Painter’s Valhalla

Another 20-minute masterpiece. (Photo by Erin Olejnik)

Another 20-minute masterpiece. (Photo by Erin Olejnik)

The fresh paint is slathered on in sweeping strokes, bright and livid in the dark room. The painter takes a step back and quickly resumes; time is running out. A wall of eager observers bustle and chatter between canvases as music blazes from wall-mounted speakers. Here, at Art Battle, the act of painting is comparable to a WWE cage match.

Art Battle, which celebrated its first anniversary in Halifax last week, is a Canadian competition in which groups of three artists are given 20 minutes to complete an original painting. The winner of each group moves on to the night’s finals.

Erin Olejnik, Art Battle Halifax’s primary organizer, got involved with the series through her brother’s connection with Art Battle’s founders in Toronto. Olejnik hopped on board, and Halifax became Canada’s third major Art Battle hub, alongside Toronto and Vancouver.

“It sounded like a way to make art accessible,” she says. “You don’t need to be an art student or really have any training or experience to feel like you belong.”

In 2013, Art Battle Halifax held monthly events at the Bus Stop Theatre. The first season’s champion, Mary Garoutte, was sent to Toronto last summer to represent Atlantic Canada in the Art Battle Nationals . She has since become a regular facet in Halifax’s Art Battles, having competed four times and winning last week’s Art Battle All-Stars event.

“When I started, I thought, ‘Where has this been all my life’,” Garoutte laughs. “I didn’t realize how unique a form of entertainment it is. I don’t usually associate art with adrenaline, but…. And once you get going, you tune it all out—the crowd, that inner criticism. You remember why you love to paint.”

Halifax is, by nature, a city infused with artistic ambition. Whether this stems from the presence of a fine arts institution (NSCAD) or from some intangible virtue, Garoutte says that “Halifax isn’t necessarily a sexy, huge city, but it’s definitely artistic. I think Halifax was ready for something that brings art to the streets and out of the galleries.”

Art Battles are planned throughout 2014, culminating in another regional championship later this year. While the blueprints of the event will remain relatively unchanged, the influence of Art Battle in Halifax has begun to affect both the event itself and those who are a part of it. Grace Simms, who won the first ever Halifax Art Battle in 2013, began a satellite program in Truro last year. Similar satellite initiatives are springing up throughout Canada.

“I think that people like to watch something unfold,” Simms says. “And it really changes the artist’s experience. Before painting, I was searching for the perfect song to paint along to, but there is no right song. It’s the crowd that brings the energy.”

Artists of all backgrounds are welcome to pitch their work to Art Battle and steel their nerves in the spotlight at the next installment, scheduled for Friday, Feb. 14. While competition definitely plays a role in the night’s excitement, Art Battle is, in Garoutte’s opinion, “A party—a celebration of art and those who take part in it.”

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Mat Wilush

Mat Wilush once went to see Agent Orange on the outskirts of Toronto, where the beer was salty and drunken teenagers took turns sitting in a prop electric chair. The music had aged poorly. A mohawk’d middle-ager danced through the first couple songs, but quickly tired out. There just isn’t much room for surf rock in the world anymore. What next? Mat Wilush wants to know.

Mat is the Gazette's Arts Editor. Follow him on Twitter at @wilushwho and email him at arts@dalgazette.com.

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