Art teacher Suzy Schwanke helps bring community and accessibility to art with her Free Little Art Gallery
In a quiet neighbourhood just off Victoria Ave and Hilliard Street sits a charming wooden structure resembling a Little Free Library. Upon closer inspection, the tiny wooden library is actually filled with miniature pieces of artwork from people all over the city. With artwork ranging from pieces done by neighbourhood kids to local professional artists, there is a piece that will speak to everyone. I luckily had the opportunity to speak with Suzy Schwanke, owner of Saskatoon’s first Free Little Art Gallery.
Schwanke is a high school art teacher at Aden Bowman Collegiate. She previously worked at the Mendel Art Gallery, a creative cultural centre that operated from 1964 up until 2015, where accessibility to art was the centre’s top priority. “The Mendel was open every day of the year. There was never any admission charge. There were never any parts of the gallery that were closed off,” Schwanke said. “They promoted local artists and K-12 school art. Every year, that [school art] was the biggest show we had.” Schwanke’s experience working with the gallery inspired her to start a project that maintained the accessibility mission of the Mendel. “I really believe that art shouldn’t be elitist, [I believe] that it should be accessible to everyone,” Schwanke said.
The idea of the Free Little Art Gallery (FLAG) was popularized by Seattle-based artist Stacy Milrany, who built her own in 2020. Schwanke built her own FLAG in spring of 2021 after reading about Milrany: “I thought that was the coolest thing. And I just thought, ‘Oh, I want to do that,’ and tried to find plans online, [but] I couldn’t find anything, so I designed one myself.” Visitors are encouraged to look at the art, take a piece, and if they can, make and leave art for others to enjoy.
Alongside the Free Little Art Gallery, Schwanke has a decorated “kindness” rock garden where she supplies small rocks for visitors to take back home and paint. Visitors may choose to keep the rocks or bring them back to the gallery where they can be displayed with dozens of others. Another feature at Schwanke’s FLAG is a community sketchbook that visitors can borrow, make art in, and then return for the next artist to use. Schwanke also provides sidewalk chalk for visitors to doodle or leave messages, which she takes photos of and uploads on the gallery’s Instagram (@freelittleartgalleryyxe).
When asked about the community’s response to the FLAG, Schwanke said that she only expected those in the neighbourhood to be interested, but discovered people “have come from other parts of the city,” some driving from across the city to visit. Schwanke attributed the success of the miniature art gallery to its Instagram, which regularly sees updates with photos of the gallery and any new artworks in the community sketchbook. In the future, Schwanke hopes to curate specific artists at the gallery, host gallery theme shows, and in the summer, set up art stations right outside the gallery with supplies provided for visitors to create art to keep or display.
Schwanke, being a strong believer in accessibility to art, hopes this gallery will — in “a very, very small way,” — bring art to the community, especially after the Mendel Art Gallery’s closure. She also hopes the gallery will “brighten someone’s day,” explaining that, “If someone’s walking by and sees a piece that brings them joy, I want them to take it home, and have that little piece … that’s inspired them, or brought a smile to their face.”
When asked why students should visit the gallery, Schwanke said that it’s an opportunity for students “to see different artworks, to see different inspirations, [and] to hopefully participate.” She talked about the concept of tiny, small-scale art and the short amount of time needed to create these artworks. Additionally, she sees participating in the free art movement as a way to build community among young people in the city. “Be[ing] a part of spreading art around just for the joy of spreading and sharing art … I think that’d be great if our students are into doing that.”
The Free Little Art Gallery is located just off of Victoria Ave and Hilliard Street. Schwanke strongly encourages students to come find a little piece of joy, create one of their own, and “send it out in the world and see what happens.”