Station: Imagine this!
Consider it a microcosm of the Cowichan Valley.
You’ll find it nestled comfortably among the store fronts in Duncan’s city square, an unassuming little shop with big, beautifully decorated glass windows and a quiet brown sign.
Inside its doors you’ll discover a trove of the kind of unpretentious talent that defines the valley.
More than that, you’ll find a co-operative of artists who blend creativity and business in a model all their own.
It is indicative of Cowichan as a whole: quaint yet sophisticated. Small but innovative.
Lorraine Taylor did. She founded Imagine That! Artisans’ Designs and helped lay the groundwork for what would become a perfect encapsulation of what makes Cowichan unique.
She had toyed with the idea of starting an artists’ co-op and began hosting meetings in the backyard of her Gibbins Road home to gauge interest.
“Some people stayed, some people argued, and some people left,” she remembers. “Lots of people left, actually.”
But she persevered, sifting through until there was a core group. Finally, she set up shop.
“I thought it was going to be pretty hokey,” admits Margot Page, an artist and 18-year member of Imagine That! “But I thought I’d take my enamels down there and show them.”
Page remembers walking into the store that first time and being forcefully reminded of the professional shops she’d left behind in larger cities.
But there was something more.
“It was not like the sophistication of Toronto or Montreal. It was more subdued, understated, subtle,” she says. “It drew me in rather than being in your face. I wanted to be part of it.”
Small-town charm definitely seeps into the business.
Page points out the shop doesn’t even have a cash register.
“This is not like a regular retail store,” she says. “We still do everything by hand. We greet our customers. They become friends.”
But even the free-spirited need to occasionally be strict when running a successful business.
Page explains the shop is heavily structured by a set of policies set out 20 years ago.
“A lot of the ideas came from the Craft Connection in Nelson,” she says. “We adjusted the information from the Nelson co-op to suit us and we’ve only changed it slightly during the past 20 years, here and there, because times change so you have to do some things a bit differently. But we all learn to run the co-op the same way, and there are definite forms and processes you have to follow. I think that’s a big part of (Imagine That!’s success).”
There have been a number of members who’ve been involved with the co-operative over the years but the current line-up includes Page and four other members who run the shop and jury the pieces that come in from consignees and other artists.
The selected works are what one would expect of Cowichan: beautiful but useful, too.
“Gorgeous wooden bowls from locally felled trees,” describes Page. “Silk screens with nature themes from (artists’) own gardens. Comfortable, appealing, useful pottery. Floor mats with designs of homely cats and folk-art elephants. Wildlife like quail, eagles, and deer abound here, and that’s what our artists depict. Photographers are always knocking at our door to have us represent their beautiful images of Cowichan in our windows.”
Not everyone makes the cut, though.
“We turn down far more stock than we ever accept,” Page explains. “We’ve got a quality level, and it really has to suit the valley.”
Imagine That! walks a fine line — it aims for high-calibre work at reasonable prices.
That can be difficult when cheap is synonymous with tasteless in the minds of many.
But this is Cowichan.
“Quality is a huge part of Imagine That!,” says Rick Kennedy, long-time co-op bookkeeper and, according to Taylor, the backbone of the operation. “It’s not a junk store filled with tacky stuff.”
Every piece that sells in the shop is juried by Page and fellow co-op members Robin Millan, Eva Trinczek, Clare Carver and Sandra Greenaway.
“We really do pick through the stuff that comes in,” says Page. “A lot of it never gets to the shop floor.”
What’s left is something that’s perfectly Cowichan: artistic excellence accessible to all.
“Locals are hard-working folk,” says Page. “They work with their hands, and they appreciate something that is handmade.
“Cowichan is the home of farmers, fishermen and loggers,” she adds. “They too buy art, and know what they want. From back 18 years ago to right now, we have sensed what the valley people want, and we look in our jury for people who can produce such work: simple, useful and with craftsmanship of the best quality.”
— Krista Siefken