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Always Ready to Rumble: Calgary community celebrating eight years of Wednesday night live art fights

What started as a summer project in 2012 to host a handful of live art battles and auction off locally-made works has now run for eight years through two different venues with more than 1,000 participating artists. Rumble House — formerly Gorilla House — is a grassroots, non-profit gallery space on the cusp of Calgary’s downtown (1136 8 Ave. S.W.). For the past eight years, artists and educators Rich Théroux and Jess Szabo, have provided the space for artists to come together from all walks of life to create and sell their works in a live art auction.

I’ve been to a number of Rumble House’s Wednesday night events over the years, and even have several pieces of art on my walls from those visits. With the eighth anniversary of the gallery coming up this week, on July 15, I spoke with Jess and Rich about the history of their weekly art battles, how they’ve continued to safely hold these events every week throughout the closures and physical distancing brought on by COVID-19, and the upcoming celebration as they mark their anniversary.

Q: Congratulations on your eighth anniversary! Tell me, how did Rumble House — and its predecessor, Gorilla House — all begin?

Jess: It all started in June 2012. Rich asked his son Oliver, who was 10 at the time, how he wanted to spend his summer, and it was Oliver’s idea to host an art stand. He’d worked on a collection of drawings that were meticulously priced and ready for sale. Rich knew of a few fellow artists who might benefit from having a space to exhibit their work and Gorilla House officially opened July 18, 2012. Gorilla House launched with a group of eight artists participating in battles, and the plan was to host six art battles (now “rumbles”) over the summer before we both went back to teaching in September. But soon more and more people began showing up with supplies wanting to take part, and the universe just took over from there. In 2014 we moved spaces and Gorilla House became Rumble House, which is what it remains today.

Q: For those who might not be familiar, what happens at a “rumble?”

Jess: A typical rumble begins at 7 p.m. We spin a wheel to randomly select three themes or ideas to inspire the work (or sometimes ignore completely). Artists work in the space until 9 p.m., and the public can watch the process of art being made. Then, at 9 p.m., we host a live auction. 

Q: I’ve been attending rumbles since some of the early battles at Gorilla House and have loved being there to watch the artistic process, and then having the opportunity to take home a piece made by a local artist. Over the past eight years, how has Rumble House changed and grown with the community?

Rich: Adaptively. We’ve been open for 373 Wednesdays and in that time, more than 1,000 artists have come out to take part. From the outside, each rumble looks pretty much the same, but we’ve reinvented ourselves about 350 times with very little room to duplicate. We didn’t set out to build a community but to build a space where the community could grow. It’s like gardening.

Rich Théroux painting at one of the first Gorilla House art battles in 2012
(Photo courtesy Jess Szaabo)

Q: If I remember correctly, the artist and Rumble House split proceeds of the auctioned-off items, and I’ve seen several occasions where an artist will donate their half of the earnings to support the space. 

Jess: Exactly. Proceeds from the auction goes 50/50 to the artist and to Rumble House, but sometimes artists will donate their half to the space to help keep us going, while at other times we give the entire auction amount to an artist who might be struggling. As long as people keep coming out and bidding on art, we’ll keep rumbling!

Q: Like the rest of the world, you and Rumble House have been impacted by COVID-19 and the need to social distance. When the lockdowns began in March, you very quickly switched to livestreaming the weekly rumble. What kind of impact has COVID-19and the lockdowns had on you and Rumble House? And on artists in the community?

Rich: We didn’t so much begin livestreaming to reinvent ourselves, but because we didn’t know what else to do on a Wednesday night — the fact people tuned in was a monumental surprise. Many of the artists who took part in the past have continued to drop off work they produce at home, and there are a number of new artists who, for whatever reason, were unable to attend Wednesday nights but who can join in now.

Jess: While we haven’t missed a week, the format has shifted due to COVID. For the past 17 Wednesday’s we’ve livestreamed the art-making from 7 to 9 — Rich paints and I show works that have been dropped off — followed by the auction at 9 p.m., where people can text in to bid on pieces. During COVID, we’ve met many more artists and art buyers who weren’t able to take part before we started livestreaming — people are joining in from B.C., across Alberta, Ontario, Manitoba and more. 

Q: Can you share one of your fondest memories from a rumble the past eight years? 

Jess: There are about 150 videos on our YouTube channel that have caught countless beautiful moments. There have been innumerable heartwarming and humanity-reaffirming moments, but my favourite was when Rich and I got married on the Rumble House roof in August 2019. So many people came from different parts of our lives. To see that, and how many lives we’ve woven ourselves through — and how many stories we’re part of — was overwhelming. We give everything we can to this place, and people and moments like those — that’s what keeps us going. 

Q: What’s the plan for a socially distanced eighth anniversary this Wednesday?

Jess: Every year on the anniversary we’ve done something fun! We’d always have cake and special guests. Since we can’t share food this year there won’t be a cake; and though the number of people who can safely be in the space is limited, we’ll still have a few guest appearances — our friend, Terri Stevens, usually shows up to help with the auction. We strongly urge people joining us on the livestream to dress up and eat cake in their own homes, because this is still going to be a fun night we want to share with friends and family.

Q: Where do you hope to see Rumble House go in the future?

Rich: We put 150 pieces of art into space with the Canadian Space Agency; we’ve published a few books; I made a TEDx Calgary talk; we filmed a feature-length Christmas movie and showed it at the Plaza Theatre. Back in March, when the closures began, we thought there was no way we could keep the space going through COVID and made peace with expecting to lose the gallery by June. In 373 Wednesday’s, we’ve never known what we’re doing next week, or whether it will be our last month. This time, right now, is the most certain we’ve ever been that we’ll make it to the end of summer. What’s our future? That’s in the hands of people like you.

You can catch the weekly rumble and art auction every Wednesday evening beginning at 7 p.m. live on Facebook and YouTube. It’s a great opportunity to support artists directly, as well as a grassroots initiative that has worked tirelessly for the past eight years to help create a space for the local arts community to come together and thrive. Plus, you could add some amazing, original art to your own collection. Don’t miss the eighth anniversary rumble this Wednesday, July 15 at 7 p.m. For more information, visit the Rumble House Facebook page.

(Rumble House photo courtesy Rich Théroux.)

Shannon McClennan-Taylor is a writer, publicist, and arts/culture junkie with a bachelor’s in English Lit and a master’s in International Journalism. When not at the theatre, cinema or record store, she’s probably knitting. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.