The impact of a fire that tore through a warehouse Monday will be felt throughout Winnipeg’s entire visual arts community, according to one of the artists who worked in the space.

Firefighters responded to the fire at a warehouse at 274 Jarvis Avenue very early Monday morning and are expected to remain at the scene for some time to tear down the wreckage and monitor hot spots.

Performance artist Shawna Dempsey said she and her collaborator Lorri Millan were among 27 artists who as a group were the building’s primary tenants.

“It felt safe, because there was so many of us,” she said, explaining the large studio space on the second floor was affordable and served by a freight elevator.

“And it was with other artists,” she said. “So there was community support, we could borrow tools, it was social.”

Dempsey said when she first heard of the fire, her thoughts turned to what she and Millan had left inside.

“All the costumes that we lost, 30 years of costumes, and that’s work I’ll never be able to perform again, because those costumes don’t exist,” she said.

'Big Wig' performance costume supplied by Shawna D

'Big Wig' performance costume supplied by Shawna Dempsey, taken in the Dempsey and Millan studio space at 274 Jarvis Ave.

Dempsey said artists who used the studio space worked in different mediums. She said some sculpted, worked with wood, or painted.

“I can only imagine how devastating it is for them, to have everything they’ve made, some of them over 20 years, 30 years, 50 years, just to have it gone,” she said.

She said she and Millan were creating new work that’s been lost in the fire, along with materials from performances they’ve only staged a handful of times.

“We won’t be able to tour now,” she said. “So that impacts our income.”

Other costumes lost in the fire had been used for many years.

“Some of our work we’ve embodied over time,” she explained. “So, a piece like Lesbian National Parks and Services, where we are the lesbian rangers. – well, we ranged for about ten years actively, maybe 15.

“And those characters are very much a part of us.”

The larger impact

Dempsey said in addition to artists, the building was also had musicians and a couple of businesses as tenants.

According to an online fundraiser, several bands and musicians lost tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment, not all of which will be covered by insurance. The fundraiser aims to raise $75,000 it says will be divvied up among the musicians who lost gear.

One of those musicians is Joshua Bedry, who said he’s in shock over the loss. He found out about the fire overnight and stopped by early Monday morning to see the damage for himself.

“We had an astronomical amount of equipment. We had merchandise. We had all of our t-shirts and CDs, and guitars, PA system, recording equipment.”

He said about 15 musicians would rehearse, hang out, and store equipment in the space.

“Everyone is tense. We’re a bit numb,” said Bedry. “We’re not sure what to do really.”

Jarvis Avenue warehouse before fire

274 Jarvis Ave. before the fire. Google maps image.

Bedry said a number of musicians in the community have come forward, offering to let them borrow space and equipment until they can get back on their feet. He said a benefit concert is also in the works to help support the musicians.

Dempsey couldn’t say how large the studio space rented by the artists she belongs to was, but estimates the share she and Millan used was around 800 sq. feet alone.

“Studio space is essential to artists for our work,” she said, describing the space as a community resource.

“The space we developed, the walls. Now there’s 27 artists, who if they have the fortitude to continue after this, will have to find new spaces.”

Dempsey said a loss this large will be felt throughout the city’s visual arts community.

“There’s not a lot of studio space in Winnipeg, and now there’s significantly less,” she said.

Entrepreneur’s vision goes up in flames

On the third floor, Tara Everett was in the process of opening Canoe Coworking, an Indigenous co-working space – a concept she’s been working on for two years. Everett said she had just gotten her keys two weeks ago.

“You don’t really find 20,000 sq. feet of open space ready to go in less than three months, so we’re definitely set back in finding a home.”

Everett said not only is this a huge loss for those now scrambling to find a new space, but it’s also a major loss for the North End.

“It was, I feel, a beacon of hope for a lot of people. There was going to be a lot of renovations. There was going to be that economic impact,” said Everett. “We can’t put numbers on the social and the economic impact.”