The year of the rumble: Art studio and auction to wind up after more than a decade supporting artists, community

‘There are so many reasons, but probably the big reason is that in a city with food insecurity, the people who support us are starting to struggle’

Article content

It is nearing 7 p.m. on a snowy, blisteringly cold Wednesday in January and Rich and Jess Theroux are ready to rumble.

Yes, that’s a bad pun. But the Calgary couple, who have run a non-profit art studio and gallery for more than a decade, actually call their Wednesday night get-togethers “rumbles” at the Rumble House. They are weekly gatherings where artists from all walks of life – “This has always been built on the premise that everybody is an artist,” says Rich – are given a loose theme or themes and spend two hours creating artwork. At the end of the night, the art is auctioned off. Half goes to the artist, half goes to paying rent and operating costs.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Article content

This particular evening marks the 556th Wednesday the couple have welcomed people into their studio, either in person or online. For the past nine years, it has operated out of a cluttered building on 8th Avenue S.W. with colourful and often unfinished art covering the walls. Before the pandemic, the couple were adamant about making it an in-person event. But when the lockdowns affected all social gatherings, they relented and started operating online every Wednesday night. They stream on YouTube, TikTok and Facebook, where Rich reckons they have connected with a total of 10,000 people. On a good night – when there is not a snowstorm, for instance – they can get 40 to 60 people crowded into the space to paint and bid on art.

When the doors reopened after the lockdowns, they decided to keep the online component going as well.

Other than that, it has remained fairly consistent since it opened in July 2012, initially in a space they dubbed The Gorilla House on 15th Avenue. In fact, since they took over the 8th Avenue space and rechristened themselves Rumble House, they have never missed a single Wednesday. Not one.

Advertisement 3

Article content

“We’ve been through pandemics, floods, migraines,” says Rich.

Rumble House
The interior and exterior of Rumble House on 8th Avenue S.W. is full of eye-opening art and assorted items on the walls, shelves, and corners. Jim Wells/Postmedia

“We basically didn’t have a space for one year between Gorilla House and Rumble,” adds Jess. “In that time, we still did events in other spaces. When we had a space, we never missed a Wednesday.”

The commitment is certainly admirable, particularly since the initial plan was to hold only six “rumbles” and call it a day. But once Rich and Jess realized how important the weekly get-togethers had become to the community – and that some of the participants relied on the small amount of money they took home from selling their work  – they kept them going.

“By the end of that summer, I had maybe 100 people that were either buying a pack of cigarettes, or dinner or sometimes subsidizing their rent,” Rich says. “So that’s how we got trapped into a year lease, which was $60,000 more than I had at the time. We got hooked.”

“The idea was to be able to come in, make a piece and sell a piece,” Jess adds. “We used to sell the works off every Wednesday because we were in-person and all the works would sell. People might make enough to get cigarettes or might make enough to get groceries. Recently, it’s been less and less about the money and more and more about the social hub.”

Article content

Advertisement 4

Article content

Rumble House
An artist works on a piece at Rumble House on a cold, snowy night on Jan. 17. Jim Wells/Postmedia

So it may be surprising that Rich and Jess, who are both public school art teachers by day, announced in 2023 that Rumble House would be ending. If all goes as planned, they will hold their 600th rumble by the end of December. That’s when their second five-year lease will end and the doors will close. Pinning down the exact reasons they are closing is difficult. The answers seem to vary. They stress they are not being forced out and they hope to continue running pop-up and online events. But things have changed.

“It’s a different political climate from when we signed our last lease,” says Rich. “There are so many reasons, but probably the big reason is that in a city with food insecurity, the people who support us are starting to struggle. Rumble has always been about people who need help and people who want to help. We started getting donations back to the gallery of artwork from our buyers, who were moving into condos. It’s pretty difficult to wrap your head around selling art to people who are struggling and downsizing out of their homes.”

Recommended from Editorial

Advertisement 5

Article content

There also seem to be deeper philosophical reasons. Rumble House was always meant to be a rebellious, on-the-street enterprise that celebrated art and artists at a grassroots level. In 2015, artist Mark Vazquez-Mackay held a solo exhibition at the Rumble House. It was purposely held on the same day that Contemporary Calgary kicked off its glitzy LOOK fundraiser across the street at the Centennial Planetarium, which had not been transformed into a gallery yet. LOOK featured New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik and Schitt’s Creek star Dan Levy and VIP tickets went for $500. Across the street, Vazquez-Mackay cheekily called his exhibition “Don’t Look.”

“It always has to evolve,” Jess says. “That was the other thing. As soon as we get comfortable or as soon as there is predictability, there had to be a shift. Last summer, (Rich) was saying ‘This is comfortable.”

“Last summer was the first time we ever felt like we knew what we were doing,” Rich adds. “We were sticking it to the man for 10 years and it was like ‘Wait a minute, I may be the man.’ It stops being anti-establishment at some point.”

Advertisement 6

Article content

Rumble House may be anti-establishment but there are a few rules, or at least some traditions. On this 556th Wednesday, Jess kicks off the festivities for the online audience with a land acknowledgment before turning her attention to this evening’s themes. Using an Ikea-bought lazy Susan with an arrow painted on it, these inspirations are determined by a few spins of what she calls ‘The eternal Ikea lazy Susan,” which is circled by a collection of books, records and paintings and even a small stuffed penguin with sunglasses, which was provided by Rich’s 11-year-old son Felix.

With a little help from Felix, the eternal lazy Susan eventually lands on the cool penguin, and then a book about Claude Monet from the Chicago Art Institute and a book of poetry by Shel Silverstein. These are streamlined to tonight’s themes: cool penguin, Monet’s haystack series and the letter V, which is from Silverstein’s poem Love. The artists are encouraged to use this as inspiration They are also free to ignore them, which is what most seem to be doing tonight.

Rumble House
Rich Theroux stares at a blank canvas, contemplating what he’ll paint this night at Rumble House. Jim Wells/Postmedia

The in-person attendance is a little sparse on this very cold night, but there are a handful of artists working away in the back and a few regulars. Both Rich and Jess create art for the auctions, but Rich, in particular, prides himself on finishing and usually selling his art at the end of the two hours. After some delays, he quickly paints a large-scale self-portrait with his bicycle, sitting on a stoop. Neither Rich nor Jess keeps any of the money their artwork earns, putting 100 per cent back into Rumble House. They also hold Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners at Rumble House. Occasionally, they will put a call out for volunteers to do a street cleanup around the space, taking everyone out for A&W burgers afterward.

Advertisement 7

Article content

“A lot of artists end up in an insecure situation as well,” Rich says. “Then there are people who are struggling emotionally; they may have all the money in the world, but they have nobody to talk to. That’s why we never miss a Wednesday. That’s why we go over Christmas and New Year’s. Sometimes, we realize that people here don’t speak to anybody for the rest of the week. There were nights when it was -40 and we’re locking up the door and people are moving slowly and we realize they don’t really want to go. That’s when we started giving out coats and blankets because we couldn’t keep the doors open all night. We have to teach in the morning. But it has always been a mix of people who have had some kind of need, whether it’s money or food or company and people who have a desire to give, whether it’s money or food or company.”

This means the artists come from all walks of life and levels of experience. Fellow teachers, including some of Rich’s mentors, have appeared on Wednesdays. Back at Gorilla House, Rich convinced a group of “graffiti kids” to join up after their art was removed from the side of the building.

Advertisement 8

Article content

“The last thing you want to do with graffiti kids is paint out their work, but I had an obligation to the building and I had to cover the work,” Rich says. “So I buffed the wall and left a note and said ‘Hey guys, just come in and join us’ and then they did. That was a pretty magic moment.”

Rumble House
Jess and Rich Theroux prepare for an Instagram Live broadcast at Rumble House. Jim Wells/Postmedia

While Rich seems reluctant to name them, participants have also included established artists such as Vazquez-Mackay and photographer/painter Francis A. Willey, who have participated in or donated art for the auction.

Artist Darcy Lisecki has been attending since the early Gorilla House days. Like Rich, he went to the former Bishop Grandin High School, although he is a few years older. According to his Facebook page, Lisecki specializes in “realism and fine art, pop erotica and modern expressionism.” He sells a lot of his work privately and studied art at the Alberta College of Art, now called The Alberta University of the Arts. Making art for a living can be a precarious business, so the money he earned during Rumble House auctions has occasionally helped make ends meet.

“I never expected to make a lot of money out of this place, but I have,” Lisecki says. “We would do live auctions and I was always too shy to stand up there and show my art. So Rich would do it for me and I made out well.”

Advertisement 9

Article content

He says he once sold a painting for $1,300, which meant he got to keep $650. Rich says the art – which includes everything from textiles to teddy bears, paintings and drawings – has fetched anywhere from $5 to $1,400 over the years.

On this Wednesday, Lisecki is working on a dark piece of abstract expressionism based on the word EAT.

“I like to do that: spray paint, throw paint around,” he says. “I play with themes like ‘I make art so I can have a cigarette. I make art so I can survive.’”

For now, Rich and Jess want to get the word out that people have less than a year to attend Rumble House, at least in person, although they plan to continue online auctions and gatherings.

“We want people to make use of the last year here,” Rich says. “It’s going to be like ripping off a Band-Aid when we let go of the space. But afterwards, we will continue on Wednesday nights.”

Rumble House is open Wednesdays from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Article content