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Art is the New Steel

By Grace Evans

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"Art is the new Steel." That's the slogan splayed across T-shirts sold at The Print Studio, a gallery and printmaking studio situated in the north end of much maligned Hamilton, Ontario. Art might not be replacing the city's famed reliance on heavy industry any time soon, but the gritty town of around 700,000 souls living an hour west of Toronto is experiencing a surprising cultural renaissance marked by a flood of new independent artists reinvigorating a downtown gutted by the big box store suburbs.

Local artists Gord Leverton and Sylvia Nickerson both found their separate ways to this city. When freelance illustrator Nickerson relocated to Hamilton from Toronto three years ago, she was amazed by how inexpensively she could rent a large studio that was a minute's walk from the city centre. Leverton, a visual artist who describes his work as "urban pastels" has lived in the city for 14 years, and also appreciates the affordable housing in Hamilton, and the accessibility to Toronto for shows and other business.

The locus of the scene is the thriving James Street North art community, alive with a vibrancy that is a draw to both artists and patrons lured downtown by engaging events like the James North Art Crawl. On the second Friday of every month, galleries on James North open their doors after hours. On these nights, people populate the street, wandering in and out of galleries and artist's studios like Nickerson's. Dane Pederson, curator of Loose Canon Gallery, says, "The effort that the restaurants, shops and galleries put in every month is equally matched by the enthusiasm of the people on the Art Crawl... Everyone is invested in [it]."

Between the galleries that have been an integral part of the art crawl for years, like The Print Studio which has been around since 2004, and newer additions like State of the Art Gallery and Artword Artbar, there are plenty of places to showcase local artists' work. The Steel City offers a growing number of resources for artists, such as the Downtown Arts Centre, The Hammertheatre Company, Hamilton Artists Inc. and Dave Kuruc's Hamilton-focused creative monthly magazine, Art.

Musicians Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland have made recent moves to Hamilton from the United States - and Doucet recently put out the album Steel City Trawler with accompanying comic by David Collier as an ode to Hamilton - illustrating the pull of this city as a creative centre. Leverton thinks the big draw might be the relaxed vibe in Hamilton. "Perhaps there's a 'humbler' feeling in Hamilton," he says. Nickerson echoes this sentiment: "[When I moved to Hamilton] I didn't feel like people were posturing or competing against one another, but just wanted to have more artist-friends join the Hamilton club."

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