Where Edmonton Community Artists Network (W.E.C.A.N.) Society had its beginnings rooted in the drama of the devastating tornado that tore through Edmonton on Friday, July 31, 1987. “Black Friday”, as it is known, was the worst natural disaster in Alberta in recent history and one of the worst in Canada.
In September 1987, Brian Clark, an Indigenous sculptor originally from Fort McMurray, and Lorraine Noel, an employee of the City of Edmonton’s Recreation and Culture Department, organized the “Artists for Tornado Relief” art auction. They assembled the art of more than 100 visual artists and staged an auction that was held less than six weeks after the “Black Friday” tornado. It raised approximately $15,000 which was distributed by the Red Cross.
The energy generated from this auction became the foundation for a strong community of artists. The participants wanted to sustain the spirit of the event and formed Where Edmonton Community Artists Network (W.E.C.A.N.) Society in December 1987, with Jim Painter as the Society’s first President of the Board. Shortly after, they were successful in securing Harcourt House Building with the assistance of the Alberta Ministry of Public Works as a home for the group. Harcourt House Artist Run Centre was open to the public on September 5, 1988.
Over the years, Harcourt House has been home to hundreds of artists. For many visual artists from Alberta, Harcourt House has been a launching pad for their artistic careers. Many of the “Alumni” from Harcourt House have excelled nationally and internationally as exhibiting artists. Others have gone on to work in academic institutions to offer their mentorship to the next generation of progressive creators and critical thinkers. Two noteworthy artists are Barbara Paterson, who conceived and produced at Harcourt House, the Famous Five statue on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and Robert Sinclair, RCA, CSPWC, who maintained a watercolour studio at Harcourt House while teaching at the University of Alberta for over twenty years.
Harcourt House Building – Edmonton’s Modernist Icon
The Harcourt House Building was designed by Dennis & Freda O’Connor Architects. The building is one of the classical examples of Edmonton’s Modernism in architecture of the late 1950s/early 1960s, and is a recognizable architectural icon in Edmonton’s Oliver District.
Established in 1957, Dennis & Freda O’Connor Architects is credited for its several innovative, award-winning architectural projects in Edmonton and in Alberta. A transplant from U.K. who earned an architectural degree in 1946 from King’s College at Durham University, Freda O’Connor was the first female architect elected to Alberta Association of Architects in 1966 and, later elected president of Alberta Association of Architects in 1974 – the first female architect in Canada to be so honoured.
Designed and built in 1964 for Decury Supply Ltd., the Harcourt House Building is an excellent example of the International Style with its distinctive flat roof, elegant, minimalist form balanced by vertical and horizonal lines with tall vertically composed windows. The use of the single colour brick exterior and complete absence of ornamentation reinforce the building’s minimalist form. The building was designed to appear as a ‘floating’ box on a low podium with the underpass to dematerialize the building’s structural mass. The main entrance is offset, creating an asymmetrical form at the front of the building.
Though Dennis and Freda O’Connor’s architectural projects reflected the avant-garde, International Style, they tailored this style to the Alberta landscape by making the buildings low, flat, and horizontal. In line with the Bauhaus tradition, their commercial and residential projects are extremely functional with a great deal of flowing space.
The Harcourt House Building was featured in the seminal exhibition Edmonton and the Bauhaus, which was organized and curated by Jacek Malec, Harcourt’s Executive Director, and presented in September of 2019 in conjunction with the international celebrations of the 100th Anniversary of the Bauhaus School of Design 1919-2019.