She’s the executive, he’s the musician. Together, Christopher (Chris) Dahl and Jan Bell-Irving make more than just beautiful music, they produce fine ceramic art and glass works in their Qualicum Beach gallery set like a jewel in a Moroccan-inspired garden.
Transplanted with his family from Ontario at the age of 10, Chris loved the west coast from the get-go. Jan’s family, on both sides, arrived here back in the 1850s. Jan and Chris had long been commuting back and forth from Vancouver to Qualicum Beach. “We had this property for 23 years,” says Jan. Fifteen years ago she says, Chris said to Jan, “you’re a workaholic,” and suggested she explore what she might like to do in the next phase of her life. Turns out, Jan influenced Chris to make some changes in his life too.
A graduate of Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, Chris has had a career as a creative director and communications manager working with organizations ranging from the Canucks to UBC and magazines like Macleans and Vancouver Magazine. As a painter and printmaker, he has exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada and the Vancouver Art Gallery. A composer and musician, Chris has woven a lifelong passion for music into his art works.
Until retiring in 2017, Jan was the CEO of Junior Achievement BC. While with JABC, Jan says she was committed to strategically enhancing JABC’s impact in two fundamental ways. First goal, broadening JABC’s reach and relevance from its big city roots out to all corners of the province. Second goal, broadening its focus, programs and resources to nurture the next generation of small business owners and operators who are the backbone of BC’s economy, particularly in smaller communities like QB. Today, JABC is supporting 40,000 students annually across 95% of the province’s school districts. Mission accomplished.
Today, Jan and Chris own and operate Gallery 222 in Qualicum Beach, across from the towering trees and undulating fairways of the QB Memorial Golf Course.
Jan was fascinated by glass, and at one time had taken glass-blowing classes in Vancouver. “Chris is the painter,” she says. “I like [creating] more three dimensional [pieces].” At the time, Chris was primarily painting and creating prints. “She’s not interested in paintings, so we would go to all these galleries and I would end up following her around [to look at other art displays],” says Chris. “Ceramics were not on my radar. I always thought of ceramics as boring. Nice, but just brown and green things. Then I started to see more inventive stuff down south, in La Quinta, California, and I saw what ceramic art could be,” he says. “It’s a lot more fun.”
Jan’s joyful, engaging, vibrant glass works are reminiscent of designs produced by east coast artisans. “Chris is the artist,” says Jan modestly, but Chris demurs. “Jan is not formally trained, but she has a very distinctive style,” he says.
Unlike blown glass, the glass art works Jan makes are fired in a kiln. “Everything you see here is fused glass. You cut the piece(s) of flat glass, assemble the piece, put it in the kiln and the kiln melds it,” says Jan. Their studio has two computer programmed kilns, a small one and a big one which can fire both glass and ceramic pieces. “I had one complete disaster with the big kiln,” says Jan. “I mis-programmed it and lost 10 or 12 pieces. It was just heart-breaking.”
Chris explains that ceramic art works begin like ordinary pottery clay pieces which are fired to create stoneware, the starting point for creating ceramics. “When that’s done,” says Chris, “I paint the dish with underglazes. You don’t know what it’s going to look like until it’s fired. You have to just practice, have a lot of experience doing it. Then after you do all the underglazing, you do what I call a crackle glaze that goes on top of it, a clear epoxy glaze.” The ceramic pieces are fired at 2300 degrees Farenheit. “It’s like Christmas morning every time you open up the kiln to see what the final piece looks like,” says Chris.
Chris is something of a Renaissance man, being a musician as well. His inspirations run the gamut. “I get in love with something” like birds or musicians. I’ve sold a lot of birds [referring to his ceramic pieces]. Birds seem to be most popular thing with people, and musicians are the least popular,” he laughs, “but it’s the thing I have the most fun making.”
“That’s Tim Horton,” he says pointing to a print of one of his original paintings. I’m quite interested in archival imagery. I like old cars and I like old sports stuff. When I first started playing as a musician, that’s the kind of dances you would play at,” says Chris indicating a print of his painting of couples slow-dancing. “I really like mythology too, and mermaids. And I love the circus. Jan and I are big fans of the circus,” says Chris, “the old style [big-top] circuses.”
As we gaze at tiny ceramic figurines of an elephant and a woman embellished with intricate designs, Chris explains that these pieces require a deft hand. For figurines, he says, “everything has to be hollow, with pinpricks to let the air out, otherwise they’ll explode. So I’ve had many disasters where they explode, until you figure out how to do it. It’s a challenge making them so small.”
“Chris is the idea guy too,” says Jan. “I’m doing a Red Dress series in glass, but I give full credit to Chris for the idea. We started noticing these red dresses along the highway, and then we figured out what they meant. It began as an art project [by] an indigenous artist, in Manitoba I think, and [the series of red dresses] was her Master of Fine Arts show. Then it just caught on right across Canada. So Chris said, why don’t you do them in glass?” Jan says 20% of her Red Dress series sales goes to the Pacific Association of First Nations Women. “It’s such a great icon” she says looking at one of the red dresses. “You look at it and the whole message is right there. It’s the thing that seems to resonate with people more than anything I’ve ever made.”
“Some of the pieces we claim for ourselves,” says Chris. “We name everything too, because it’s fun. That’s Anemonita, [named] because she’s a sea creature,” he says gesturing to a work by Jan that they have installed in their garden. “The stand was built by an artisan in Paradise, California. [We got it from him] two weeks before that town burned down. Jan has given all of the red dress pieces names too,” says Chris. The series of red dresses in glass are all different styles, “some provocative,” says Jan. “But, dressing up, you want to look pretty. You should be able to wear a beautiful red dress and not be murdered.”
As stunning as their glass and ceramic works of art is the Moroccan-inspired garden where Gallery 222 is located. The heart of the garden is a long narrow water feature graced with tall blue pots of canna lillies. Jan thinks she probably has about 40 of these dramatic vibrant tropical plants. The garden also features a Desert King fig tree from which they harvested over 500 figs this year.
“We designed it and then had it built for us. It was a really plain back yard. Now, it’s an oasis back here,” says Jan.
This exquisite garden was inspired by botched vacation plans. Jan and Chris were originally headed to Istanbul when a bombing there convinced them to switch their plans to Portugal and Spain instead. A visit to the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, famous for its “rill” or water channel, was the inspiration. “That made more of an impression on me than anything else, ever,” says Jan, whose first love is gardening. “So we were there, I was taking pictures and sending them home to my friends and saying, ‘think what you could do with your back yard.’ Then I thought, maybe I should do it with my back yard!”
Fifteen hundred gallons of water cycle through the rill. “It was quite a thing for us to do this. It was a leap of faith. We had to demolish our back yard basically. A backhoe came in and just scraped the whole thing when we started,” says Chris. The couple wondered whether they’d made a mistake he says, but “now it’s done and we love it.”
The rill is surrounded by a tile mosaic that is adorned with glass and ceramic tile images of faces. “We decided we’d have a theme, and thought we’d focus on faces,” says Jan. Created by Jan and Chris, most of the tile images are portraits of friends or characters from the arts, literature or music. “Yours are more refined,” says Jan of Chris’ tile portraits. “The glass ones are brighter in colour but more abstract. Chris has done real paintings.”
The executive and the musician, captivated by colour.
Gallery 222 is located at 222 Crescent Road East, Qualicum Beach BC Tel 250.752.7355
NEW HOURS: Open by appointment and for special occasions, including:
Thursday, September 30, 2021: Open 10 am to 4 pm
On this occasion, to honour Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, 20% of all sales will go to the Pacific Association of First Nations Women.