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Over the Counter Culture explores impact of drugs on society

Gordon Smith Gallery hosts Phantoms in the Front Yard
605 Collective
The 605 Collective will perform at the Gordon Smith Gallery’s Scene & Unseen Arts Encounter on Saturday, Oct. 3 as part of the opening for Phantoms in the Front Yard: Over the Counter Culture.

Scene & Unseen Arts Encounter, Saturday, Oct. 3 and Phantoms in the Front Yard: Over the Counter Culture runs Oct. 3 to Dec. 18 at The Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art.

While most conversations about drugs with youth often occur in a clinical setting - a classroom or a doctor's office - a North Vancouver art gallery is taking a more avant-garde approach.

Students will be exposed, through art, to the whole spectrum of drug use and its impact on society. Over the Counter Culture, an exhibit opening Saturday at The Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art, aims to drive these drug discussions among youth. Bronze sculptures, multimedia, oil and acrylic on canvas, drawings and prints depicting each artist's interpretation of drug culture will be on display. The featured artists belong to Vancouver-based figurative collective Phantoms in the Front Yard which came up with the drug exploration theme.

The artists' collective explores and interprets the reality that drugs - whether legal, illegal, pharmaceutical, naturopathic, synthetic or cultivated - "have an ever more varied presence on our media, conversations, and society in general."

"From their use and misuse to their purpose, promise and prominence, they are tied to still wider spectrum of societal issues," reads the artists' statement.

Over the Counter Culture makes reference to propaganda posters, contemporary advertising, fictional and technical literature, and historical print and painting styles, "to explore the evolving complexities circling the perceptions and uses of drugs in cultures past and present."

This latest installation and its overarching theme is a good fit for a gallery that focuses on student engagement, and a safe space for teachers and students to open up a dialogue to have those "difficult" conversations about drugs, says Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art executive director Astrid Heyerdahl. Featured artist Michael Abraham has sculpted a head that spins on top and shows different facial expressions and mental states, as his interpretation of the drug culture theme.

Another artist, Jeremiah Birnbaum, a police officer, brings a different perspective about the impact of drugs on society, through his expressive charcoal drawings.

Abraham, in fact, was the artist that came up with the Over the Counter Culture theme.

"He feels as though it's really relevant right now in our community," says Heyerdahl. "We have heard, unfortunately, about a lot of fentanyl overdoses. He wanted to address in a different way than the medical community." Coinciding with the launch of Over the Counter Culture is a special interactive evening of myriad art mediums from ballet to poetry to opera enlivening all five floors of the Gordon Smith Gallery, described by Heyerdahl as "the absolute biggest thing we have done to date."

The inspiration for the Scene Unseen Arts Encounter started with the cut-out style architecture of the building, explains Heyerdahl, who envisioned ballerinas and other dancers twirling on every floor.

"It's about transforming this entire building -five floors into this arts encounter," says Heyerdahl, who promises there are some surprises in store, perhaps in the gallery elevator.

The arts interaction for the public, from origami making to singing workshops, is about taking art to the next level, says Heyerdahl.

Scene & Unseen features live performances and art by 605 Collective, Rup Sidhu, Woodwards Community Singers, Coastal City Ballet, Aeriosa Dance Society and Michael Fraser.

The evening will also mark opera singer Emily Davidson's return to the 'stage.' The 25-year-old, who last sang opera when she was in high school, has been concentrating on her career as a special education aid and custodian with the North Vancouver school district.

Fate is affording Davidson the opportunity to sing her heart out on Saturday. The school board office where Davidson works is in the same building that houses the Gordon Smith Gallery -that's how she connected with Heyerdahl.

"I mentioned one day that I sing and then brought it up to her and she asked if I wouldn't mind singing at this event," explains Davidson.

While nervous, Davidson said she is excited for the evening during which she will sing three "passionate" songs a cappella: Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt's "The Highwayman"; "Habanera," one of the most famous arias from Georges Bizet's 1875 opera Carmen, and "Don't Cry for Me Argentina."