That old guy you see often see biking around downtown Nakusp in the summer? He just happens to be an internationally recognized artist who helped start an art phenomenon that’s lasted 20 years.
“I think hardly anybody knows I’m here,” says Don Mabie. “My wife is much more well-known around town than me.”
He may be virtually anonymous in Nakusp, but Mabie’s artistic resume is as long as your arm. From the early ‘70s to today, the artist has participated in solo and group shows in Canada and Europe, been written up in international arts magazines, been profiled on radio and television, conducted lectures and taught in universities and art colleges, and taken part in performance art works for the Olympics and other international events. His art can be found in galleries like the Glenbow Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Mabie’s work can be described as illustrative: art based on hand-created text, combining fragments of images, collage, and abstract elements. His work is reminiscent of the psychedelic rock posters or underground cartoons of the late 1960s. And those works have been purchased by collectors around the world, including the City of Calgary, who bought a piece commemorating a Stanley Cup win by the Calgary Flames.
But the 70-year-old Mabie takes the most pride in an art project that hasn’t made him a nickel.
While still an emerging artist, fed up with the way the art world was developing, he began looking for a way to share his art in a non-commercial way.
“Since I was a kid, art has shifted so much to being a commodity,” he says. “It is really unbelievable. It was bothering me even in 1972, and I just liked the idea that you could mail anything to shows.”
Thus began the “correspondence mail-art network,” and soon thousands of artists were mailing art samples, ephemera and bric-a-brac to each other, and showing them to the public all without exchanging a dime.
“You could be in 40 or 50 exhibitions around the world if you wanted to be,” he says. “Your work might be buried in a huge space with hundreds of other artists, but I kind of liked that too.”
Mabie, working under the name Chuck Stake, “sort of made a philosophical decision that most of what I made would be made to be traded or given away.”
Soon he began corresponding monthly with hundreds of artists from around the world.
That concept of artists freely exchanging their art came to its peak in 1997, with the creation of ‘Artist Trading Cards.’
It was a Swiss artist who first came up with the concept of the art cards. M. vänçi stirnemann saw hockey fans trading and collecting cards during his visit to the Calgary Olympics in 1988. Fascinated, stirnemann eventually got around to creating his own set of hockey-card sized works for trade and display in a Zurich coffee shop in May 1997. People, he reported, were thrilled and delighted by the opportunity to make and trade cards created by artists. Mabie visited his friend’s show at the time and was inspired to hold his own exhibit and trading session of the cards. That show, in September 1997, launched the art phenomenon that was Artist Trading Cards. But Mabie — or Stake, if you prefer — notes it was his Swiss friend’s inspired concept that made it so popular.
“To my mind vänçi’s unique contribution was the idea that the cards be made to be traded, and, of equal importance, that the cards could be handmade, they did not have to be manufactured in any way,” he says in an artists’ statement. “It was these two simple, but brilliant, ideas that led to the concept of artist trading.”
The cards could be drawn, painted, stamped, or etched, or made of fabric, photos, wood or metal. As long as the participants stuck to the size format — the hockey-card sized 2.5 x 3.5 inches — and did not sell them, anything could go. Soon thousands of artists (and regular folk) were making, trading, and collecting cards all around the world. The collecting sessions, held every month, were the key to the project. (The most recent one in Nakusp was held Oct. 29.)
“The most important aspect of the ATC project is the person-to-person interaction and personal meetings which happen during the [trading sessions],” says Mabie. “It’s about the social situation which is created in the space during a Trading Session.”
Twenty years on, Mabie is still making and collecting cards — he has thousands now — and exchanges other artwork through his correspondence mail network. He says he’s slowed down quite a bit but doesn’t mind that much. Facebook, which he admits being a little addicted to, has changed the nature of art exchange but also made it a lot easier to do.
He’s currently working on a series of text drawing for a possible show that’s coming up, details of which aren’t quite ready for the public, he says.
It was his wife, Wendy Toogood, who fell in love with Nakusp, and bought some property. The couple retired and moved here in 2003.
“As a joke, I tell Wendy ‘I gave up my career to move here because I love you,’” he says.
As a life-long Calgarian deeply immersed in the art community and society there, Mabie admits he sometimes misses the buzz of the art world.
“Just because when you’re there, you bump into people. It’s ‘hey, would you like to be in an exhibit?’” he says. “So I’m out of that loop, so to speak. But because of the way mail-art works, I can still keep in touch with people that way.”
Besides, he says when you’re working in your studio six to eight hours a day, it really doesn’t matter where you are.
“Once you’re in the studio, you could be in New York City,” he says. “Now, when I open the door, I sure know I’m not in New York City. But I like it here, for sure.”
Admitting he’s a “bit of a hermit,” Mabie says he leans on his wife for making the social connections. Toogood volunteers at the thrift store and is active around town.
However, the small but steady artists community in Nakusp does keep him connected. There are transplanted art professors and former students who live in the area and artist friends come through town regularly, especially in summer. He reads a lot these days, rides his bike, goes out to dinner with friends, and participates in community life when he can. At the Art Party on Nov. 18, he’ll be displaying new works of his text-based art.
It’s a nice, quiet life for a well-established artist.
“A younger artist needs to be in a place where there’s lots of stimuli, where you can meet lots of other artists, and you can argue with other artists about what they are doing and what you are doing,” he says. “It really builds your vocabulary.”
“But it’s all changed so much,” he says of the urban art scene. “It’s slicker, more polished, it’s more about selling.
“Its become more so much “professional.” I’m proud to be a professional artist, but I look at it from a distance and I shudder.”