[First published in Vacay.ca]
CALGARY, ALBERTA — Ryan Fairweather built a furnace in his backyard garage that heats up to 1,200 degrees Celsius — the same temperature as the corona of the sun. From it, he and his cohorts at Bee Kingdom make glassware that’s gained international attention (Elton John owns a piece, supporters of the company are quick to mention) and turned four guys from art school into magazine cover boys and trendsetters.
There’s lots of, um, buzz around Bee Kingdom and not necessarily because of its product. Although the glassware, made in the rear of the group’s tiny bungalow, is outstanding, the true intrigue about this collective is the fact they can even exist, and flourish, in a city known for a sensational amount of wealth and a vacuum of creativity.
“Being an artist in Calgary, we’ve really had to find our own way. We couldn’t graduate and find a prescribed path because there really wasn’t one. Everything we’re doing we’re kind of doing with trial and error. With that there’s been lots of obstacles, but lots of successes too. Because no one else is really doing what we’re doing, it’s been relatively easy to get some exposure,” Fairweather says, noting that Avenue, a glossy magazine that reports on the city, put Bee Kingdom on the cover and their trademark yellow Converse shoes have gained the attention of the likes of Naheed Nenshi, the popular, 40-year-old mayor who has become a symbol of Calgary’s newfound hipness.
This city of 1.1 million has grown by more than 20 per cent in the past six years as more Canadians from the east, who a generation ago would have stopped in Toronto for work, skip over the nation’s largest city for the draw of big paydays and security in Calgary. Until this year, though, there was little attention paid to Calgary’s efforts in using money made from the oil-and-gas industry — the source of plenty of Alberta’s wealth — to boosting the city’s image as an arts, music and dining hot spot. In 2012, Calgary is one of two Culture Capitals of Canada (Ontario’s Niagara Region is the other) and is receiving more than $3 million in funding from federal, provincial and municipal governments as well as the private sector.
When I ask how the arts scene has changed during her career, Anne Ewen, the Art Gallery of Calgary’s director, says without missing a beat: “There is one.”