What began in 2012 as a summer project to host a handful of live art battles and auction locally produced works has now been going on for eight years at two different locations with more than 1,000 participating artists. Rumble House – formerly Gorilla House – is a nonprofit gallery at the top of downtown Calgary (1136 8 Ave. SW). For the past eight years, the artists and educators Rich Théroux and Jess Szabo have given artists from all walks of life the space to create and sell their works in a live art auction.
I’ve been to a number of Rumble House Wednesday night events over the years and even have several pieces of art on my walls from those visits. With the gallery’s eighth anniversary this week, July 15th, I spoke to Jess and Rich about the history of their weekly art battles, how they keep those events safe each week during the closings and physical distancing they brought with them keep away from COVID-19 and the upcoming celebration on the occasion of their anniversary.
Q: Congratulations on your eighth birthday! Tell me how did Rumble House – and its predecessor, Gorilla House – start?
Jess: It all started in June 2012. Rich asked his then 10-year-old son Oliver how he would like to spend his summer, and it was Oliver’s idea to have an art booth. He had been working on a collection of drawings that were meticulously expensive and ready for sale. Rich knew some fellow artist who might benefit from an exhibition space for their work, and Gorilla House officially opened on July 18, 2012. The Gorilla House was started with a group of eight artists participating in battles, and it was planned to host six art battles (now “rumbling”) over the summer before we both returned to teaching in September. But soon more and more people started showing up with supplies wanting to participate, and the universe just took over from there. In 2014 we moved rooms and Gorilla House became Rumble House, which it is today.
Q: What happens if there is a “rumble” to those who may not be familiar?
Jess: A typical rumble starts at 7 p.m. We spin a wheel to randomly select three topics or ideas that inspire (or sometimes ignore) the work. Artists work in the room until 9 p.m. and the public can watch the process of creating art. At 9 p.m. we will then hold a live auction.
Q: I’ve been part of the rumble at Gorilla House for some of the early battles and loved being there to watch the artistic process and then have the opportunity to take home a piece by a local artist. How has Rumble House changed over the past eight years and has grown with the community?
Rich: Adaptive. We’re open on Wednesdays for 373 and during that time more than 1,000 artists have signed up. From the outside, every rumble looks pretty much the same, but we’ve reinvented ourselves about 350 times and very little space to duplicate. We didn’t want to build a community, but a space in which the community can grow. It’s like being in the garden.
Rich Théroux painting at one of the first Gorilla House art battles in 2012
(Courtesy photo by Jess Szaabo)
Q: If I remember correctly, the artist and Rumble House split the proceeds of the auctioned items, and I’ve seen several occasions where an artist donates half the income to support the space.
Jess: I agree. The proceeds from the auction go 50/50 to the artist and Rumble House, but sometimes artists donate their half to the space to keep us going, while other times we give the entire auction amount to an artist who may be having problems Has. As long as people come out and bid on art, we’ll keep rumbling!
Q: Like the rest of the world, you and Rumble House are affected by COVID-19 and the need for social distancing. When the lockdowns started in March, they very quickly switched to livestreaming the weekly rumble. How did COVID-19 and the lockdowns affect you and Rumble House? And about artists in the community?
Rich: We didn’t start livestreaming so much as a way of reinventing ourselves, but because on a Wednesday night we didn’t know what else to do – the fact that people tuned in was a monumental surprise. Many of the artists who have participated in the past have continued to discontinue their home-produced work, and there are a number of new artists who, for some reason, were unable to participate Wednesday night but are now able to participate.
Jess: Although we didn’t miss a week, the format has changed due to COVID. For the past 17 Wednesdays, we’ve streamed the arts and crafts from 7 to 9 live streams – Rich Paintes and I showing works that have been turned in – followed by the 9pm auction where people can text messages to bid on pieces. During COVID, we met many more artists and art buyers who couldn’t attend before we started live streaming – people are from BC, Alberta, Ontario, Manitoba, and other countries.
Q: Can you share one of your fondest memories of a rumble over the past eight years?
Jess: There are around 150 videos on our YouTube channel that captured countless beautiful moments. There have been tons of heartwarming and humankind empowering moments, but my favorite was when Rich and I got married on the rooftop of Rumble House in August 2019. So many people came from different parts of our lives. To see that and how many lives we have woven together – and how many stories we tell – was overwhelming. We give this place everything we can and people and moments like this – that’s what keeps us going.
Q: What’s the plan for a socially distant eight year anniversary this Wednesday?
Jess: Every year for the anniversary we had some fun! We always had cakes and special guests. Since we cannot share food this year, there will be no cake. and although the number of people who can be safely in the room is limited, we will still have some guest appearances – our friend Terri Stevens usually shows up to help with the auction. We strongly urge the people who join us on the livestream to dress up and eat cake in their own home as this will still be a fun night to share with friends and family.
Q: Where do you want to see Rumble House in the future?
Rich: We put 150 works of art into space with the Canadian Space Agency. We have published some books. I had a TEDx Calgary call. We shot a full-length Christmas film and showed it at the Plaza Theater. Back in March, when closings began, we thought there was no way to keep the space going through COVID and made peace with the expectation of losing the gallery by June. On 373 Wednesdays, we never knew what we would do next week or if it would be our last month. This time it is the safest time that we will make it to the end of summer. What is our future It’s in the hands of people like you.
You can follow the weekly rumble and art auction every Wednesday evening from 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 eight years to create a space for the local art community to come together and flourish. Plus, you can add amazing, original artwork to your own collection. Don’t miss the eighth anniversary rumble this Wednesday, July 15th at 7pm. Please visit the Rumble House Facebook page for more information.
(Photo courtesy of Rumble House by Rich Théroux.)
Shannon McClennan-Taylor is a writer, publicist and art / culture junkie with a Bachelor in English Lit and a Master in International Journalism. When she’s not in the theater, movie theater, or record store, she’s probably knitting. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.