A Night at Calgary’s Rumble House

The non-profit art studio and gallery space in the Downtown West End has created a spirit of community through its weekly events that bring people together to create artworks and then put them up for auction.

Rumble House co-founders Rich and Jess Théroux (née Szabo) inside their non-profit art studio and gallery space. Photograph by Jared Sych.

On a warm Wednesday evening in August, for the 325th week over the previous several years, Rumble
House is full of people ready to make art.

More than 30 people have arrived for the night’s “art rumble” and auction, a weekly event at the non-profit art studio and gallery in Calgary’s Downtown West End. Rumble House co-founder Jess Szabo stands in the middle of the room beside the “wheel of doom” (a tongue-in-cheek nickname for a painted lazy Susan surrounded by books), while her partner and co-founder Rich Théroux livestreams the proceedings on his phone.

“I’m so glad everyone came. Welcome to the 325th time we’ve done this. Big round of applause for you for coming because we would not be here if you guys didn’t come,” Szabo says.

After going over the house rules and a few announcements, Szabo spins the wheel to choose three books to help spark the artists’ inspiration. She reads excerpts from How to See by David Salle, Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky and Lunatic’s Guide to Art by Morgan M. Paul.

With these themes in mind, the attendees disperse to different tables, rooms and even outside to create art, setting themselves up with pencils, paint, spray cans and other supplies. Some just sit and write, others chat and draw, all while the music of John Coltrane, The Doors and The Beach Boys plays in the background on a record player. Szabo works on a piece of embroidery, taking breaks to greet newcomers, regulars and passersby who wander in to see what’s going on.

Théroux is painting the New York skyline this evening with a Statue of Liberty that looks like Szabo. He hasn’t missed a Wednesday night art rumble since he and Szabo first launched the art studio and gallery in July, 2012. Back then, it was known as Gorilla House and was located a few blocks from where they are now. At the time, they didn’t imagine they’d still be doing this seven years later.

“I had no intention of going longer than three months,” Théroux says. “It was going to be an art gallery for two months and then [we’d] spend September kind of quietly clearing out.”

Six weeks of art rumbles later, they were hitting capacity most nights and media outlets were picking up on the events. So, they kept going. Théroux renewed the lease for another year, which turned into a year and a half. They planned on staying even longer but had to move out of the original space when the building was sold. A year later in December, 2014, Théroux and Szabo (who are both teachers) launched Rumble House as a non-profit in its current Downtown West End space. Rumble House still holds its weekly art rumbles and auctions every Wednesday night (although Théroux noted that sometimes during the holidays — like this month, when Christmas falls on a Wednesday — they just have a get-together and hang out, but don’t do the full auction).

Rumble House also hosts figure-drawing sessions (with a non-mandatory $10 fee) on Thursday nights, summer art classes for kids from the neighbouring daycare and group street clean-ups.

The art rumbles and auctions are still the heart of Rumble House, though. Every Wednesday night, people of all ages, artistic abilities and walks of life are welcomed in to create for two hours and then auction off the work at 9 p.m. Half the money goes to the artists, the other half goes toward Rumble House’s monthly rent.

“We wrote an Inclusionist Manifesto — it’s really important that all kinds of work are valued, so everyone is welcome to bring their own art,” Szabo says. “Some people bring pieces that are done at home and share how they work with us. Some people bring photographs. Some people bring jewellery that they’ve made.

“People that might never see pieces being made or be able to talk to the artist, they get that chance here.”

In the past, pieces have sold for anywhere between $5 and $1,400 at Rumble House. Splitting the profits supports both the artists and the space where they can create and/or sell work. Szabo and Théroux have never taken a profit, even putting all the money from their own auctioned artwork back into the building. If they don’t quite make rent one month, Théroux will paint and sell a studio piece on his own to make up the difference.

“Essentially, the amount we paid in rent in the last seven years is exactly how much we put into artists’ hands in the community. And that’s what makes this worthwhile,” Théroux says. “If I know the artists are taking home enough to keep this place open, then we really feel like we’re doing a good thing. Sometimes somebody goes home with enough to buy a coffee or bus fare. And sometimes somebody goes home with enough that they can buy a bus pass for the month.”

Inside Rumble House. Photograph by Alana Willerton.

Hundreds of artists have passed through Rumble House’s doors over the years. Along the way, a special community has formed. Friends greet each other by name, bring newcomers in to create and bid, and support each other’s art in whatever way they can. Talking to those in the room, it’s the friendly, non-judgmental environment and community of creative people that is the common thread of why they return week after week.

Local artist Matias Martinez has been coming to Rumble House for almost two years now and says it’s the people that keep him coming back. “I feel like this place forces me to create — not like a rough force, but like a lovely, gentle push,” Martinez says. “You’re surrounded by people who are creating, it’s just like you’re in the mindset 100 per cent.

“I consider [Rich] a mentor,” he adds. “I’ve had personal talks with him and he’s just really a sincere, humble person that wants to help.”

This August night is particularly special for Martinez: Rumble House is hosting his first solo art show in Calgary, displaying his work over almost an entire wall. “Rich hugged me because he saw me have a moment [when I saw it],” Martinez says. Throughout the night, Martinez works on a large Rumble House-inspired collage piece that he says is “a little thank you to Rumble,” which he’ll sell at the auction later, forfeiting his artist’s cut and donating back the full amount as a show of gratitude.

Regardless of what a piece goes for at the auction, Théroux and Szabo are clear that it’s the interaction between the artist and audience that is most important at Rumble House. “You need to build relationships with people, and then that relationship that’s built is where the sale comes from. The sale is secondary — the sale doesn’t matter — it’s the relationship you build with the people in the room, the conversations you have,” Szabo says. “[When] you see the look in that person’s eyes and you feel them feeling your work, that is worth so much more.”

Truly, it is an inspiring thing, seeing a piece of art transform in front of your eyes. By the time the auction comes around at 9 p.m., pieces that were blank canvases two hours before are now adorned with colourful abstract designs, playful pencil sketches, graffiti and more. The auction lasts around two hours. Four mini-paintings by a little boy go for a total of $38, while a painted ceramic heart finds a new home for $20. A large mural of Calgary’s skyline filled with aliens, pandas and people goes for $100, while Martinez’s Rumble House-inspired collage sells for $50. Théroux’s painting earns the highest bid of the night, going for $125. By the end of the night, more than 50 pieces of art have sold for more than $1,000.

The following week, the 326th art rumble and auction is set to take place as scheduled on another warm Wednesday evening. But this time, in a move that seems so perfectly them, Théroux and Szabo will get married on top of the Rumble House building — the same spot where Szabo proposed to Théroux two years earlier.

As Szabo and Théroux say their vows, a crowd of more than 100 family members, friends and Rumble House attendees watch from the ground, spilling off the sidewalk and into the street. At one point, the couple plays the song “Daydream Believer” by The Monkees, dancing on the roof while the crowd smiles and sways below.

After the ceremony, the art-making begins as guests enjoy slices of wedding cake. Théroux, not one to ever miss a week, paints in his three-piece suit, creating two paintings that come together to show him and Szabo (who has since taken the name Théroux) holding hands.

At one point in the night, a young girl walks past me. “This might be the best wedding I’ve ever been to!” she exclaims to her dad.

I have to agree.

The Rumble House co-founders at their rooftop wedding last summer. Photograph by Alana Willerton.



Learn more about the people and organizations moving Calgary forward with Avenue's Innovation Newsletter.

This article appears in the December 2019 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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