One of the most valid things you can do as an artist is to support the work of another artist, to help someone else realize something. And then, they help you.
Imagine you’re five years old. It’s a Saturday morning and you’re going to the museum with your parents for the first time ever. You know that feeling you get when you walk into a room filled with immense paintings, masterpieces from another time. A feeling of connectedness, purpose, and inspiration. Hank Bull remembers it. He lived it.
Growing up in Calgary, Bull says art was a big part of his childhood. But it was as a teen that he really began to see its potential for collaboration and community. “I started as a painter and then I kind of got involved with playing around in front of a camera,” he says. “And that takes more than one person to do. And performing and performance is a group thing as well.”
As he got older, Bull became an active member of the arts community, both in Vancouver and Toronto. “I heard of Western Front on the network. I was in Toronto at the time and people were using the postal system to send collages and postcards and mail art. And I came out here for a visit and met the people, and it was a very exciting atmosphere.”
Though not one of the founders of Western Front, Bull has been there since the early days. “Western Front was a place where there were all of these arts, all happening at the same time and mixing with each other. It was a very stimulating environment and there was a lot of collaboration, not only with local artists but with people who came from around the world. You really felt like you were part of a global network.”
I heard of Western Front on the network. I was in Toronto at the time and people were using the postal system to send collages and postcards and mail art. And I came out here for a visit and met the people, and it was a very exciting atmosphere.
“One of the things about being involved in an artist-run centre, and about collaborating in general, is that you find yourself working on each other’s artwork,” Bull says. “One of the most valid things you can do as an artist is to support the work of another artist, to help someone else realize something. And then, they help you.”
His involvement at Western Front led him to collaborations and projects that he might not have started otherwise. He had a weekly radio program with Patrick Ready on CRFO, a co-op station in Vancouver. Though Bull calls it radio art, he acknowledges that “art” wasn’t a term often associated with radio, especially not in the 70s. The program was experimental and fun, perhaps closer to a quirky podcast than traditional radio.
He also collaborated on shadow plays. “I did a lot of shadow theatre with a changing group of people. We took shadow puppets and various different kinds of projection — kind of a multi-media performance – on tour across Canada and to Europe.”
Getting involved at an artist-run centre is easy to do. By nature, they’re welcoming environments with an extensive list of things they want to achieve. “It’s a hugely vibrant scene and it’s easy to get involved,” says Bull. “There are lots of opportunities for volunteers and there’s a lot of very exciting experiment that takes place inside the artist-run centres, which has very little to do with the art market and very little to do with museums or the normal venues, but is a very exciting environment for experiment and creation.”
Western Front was a place where there were all of these arts, all happening at the same time and mixing with each other. It was a very stimulating environment and there was a lot of collaboration, not only with local artists but with people who came from around the world. You really felt like you were part of a global network.
For Bull, Western Front also led to collaborations and community work of a different kind. In addition to his artistic pursuits, he’s also an arts administrator, curator, and activist. Of artist-run centres in general, he says, “it doesn’t really matter whether you’re an artist in the traditional sense, or an administrator or a journalist or a publicist. Everybody has a role to play in the construction of the artwork.”
Bull finds joy in supporting other artists and making global connections. In 1999, he co-founded Centre A, the Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Before founding the centre, Bull was part of a project called Jiangnan that brought in over 50 artists and scholars from China to galleries all over Vancouver. Its success spawned the idea for something longer lasting. Thanks to a visionary funder, they were able to establish a more permanent foothold with Centre A.
The administrative and parallel jobs to being an artist, like marketing, PR, and gallery management, are fulfilling too. “A lot of the work that I did as a curator or an administrator was also extremely creative and involved me working with artists around the world and travelling a lot around the world myself.”
The travel bug was something Bull readily gave into. “The family story is that I took my first steps on a train,” he tells me. “So, you know, I’ve always been on the move.” To Bull, travel is travel is travel: “I don’t really separate whether it’s personal travel or research or a gig or work travel.” At least in part, this is due to the fact that Bull is pursuing his passions.
It doesn’t really matter whether you’re an artist in the traditional sense, or an administrator or a journalist or a publicist. Everybody has a role to play in the construction of the artwork.
His latest passion? Cardboard boxes. While his last show, Connexxion, was on tour, Bull noticed a lot of people were commenting on the cardboard box he’d included in the collection. Quite sculptural in design, the art piece included several everyday items carefully curated and displayed in a gallery space.
Following its success, Bull decided to delve deeper into the idea of a cardboard box. He started out by trying to think about them philosophically. “The box comes from somewhere,” Bull says. “It had something in it. It’s the throw-away part of global capitalism. And so there’s a whole way to look at the thing in terms of the economy of the box and so on. A cardboard box is about the only thing you can get for free in this world.”
Transforming that idea into an artwork or collection was Bull’s challenge, however. “I like the fact that the box moves. If you flatten the box, it’s a painting; if you pop it out it’s a sculpture. It’s easy to store, it’s easy to ship. And in that sense, it moves, it’s mobile, it’s animated.” His aim is to tell a story with cardboard boxes; to elicit emotional responses and informed dialogue.
The box comes from somewhere. It had something in it. It’s the throw-away part of global capitalism. And so there’s a whole way to look at the thing in terms of the economy of the box and so on. A cardboard box is about the only thing you can get for free in this world.
“I’m exploring the relationship between painting and sculpture and photography,” Bull tells me. “So when you look at this work, you see a little bit of all three mixed together. I’m also interested in shadow and light and the way things appear and what happens when light turns the corner and becomes a shadow, and playing with that kind of idea of light and dark and visible and invisible.”
After a career of collaboration, Bull finds getting back to painting a pleasurable activity. “It’s a very quiet and meditative sort of thing. One box leads to another box. My studio is piled high with painted boxes.”
And that’s the thing about art. It’s not exclusively the domain of solo exploration, nor unquestionably better as a group activity. It can be both.
Recalling the moment when he first stepped into a museum as a child, Bull is quiet for a moment. Contemplative. “Experiencing art as a child is one of the most valuable things that anybody can have,” he tells me. “The lessons that you learn from art – and not only appreciation for art, but for making art – are really the best preparation for life in general. Arts education for kids is hugely important and necessary. It’s a profoundly humanizing thing. And very, very necessary for a healthy society.”
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