How an artist-run Prairie printmaking shop changed the Canadian art landscape

A new exhibit at a Regina art gallery explores how Winnipeg's Grand Western Canadian Screen Shop became a hub for experimentation, community and activism.

Regina exhibit explores how Grand Western Canadian Screen Shop became a hub for experimentation, activism

From left: artists Wilf Perreault, Bill Lobchuk and Victor Cicansky at the opening reception for the MacKenzie Art Gallery exhibition Superscreen: The Making of an Artist-Run Counterculture and the Grand Western Canadian Screen Shop. (Michelle MaCaw/CBC)

A new show at Regina's MacKenzie Art Gallery highlights the story of what the gallery hails as the Prairies' first artist-run centre — and one that changed the Canadian art world.

The Grand Western Canadian Screen Shop started in Winnipeg in the late 1960s and celebrated community and political activism.

It was opened as the Screen Shop in 1968 by Neepawa, Man.-born Bill Lobchuk, who had finished art school at the University of Manitoba and learned printmaking at a local company. He and partner Len Anthony decided to try their hand at it, and to provide a space for other artists to make their own prints.

"We rented this storefront on Princess Street in Winnipeg. I started inviting the people down to take a look at what we could do and to my astonishment, artists started coming," Lobchuk told CBC's Saskatchewan Weekend.

Three Sheik is a screen print on paper by Canadian-born artist Russell Yuristy. It is one of the works on display at the MacKenzie Art Gallery for the Superscreen exhibit. (Michelle McCaw/CBC)

The printmaking hub is being celebrated with the exhibition Superscreen: The Making of an Artist-Run Counterculture and the Grand Western Canadian Screen Shop. It opened to the public at the MacKenzie Gallery Saturday and runs until May 20.

Though based in Winnipeg, Lobchuk — who was in Regina this weekend for the exhibit's opening — worked often with Saskatchewan artists. The shop put together a collection of work for sale by four artists from Manitoba and four artists from Saskatchewan, including Joe Fafard, David Thauberger and Victor Cicansky.

"I had, and I have, a theory that Prairie art hasn't been discovered yet," Lobchuk said. "And there is a particular kind of art that we make that I consider is Prairie art."

The friendships between Screen Shop artists grew, and involved more than art. At one point, the Manitoba artists even challenged the Saskatchewan artists to a hockey game.

"I can't remember why, [but] we ended up having the hockey game in David Thauberger's backyard. Oh, you know, it was hilarious," Lobchuk said.

"Joe [Fafard] was running around saying 'Don't hit my hands, don't hit my hands, they're worth a million bucks,'" Lobchuk said. "I'd be hitting his hockey stick as often as I could."

Artist Winston Leathers started experimenting with printmaking in the 1960s. With the help of the Screen Shop, he was able to create a suite titled Cosmic Variations in 1972. (Michelle McCaw/CBC)

The Screen Shop was a place for artists to try experimental work, Lobchuk says.

"David [Thauberger] liked to mess around with things that we'd never done before," he said, including new printing techniques using fabrics. "We did all kinds of crazy things."

At the same time as the artists in the shop were experimenting, Lobchuk said, a larger movement was starting. The Canadian Artists' Representation organization started in London, Ont. The organization advocated for artists' rights and Lobchuk became involved in the Manitoba chapter.

"We were lobbying the government. We instituted a policy of rental fees, exhibition fees," he said.

Joe Fafard is one of the artists the Screen Shop frequently worked with. This work is titled Boy and his Dog. Fafard and Screen Shop founder Bill Lobchuk graduated at around the same time from the University of Manitoba School of Art. (Michelle McCaw/CBC )

At the time, everyone who worked in a gallery made money except for the artists, Lobchuk said.

"We're expected to show our work and be thankful that you've got an exhibition, but you didn't get paid for doing it," he said.

"We said, 'Well, what kind of stupid attitude is that? I mean, you're using our work, we own the copyright, you should pay us a fee for exhibiting.'"

Lobchuk said the organization convinced the Canada Council for the Arts to establish exhibition pay for artists. This meant anytime a gallery would apply for Canada Council exhibition funding, it had to indicate it was paying artists' fees, he said.

The Screen Shop closed in 1987. Looking back, Lobchuk said he mostly misses the experimentation.

"I would have to make a print, but you know, having an art background I … understood what the artist wanted as an end result. It was my responsibility to point them in the right direction," he said.

"Everybody came to us with a challenge. So I miss that."

Lobchuk said that with the MacKenzie Gallery exhibit, he hopes people see that the Screen Shop's artists changed things in the art world.

"We experimented. We changed the copyright laws of Canada. We instituted rental fees," he said.

"We made an interesting mark on the art scene in Canada."

With files from Saskatchewan Weekend


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