“Every great dream begins with a dreamer.” So goes the quote attributed to Harriet Tubman, an African-American abolitionist in the American Civil War.
Cheryl Iwanowsky moved to Port Alberni in 2007 from Prince George as a banker with RBC Royal Bank—as far apart culturally as one can get from a woman who was born before the turn of the 20th century and died before the Great Depression; but like Tubman, a woman with a dream.
A year ago this month, Iwanowsky finally acted on hers; she retired from banking and threw her passion, enthusiasm and type A work ethic into her dream: Blue Fish Gallery.
Take one step into the Blue Fish Gallery and the senses are assaulted with tones, texture, talent.
Pottery from Corry Lunn, Mussels and More, and of course Iwanowsky’s own, including her popular Women and Water series of mugs. Fused glass jewelry from Damaris Oakley of Redroom Artglass in Nanaimo, blown glass from famed artist Ted Jolda, slump moulded, glass waterbomber platters from Jim Wilson, soap from Cathy Herbertson in Port Alberni and Salt Spring Soapworks, leather bags from B.C. to Ontario that she can barely keep on the shelves.
Clothing from Jo’Momma Designs of Powell River, and wood sculptures of banana slugs from David Parsanishi that are popular with visitors.
“The first year I really wanted to start off with a bang so I carry everything,” she said. Most of the work has been purchased wholesale, but Iwanowsky will accept consignment work too.
Many of the artists already knew Iwanowsky from numerous juried art shows she participated in with her own pottery.
Upstairs is filled with brightly coloured fair trade clothing, felted items, handicrafts and scarves of every description: silk, linen, viscose, screen printed, knitted and more. The pieces are an homage to Iwanowsky’s childhood spent in Southeast Asia.
Blue Fish carries a limited selection of Pot Luck Ceramics, for which Iwanowsky does not receive a profit (“It’s my way of helping,” she said).
Decorative nooks and crannies hold items such as handspun and dyed wool from Marg Jones of Port Alberni, eye-catching functional figurines made of flatware by Forked Up Art, a small business from Utah, and jewelry made from Cambodian shell casings.
In all, Blue Fish represents 48 artists—many more than Iwanowsky initially anticipated.
“It’s just been overwhelming, the support,” she said of both the arts community and the city of Port Alberni at large.
“I bought this little house and opened this gallery thinking I could have a little art gallery…just enjoy my life and do what I want to do.
“It took off like wildfire,” she said. “I had no idea.
“It’s really inspiring to walk in here and see all this beautiful handmade work,” added Iwanowsky, who can often be seen working on her own pottery in the back room of the gallery, which houses a small kiln as well as a work table, storage space and kitchen.
Blue Fish Gallery was nothing much to look at when the realtor brought Iwanowsky and her husband Andy, a cabinetmaker, by the house. Nondescript, gray, doing nothing to make a good impression on potential buyers, Iwanowsky didn’t even want to go inside. Andy persuaded her to take the chance. “It’s got good lines,” he said.
“When I walked in, I just knew right away,” Iwanowsky said, a grin lighting up her face. “This is the house. It’s going to change my life.”
She has never looked back. Iwanowsky and her husband built all the fixtures themselves, and the polished wood displays tastefully offsets the pottery, jewelry, glasswork and other pieces.
And although people regularly question her about why she would open on Second Avenue, off the main drag, Iwanowsky said it’s never been an issue. “We were looking for a place that was commercially zoned and near the [Harbour] Quay,” she said.
Blue Fish Gallery has become a destination for people coming to Port Alberni from places like Nanaimo and Qualicum Beach to shop and have lunch, she added.
The rest of the Tubman quote goes something like this: “Always remember you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
After a year of following her passion, Iwanowsky is just getting started.
Blue Fish Gallery is located at 2907 Second Ave. and is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:30–5:30 p.m. Phone 778-419-3474 or search bluefishgallery.info online.