the hoops are finding the funds to be able to do that prioritizing. Over maybe some other things that we have been doing in the gallery. We have, we've been very fortunate to receive some additional funding to cover Carfax fees this year and going forward, it'll be a fundraising effort and hopefully we have buy-in from the community to say, yeah, absolutely artists should be paid.

Absolutely. They're putting in hard work. They're working when they're not having shows in the gallery as well. It's and they can only have a show in this gallery every time. So there's work that happens between that they need to fund in some way. So we had to have professional staff in order to do that, we had to, what were the other things that we had to do?

There were a few things that we had to do and. The funding organizations have already recognized all those other things. So the last step was paying the Carfax fees and that's happening this year. So it opens up opportunities for us to also be a bit of a leader in the region with other galleries to say, yeah, we're small.

We can do. I know you can find that money somewhere or just could get paid. It'd be great. 

Yeah, exactly. It must be hard as an artist to put a number value on your painting. Oh, it's 

probably the hardest thing to do. It's very difficult, especially when you're also looking at market.

So you don't want to out-price yourself from the market. You want to recognize the time that you've put in all the years of schooling that have gone in or training or. The painting over the years, all of that comes into bear on it. And it is difficult. I'm glad I don't make those decisions. Yeah.

And I 

think it's also a difficult thing to go to somebody and say, I would like dot amount of dollars for my work and actually 

physically take that money. Absolutely. Sure. 'cause it's like any other service that we provide. It's why you have put all this time. I think the most difficult part of it is the vulnerability that artists have to put out there because this is their personal expression that they're putting on a canvas and putting a value to.

Whereas I shouldn't say that because if you're cooking in a kitchen, the food that you're putting on the plate, that's your effort, your. But there is something quite vulnerable about putting your work on canvas and putting it out there and saying, okay, people come on in, see what you think.

It's a tough one. It's a very difficult place to be in and to have a gallery be the one that's able to step into the middle of that and say, we value what you do. We're paying you for your work ahead of time. And then we're going to facilitate the selling of these works. Maybe takes a little of that pressure off.

It's the decision. I think, ultimately to decide, to put the work out there in the first place, that's probably the most difficult. And then the costing of course, and also 

because a lot of artists use art as a therapeutic tool. Working through a personal 

stuff. Sure. Much like an artist, a musician or a writer, but in a community this size, everyone knows who you are.

That is 

true. And so what the show was now, would you charge. Like a admit admission. 

Absolutely not. No, absolutely not. This gallery is open to the community. We are still, even though we have a professional organization status as a visual arts organization, we are still a community gallery. We still prioritize people coming in.

It is not, it's not highfalutin every time the kids come in. I say, so what are some things you think about rules in the gallery? And they always say, oh, you have. Absolutely not. You should be excited by what you might love it. You might hate it, but honestly, artists want a reaction from you.

So talk to your friends, say what you like, say what you don't like. Ask questions. That's what the gallery is about. Come in your pajamas. If you've just been out running to the grocery store for some milk and you're on your way home and you see we're open, come on in. There is no pretense here. It is just about seeing things that are beautiful and that make you go.

And that's not going to change. We will never, as far as I can see into the future, we won't be charging admission. We also, for all of our visual arts workshops that we have a bursary program. So anyone who wants to take an art course who doesn't feel financially able to do that, all you have to do is call the gallery and I will put you down in that course, we have a fund available for that.

So we want community to be involved with this gallery. First you need artists, then you need an audience and we won't do anything to stand in the way of that. And what 

would you like to see more of in the community? Both from the artistic side and from the public side? 

I think that it's, I think we're seeing it and that is really supporting and buying local and expanding your understanding of local.

It's not just the person who lives next to you and you. It's the person that's in this region. Opportunities for artists are few and far between, and if we can support them through purchasing art, coming in, viewing art, you don't have to buy art. You can just come and see it. It's absolutely fantastic.

And that's what I would like to see from artists and the community. Just keep on keeping on and come on in gallery. And. Great. 

And as far as funding is concerned is, it's been a crazy couple of years. It has have we seen more funding or less funding? 

We have seen more funding and without the funding.

We would be in a pickle for sure. But we've been able to access provincial funding that we hadn't been able to access before, which is fabulous because somehow in all of the craziness of COVID, it actually freed up a little bit of space for us to sit down and take a breath and say, where are our priorities?

What do we want to be doing? And one of those things was finding more funding, so we could. Specific programming. We could hire more staff, we could do those kinds of things. So we made that a priority. And now with this new designation, we'll be able to prioritize, looking at federal funding as well. So all of those things can come together to just create more opportunities for people in the community to see different types of art, who knows, maybe we'll get a traveling exhibition, we'll have some installation work, which we don't see a lot of here.

And some really. Interesting things that are going to challenge people. So I think we just have to find ways to have that funding stick around because a lot of that funding was very COVID specific where they were trying to. Inject a little bit of funds into areas that might be suffering. And now our challenge will be, how do we sustain that?

And how do we continue to grow and make this place somewhere people want to be. Do you think 

that's just the little nudge that you needed to get over that hill to start the momentum forward? I 

do. Absolutely because we had, so when I started at the gallery had these passion projects and these things that I wanted to do, and when I was talking with some of the funders, they said don't wait to develop that idea further, just putting the application and they responded to it.

I think that there's been a shift in what funders are looking for and they're starting to prioritize other parts of BC. They're starting to prioritize smaller communities. And I do. I think it gave us that nudge. I think that once you get a place, you're not going to go backwards. So you just keep finding the ways to make things happen.

It's who I am a bit loud, a bit brash. I'm just going to put my foot in it and see where it takes me. It's a great approach. 

And do you think, I, you always hear that arts in schools are, is being underfunded and, generally arts gets left behind. Is that your opinion as well?

Sure. In some ways, I think what we see, especially in our community, teachers getting creative. And so we have a lot of school groups that come through. We have teachers that bring their students to every single exhibition that we have. We talk about art. We draw, we find interesting things in the paintings or the sculptures or whatever it is we're looking at.

So teachers are finding ways to make that happen. Whether the funding is there or not. Do I wish that there was. More emphasis and more priority on arts in school systems and in other areas. Absolutely. I think it's vital to the development of our kids. I have a son, who's a musician. I have a daughter, who's an artist I'm super passionate about making sure that people have these opportunities.

My daughter who's an artist is also a biology. She's studying biology right now at university. And my son who's a musician works at a hospital. So you can. It develops who we are as people, it rounds us out. It makes us more compassionate. It makes us able to see vulnerability in other people. I think it's great.

They, there are all these studies about pathways in the brain that open up when you have arts as part of your curriculum. So I do wish that there was more priority in terms of funding on that. However, I do know that teachers in our area specifically, and we get busloads from WhatsApp where they come out and they're taking in all the information, they're looking at the exhibition.

So I think that in our area, people prioritize it, whether the funding is there or not. And it's fantastic to see. So we're working to develop more educational programming with teachers so that we are reaching what they need to do that they mean, or may not have funds for in their own. 

Answered my next question, which is going to be, why is art important?

Both to people and to 

community? Oh first of all, it is absolutely one of those value added things. When people are looking to move somewhere when they're looking to travel somewhere, they're like, what else is going on? Like, why would I choose Smithers? Why would I choose the bulky valley over.

Going somewhere else in the province. Because it's very vibrant, it's exciting. It creates a buzz. There's just a feeling in our community of excitement. And so the arts does that. And then of course all the additional learning that can go on it's really, it can be really challenging. We had an abstract show in here a couple of years ago, and some of our volunteers that sit in the gallery and greet people, heated the show.

Did not like it didn't get it. Weren't interested in it. And they sat in the gallery for five weeks with the show. And by the end, they're like, oh, this is so fascinating. I see something different every time. And look at the way this line is, look at the way this piece of color is. So art also provides an opportunity for lifelong learning and an opportunity to change your mind and to like something and to dislike something and to say, you know what, that's not my thing, but.

It allows you the opportunity to grow and to learn and to see new things. So it's, I think it's great for artists. It's great for audiences. It's great for kids. It's great for towns. 

I agree. It's funny because, I was talking to abstract impressionists. Like we have a piece of his work, which I really love, and I think it makes, the private dining room, what it is, and.

And I like, I love the piece, but I never really got what he was doing until I spoke to him. And I was like, oh, I totally get it now. Like you don't really get it until. You can understand 

the process. And that's part of what the gallery is about. It's about providing, and I don't want to say an educational opportunity because it sounds like we're going to bring you to school here, and that's not what we do, but we should be bringing in work.

That's a little challenging that makes people see why would someone paint like this? What is what is this about? How does this work? What's the process and the opportunity to talk about that with people too. Do some explaining, but also to do a lot of listening, it's absolutely important.

And I think truly in our community right now, where maybe we're not spending as much time listening to each other as we should be, art does provide a vehicle for that. And I love it. 

Thank God for people 

like you and you, that's the thing we do have these like passionate champions for art in our community.

And I think that makes a difference for us. Yeah, 

definitely. And so as far as, being able to like, there's some people, kids that have these aspirations that I'm going to be a famous artist when I grow up. And then the reality is that yeah, art takes a long time and then it takes a whole bunch of work.

But what do you think about. People entering into art with the mindset that they're going to become professional artists. And then actually the hardships of actually being a professional artist. 

I think most people who have a passion for art can't stop creating art, whether they decide to pursue something else or not.

I think that hopefully with more and more galleries, Starting to pay artists for their work developing an audience where people appreciate art and then want to make that decision to purchase their own work. I think that all of it comes together. I think that it can be very challenging and there's a whole new skill set that artists have to have, like we talked about with social media and all the other bits and pieces that come together.

But I think for the most part, like most of us in our lives, we want to do something that we enjoy doing. We want to do something that we love and we pursue that and hope that the money will fall. And I would encourage everyone. I would encourage everyone to take the class. I would encourage everyone to do.

If you don't try, you never know. And it doesn't have to happen when you're 20. It doesn't have to happen when you're 30, it can happen when you're 50 or 60 or 70. Because art is one of those things that you can keep doing and you can keep developing all the way through your life. We just had an artist here who is in his, oh gosh, I don't want to say now, sixties or seventies and his.

Has changed dramatically from when he was in his forties. And I would say dramatically for the better and is challenging work. Really interesting, exciting, colorful. He's using old bits of graffiti in it. He's doing he's just doing amazing things and you, so you recognize that art carries on and your development as an artist carries on.

I don't think that there would be any reason I would ever say to someone don't do it. I would say you have to do it. If you create and you can't help yourself, but create, just keep at it, keep building, keep developing, keep trying and know that there's a lot of skills out there. You're going to have to develop that don't necessarily have to do with art so that you can get to that next step, but absolutely worth it.

Thank you. I, you know what? I love it. I love it. I love what I do. And the artists keep you going.

And I imagine just having somebody there supporting them for all the big stuff makes them, it's like creating fertile soil. 

You sure hope so. You sure hope so. Talking with Leah who, really well, obviously oh, and she said I don't know if I would have applied for a show if you hadn't just come in and sat down with me and filled out the paperwork because I hate paper.

Yeah. She had every single piece of the puzzle put together. She just needed to put them into a document and send them off. But that's exactly my point is that piece is enough to stop someone from coming into the gallery as an artist and that, so we should be meeting people where they're at, because she's a phenomenal artist.

Why wouldn't you want her work in here? It's amazing. And that's the piece of the puzzle that we're trying to work on right now. So Michelle, the person that we hired with one of the grants that we got that's her role is community engagement and communications. So she's taken all the stuff I'm not good at all the social media all over it.

She has a graphic design background as well. So she's doing all the posters and all those things. But it allows both of us to be able to get out and actually talk to people and find out what do you need to apply for a show? What do you need? Feel comfortable coming here. Isn't it great. 

When you have a wonderful team, 

it makes all the difference in the world.

Yeah. And 

that's, I think what maybe a lot of artists are missing is the team. It is a very solitary pursuit. 

It absolutely is. It absolutely is. 


Well, thank you very much for being such a great champion for artists.