STORIES OF STARTING EPISODE 10: Nedia El Khouri, Artist, Gallerist

STORIES OF STARTING EPISODE 10: Nedia El Khouri, Artist, Gallerist

Stories of Starting Episode 10: Nedia El Khouri, Artist, Gallerist. Montreal owner and operator of the Viva Vida Art Gallery and Art Centre talks about building community through Art, pursuing her Masters degree while operating the gallery full-time and developing symbiotic relationships with her artists.

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Watch the video interview here:

Heather: Today we’re with my friend Nedia El Khouri and we’re at her beautiful gallery. Nedia could you please introduce yourself and tell everybody what you do?

Nedia: Welcome, my name is Nedia El Khouri. I live in Montreal. That’s where I currently have my gallery in the West Island of Montreal. We’re celebrating 10 years and counting. 

Heather: I’m going to backtrack to tell people how we met. We met many moons ago when our daughters were going into grade one at Christmas Park School. Now they’re in their 20s and doing their thing. We connected right away and of course we had the Art in common. We used to do little Art nights. The moms would have Art nights and the kids would play or go to sleep. Then fast forward a few years I remember you invited all the girlfriends over to introduce them to your new space and your new business. We had no clue this was cooking. Nedia sat us down and said, look I’m opening an art gallery and we were like, WOW, that’s pretty awesome.

Nedia; As I’m one to do!

Heather: Exactly. So tell us a little bit about what inspired the gallery and and how it all started.

Nedia: Well, I think that for me I moved around a lot. I was born in Brazil. We moved when I was young. When I was 10 years old we moved from from Brazil to Halifax, Nova Scotia and landed here in November. I think that set the tone. I have a very adventurous spirit. I’m not afraid to jump in. I think there’s a lot to be said for doing that because I think fear can hold us back. I do have a background that probably helped me to open a gallery or decide to do it.

When I landed in Montreal about 15 years ago I had came with the idea of opening a gallery and an Art Centre. I had gone back to Brazil. My kids were born there. And when I was there, I opened a small business. It was a language art centre. So Art is always been involved in what I do. After five years of being in Brazil, we made a decision to move back. We landed here after a few moves like New Brunswick and Port Neuf, Quebec, which is a small French village. When I landed in Montreal I really wanted to open an Art centre in an Art gallery. I looked around and at that time there were quite a few Art centres and community centres. Mostly municipal galleries that were around the West Island. I held off a little bit because I thought everyone is doing already what I want to be doing. I waited for a few years when our kids went into high school about five years after I’d moved to Montreal. I thought you know what, I’m going to regret it if I don’t do it. I thought I’m going to do it. I was doing a lot of contract work at the time and I just stopped. January of the new year I decided I’m going to look for a commercial space. I’m going to jump in and start to fulfill that dream that I had of having an Art gallery and Art centre.

Heather: That’s amazing. And of course you have a background in Fine Art and you were teaching for many years as well. So this combines the love of Art and the love of teaching. I’d love to talk a little bit about your studies and in Fine Art because you studied filmmaking, photography and dance when you were in school.

Nedia: I did a little bit of everything in my bachelor’s in Halifax. I attended a NSCAD University, I think actually the gallery has a lot of that influence that I got at NSCAD. When I was there I did a BFA. I actually started in graphic design. I started with a foundation in Fine Art with the intention of getting a graphic design and visual communication degree. When I got into the first semester of graphic design it was too much “in the box” for me. Then I switched back to Fine Art. I did quite a few different mediums. I did a bit of jewelry. I did some pottery. In studio my concentration was in film and photography and mixed-media installation and performance. So all that really lends itself to what I’m doing here because every time I mount an exhibition or even at the educational programs there’s always a story that were telling. So I think that background at NSCAD and what I was involved in doing there certainly guides me and what I do here.

Heather: Yes because there’s so many projects. One of my favourite courses that you offer at the at the gallery is the creative sampler class. I actually teach a module in how to do watercolour and wire. It’s really special. I remember thinking when you started offering that class that I hadn’t really seen classes like that offered before. People can get a taste of so many different kinds of media and go into it with not necessarily any experience. But they leave with such an abundance of knowledge with these different techniques which is really great. I love that.

Nedia: I think one of the things that’s really important for an entrepreneur in anything that you’re doing is to be tuned into your clients and what they’re looking for. A lot of what I do in terms of what I teach and how these workshops come up, come from the inspiration of what’s around me. People ask me what are the different mediums? What would I like? I’m a beginner at everything! There’s such a need to instil confidence through creativity in people and to educate. One of our biggest mandates is about the importance of Art in our lives. These programs that get created and the different themes for the Art camps come from that.

Heather: The camps are fantastic. My daughter participated when she was younger in a lot of them like the photography camp and the graffiti camp. I remember you had a comic camp.

Nedia: Yes, the cartoon camp. There were so many different ones.

Heather: I remember that one was so fun and I came in to teach that one. It was really fun because I had started writing the comics and it was really great to get the kids involved with doing a group comic. That’s underlying thing that you do a lot at the gallery are these group communal projects. I love when you do birthday parties for adults and kids one of the mainstays you do in your parties is to have a communal canvas. So everybody comes and contributes to the canvas.

Nedia: Yes, I think it’s great. For me as an artist I don’t have a lot of time unfortunately now between the gallery and the educational programs to do a lot of my own art. Although I’m really leaning towards going back at that as we grow. As we’re able to delegate more to different people and afford employees it frees up a little bit of time to go back to the Art. But a lot of what I’ve always liked to do is to crowdsource for installation pieces. When you put something out and then you get people that have an opinion or participate in or contribute to it. I love what happens, the dynamics of that type of Art piece where it’s really a communal effort. Then everyone walks away from it a little bit changed.

Heather: Absolutely and I love the piece you have currently out front. It’s the yarn bombing. I guess that was part of culture days or one of those events.

Nedia: That started in our art camp with a yarn bombing on the tree outside, all really colourful. It petered into the weekend and to our Pointe Claire Village Days. We got people to participate. and help us to colour the tree in yarn.

Heather: I love it. It’s so beautiful. It’s true the graffiti camp was and continues to be one of your most popular camps. You guys would go over to the park with your spray cans and have these big panels that you would spray. The kids loved it. They thrived on it.

Nedia: They do and we always teach them the difference between vandalism and graffiti Art.

Heather: Good point.

Nedia: I think it’s important for kids and adults to understand all types of Art. Not just classical artists we know from the art historical perspective, but all different types of Art forms, including Street Art, Graffiti Art and Installation work. Also Advocacy Art and how a lot of artists are using Art to advocate for all sorts of issues. Not just political issues but environmental issues and social issues like our mental health show.

Heather: Tell us a little bit about the mental health show. That’s a beautiful show.

Nedia: So the mental health show started with a collaboration between a good friend of mine who I used to work with at a high school. She was a community animator there. She approached me. She said, I’ve always wanted to do something about mental health. Would you be interested in it? I replied, definitely. Not only is it up my alley but it’s also dear to my heart. I think it’s something that we need to talk about. What we do is collaborate with a variety of different artists, high schools and Mental Health Centres from the community. Many artists participate to create an exhibition where we really try to advocate for mental health and the destigmatize and get people talking about it. We raise funds that go to one of the mental health centres that participates in the exhibition. This year was our eighth year, which is amazing. It’s an annual event and it’s growing. Every year we have more participants and it’s really interesting to see how the show changes from year to year.

Heather: It’s a beautiful show. 

Heather: You went back to school to get your Master’s degree. How did you manage that while running a gallery full time?

Nedia: I’d always wanted to do that but after Art school we moved and I had kids, etc. I wanted to do my Masters. Even before I opened the gallery I went to an advisor at Concordia to discuss the possibility. Then I opened the gallery and it got put in the back burner. Then I decided I really want to do it. I want to do this for me and to validate what we’re doing here. So I went online and I researched for programs that were mostly offered online. Physically, there was no way I could attend and run the the gallery as well. I found a couple of programs that were recognized. Really well recognized programs where you did the program that was being offered at the university and also required that we participate in some studio programs. It was a program that was given to practicing artists and teachers and community advocates like us for example. There was it was a gruelling process to try and get in. I had to submit a portfolio, get references and I got into the program. Most of it was an intense program. I did two courses online, conference calls and and platforms where you could exchange ideas and you were required to do it. It was through Boston University’s Fine Art college. Then I did a summer stint in Boston in a studio. So I kind of went back to my art college days and did print making and book arts.

Heather: I remember you doing that. It must have felt so good to immerse yourself in that.

Nedia: It was so funny because they had these quirky awards that they gave out at the end. I ended up getting the biggest lab rat award because guess who was in the studio 24/7? They would ask, who turned off the lights and shut the studio down? And I was like “I did”. I just loved it because I don’t get that opportunity as often as I used to now with it with the business.

Heather: Like you said, to work on your own Art. All of what you do here is super creative, but to be able to actually spend a chunk of time and work on your own pieces. It’s a totally different dynamic.

Nedia: I really loved it and I miss it. I think the mandate for me personally is to actually get back into finding time and carving out time to be able to do that. It’s really difficult to do it out of here. I think for anybody who has a business it’s a balance. I get interrupted a lot here. Sometimes there will be a workshop that I’m interested in taking here, but I get interrupted so much. I think the best case scenario for me is to actually go elsewhere to be able to delve back into my own personal Art.

Heather: I’m the same way because I do work at home. But yet I really cherish when I do go out to a workshop or to life drawing classes. Just to get out and do it in a different context. It’s always more interesting.

Nedia: You’re very disciplined in that as well Heather which is really important. It’s very difficult to run a business or do anything, even work out of your own Art studio in your home. I pretty much live here. I’m here 24/7. It’s kind of the same idea. It’s very difficult to carve out alone time to catch up on things that you need to do artistically.

Heather: Certainly now you’re you’ve found reliable people that can take over if you have to go away for a weekend or what have you. I remember at the beginning you couldn’t get away at all. But at least now you’re able to do that, which is great.

Nedia: Yes, at the beginning it was so difficult. For galleries especially sometimes there’s not an understanding about what it takes to run a gallery and what we’re about in terms of promotion of the artist and things like that. It’s really a 24/7. Professional gallery associations don’t recognize a gallery until it’s 10 years old. For Brick-and-mortar you have to be in business for 10 years because so many of them end up failing because t’s not an easy sell.

Heather: I think it’s important to realize the importance of a gallery in the evolution of the artist as well. I know it’s true with some of your other artists, but for sure from my own experience. When you opened the gallery I was making wire jewelry. You commissioned me to do some works that would fit in with your vision of the gallery. I remember at first (the gallery has expanded a lot since then) you were only selling handmade items, so only selling handmade cards. You asked me to make some mixed media cards that you could sell and I was a little stumped at the beginning. Then I started experimenting. I asked myself, what do with this wire to create a card? So then I started doing watercolour backgrounds and the wire in the foreground and did mixed media pieces and greeting cards. And that was in the first collection in the gallery when it opened. I was doing that and then over the years, thanks to your feedback and thanks to feedback of your clients, I’ve been able to evolve my work into something that was gallery-worthy. I think some people don’t realize that it’s not always the artist that comes with all this great work and suddenly the artist the gallery represents them.

You’re constantly giving feedback to your artists about what would be good and I know your artists are very receptive to your ideas. Tell me a little bit about your collaborations with the artists and how their work might have evolved.

Nedia; We have artists that have been with us for 10 years from the beginning like you. I think it’s always a partnership of sorts because I come from an artist background. For me, it’s very difficult and I don’t like to and I don’t tell an artist, this is what you have to do. Because saying that to an artist is very stifling. It’s not something that instils creativity artist to be able to create. I always like to leave it open-ended. For the artists, they are still creating what they love to do and it’s coming from whatever place they come from to create. But at the same time, I think a lot of artists we go through spells of artist block. It’s like writer’s block where you’re not sure where to go or what you need to do. I think it’s that feedback you give to an artist, or that exchange back and forth. I might say, let’s have a look at what you did in the past and if it’s not comfortable, why isn’t that comfortable. Those kind of exchanges really help an artist to improve.

Heather: Yes, it’s a real conversation. That’s what I love about it. You’re not saying you have to do this, but yet you’re seeing things from a different perspective and a different eye. It’s always helpful to get that feedback.

Nedia: One of the things that I find happens a lot as gallery owner, one of the things we give artists is we push them to go beyond. Certainly with the relationship I have with my artists I would say, I can see this work as bigger. Why don’t we go bigger? And then they go bigger. Especially as artists, a lot of the time we place limitations on ourselves. We’re afraid. It’s that whole thing about jumping in. You set these barriers and are afraid to go beyond because you’re comfortable where you are. I think those kinds of exchanges that you have with creative people help you to go past those limitations or those fears.

Heather: That’s it.

Nedia: I think it’s important and both ways. The exchanges I have with my artists or the exchanges that I have with my clients. There’s so much that I gain from that. If it was just a brick and mortar and there was no life in it, I think I would have been done a long time ago. One of the reasons why I called the gallery Viva Vida which is Portuguese for celebrate life or live life is because I really believe that Art is integral to our lives. For me it’s an important mandate as a gallery and as an artist to be able to inform people and teach people and educate people about how important Art is.

Heather: Absolutely. Tell us a little bit about your community involvement. I know that’s something that’s always been super important to you is giving back to the community and involving the community, even in schools. Tell us a little bit about that.

Nedia: I’ve always been a community-oriented. I think it’s because I was born in a really small town where everybody knows everybody. You’re waving to everyone as you walk by. I love being part of a community. It’s been such an important part of my upbringing and my life. I can’t say it only comes with good because there are all sorts of issues that come with being part of a community, compromise and all that other stuff. But because I love being part of a community and have always been involved in whatever I do through work or not, my personal life as well and when my kids were in school, I really felt our gallery needed to be a community-oriented gallery.

Heather: Yes.

Nedia: We do a lot with community. When I went back to do my Master’s I really felt that it validated what we’re doing here. The trend now is to go towards community. Art is changing and it’s very accessible now to anybody who has a computer. You can learn about Art and research it. So that gallery where you’re afraid to walk into it, is not as relevant now in today’s Art world as it used to be. You look at Musée des Beaux Arts and they’re doing all sorts of programs where it’s involving the public and bringing community in. For me it’s really important and we do a lot with community. Every project that I take on I always think beyond it to community not just local but the national and international community. With the virtual world it’s a small world.

Heather: It’s true. You do have your online presence now with the Ve-shop where people can browse the products and buy anywhere in the world. That’s the thing. I love about this gallery is is you’ve got incredible contemporary Art of many different styles, yet the gallery is very accessible. We’re in a nice village, the Pointe Claire Village. There’s a lot of walk-by traffic. People can wander in and they’re always welcomed in. You don’t get that feeling that it’s a stuffy gallery. You’ve got the boutique at the front and then the larger pieces at the back. It’s really great.

Nedia: That’s it. For me it’s really important. Art for me is really about communication. I think when people are afraid to walk into a gallery or to ask a question then we’re not doing our job. I think it’s really important to make it accessible. I think when you make it accessible the importance of it in our lives is a result of that knowledge or education that comes with it.

Heather: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us either about the gallery, about your experiences? Anything goes.

Nedia: Essentially in any kind of entrepreneurial endeavour whether it be Art related or not, it has to be a labor of love. There has to be passion in it. Also you have to be able to compromise on a lot of your ideas. Not selling your soul because I think that if you compromise too much and if you do sell your soul you end up being very unhappy and it doesn’t succeed. But I think having an understanding that not everything is going to be exactly as you plan it and keep an understanding also that it’s blood, sweat and tears. To be able to make any kind of business succeed it’s not an easy endeavour. You do have to be prepared to give a lot. If you don’t have that stamina or dedication or that love for what you do, I think it’s hard. It’s very difficult to make it succeed.

Heather: Tell everybody where they can find you online at off.

Nedia: Our brick and mortar Art Gallery is located in the Pointe Claire Village, which is in the West Island of Montrea. It’s a beautiful little village. It’s an oasis away from city. Not really the city because it’s very urban as well. We’re near the water so it’s a nice little quaint village.

Heather: And it’s not far. People say, oh the West Island is so far. You hop on the 211 bus at Lionel Groulx metro and you’re here in no time. It’s a it’s a worth the trip.

Nedia: We’ve had a website since I started. I think it’s really important for a business to have. The website is VivaVidaArtGallery.com We have our Ve-shop which is our online boutique where you can purchase and see our artwork as well as one-of-a-kind pieces like jewelry. and that’s VeShop.com

Heather: Perfect. You’re also on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter Tell us a little bit about the services you offer. I know you do framing, you have courses, you have kids birthday parties. Tell us a bit about your services.

Nedia: We are a gallery that exhibits on an ongoing basis. We try I try to get six solo exhibitions a year and group exhibitions as well. We are also an Art Centre where we offer a variety of different workshops and courses. We have a great art camp program. We do everything that’s in Art. So we have Art birthday parties. It’s really important to keep it moving and keep things happening. I think one thing feeds the other. The more you’re exposing people to Art the more people appreciate it and adopt it in their lives. I think that’s very important. We have our framing as well. We do it really well. We design well I always say. We’re selling artwork so the framing is part and parcel of that as well. I think for a lot of people that appreciate Art they also appreciate the custom aspects of framing.

Heather: And of course you have your ongoing Art classes for adults and kids and workshops. Last weekend I did a workshop doing Chinese brush painting. I’ve taken so many of the workshops here and I give workshops as well. And those are really well received. I love to incorporate new ideas and new educational workshops that come up. In Art that we tend to try and offer that. We’re constantly changing and mixing it up and and offering cultural experiences as well.

Heather: Thanks so much for coming on the show. <hug> That was awesome.

Nedia: Thank you for asking me. I really appreciate it.

Heather: And we’ll see everybody the next time on the podcast. Thank you.

Outro: Thanks so much for tuning into stories of starting until next time always remember your story matters.

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