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Building community through art and music: Meet Squamish's William Wallace

Vibrant visions and rhythmic tunes: Wallace aims to fuse art and music with friends at The Sound Mill Society. 

Squamish sculptor and musician William Wallace, 58, sits in the shade below the permanent bright fuchsia, orange and purple cargo containers stacked behind him at his home base on Third Avenue.

Friends, including a long-time former girlfriend from his youth, and a buddy visiting from Taipei, come in and out. 

While he says a few times that he struggled to make friends when he first moved to the district 13 years ago, that seems a distant memory now as he prepares to go up the Sea to Sky Gondola to see the Bluesberry Jam Showband. Singer, musician and artist Liesl Petersen is a good friend, he says, explaining why he has to leave the interview at a certain time to catch her in the Mountain Music event.

Wallace's 'home base,' The Sound Mill, as it is called, is a unique space that has to be seen to be understood. 

There are human-sized metal sculptures, bright paintings, various musical instruments and massive drums — and an autopsy table, which sits behind Wallace as he talks. 

The "table" is where audio equipment goes when he has gatherings, he explains. 

He got it at auction, like many of the massive metal bowls behind it that are waiting to be turned by his skilled hands into drums. 

Wallace designs and builds varied invented instruments.

Many likely saw him perform with the band he founded, SWARM, which he toured with for 15 years. 

More recently, he has joined forces with local creatives Stan Matwychuk, Caroline Miller and Brad Major to create the not-for profit The Sound Mill Society. Like everything he does, it is more complicated than this, but basically, he wants to have his space become a public art and music hub. 

Recently, the society has thrown open the doors to welcome the general public, such as during the Squamish Arts’ Art Walk studio tours at the end of July. 

The Squamish Chief sat down with Wallace for a wide-ranging chat about his life, his plans and what he has learned along the way. What follows is a version of that conversation edited for length and clarity.

With all the things you've done and all the places you have been, how did you end up here in Squamish? 

I had outgrown my studio in Vancouver. Basically, I just wanted to move out, and a property in Vancouver at the time was going to be like $800,000 to $1 million just to get a little building. And it was half the price back then to get that here. It was close; I could drive to Vancouver. And there's beautiful mountains, and there's this neat little artistic community. So I decided to go for it. But since then my building plans have been stalled waiting and then reapplying for a building permit with the municipality. Now, there's another new plan after 13 years. I'm trying nonstop to try and get this place happening. 

Let's go back a bit, if we could, to your childhood. What started first for you was it the music first or the art?

My mother was into art and she always took me around to a lot of art galleries and I just loved art. I am a little bit autistic and I've always related to art and stuff like that. I taught art at the Boys and Girls Club in this l crappy little room. We made arts and crafts, but it was like full-on art for me. I was saving up because I was maybe going to go to Europe, but I decided to go to art school instead. And then I just excelled in art school. 

After graduating from Fanshawe College and earning a bachelor of fine arts from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, I went on to get my master of fine arts from the Art Institute of Chicago.

I made tons of weird stuff and just experimented and tried all kinds of different mediums.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up mostly in Niagara Falls, Ontario. We lived in this little old farmhouse that was surrounded by subdivisions. It was a huge big lot and there were all kinds of barns and objects to play with and things to build — a huge big sandbox and a tree fort. All the kids from the neighbourhood would come by and we'd have these giant wars because my neighbour's father built him this three-storey fort structure. We’d have these battles between my tree fort and his tree fort.

That sounds like an amazing childhood! Usually, in these small-ish towns or rural areas, if you're very creative and artistic and you're not — especially in the late 70s and 80s when you were a kid — a jock, it could be tough to fit in. But you were OK in school? 

I'm not really into sports, but I'm really good at physical things, strangely enough. You could put a hockey stick in my hand, I'll plow through everyone and get the thing in the goal. And if people tried to beat me up, they wouldn't be able to. It was like, don't mess with that guy.

And then what about your musical side? How did that emerge? 

I was making more and more musical instruments. It could be panels you open or it could be soundtracks that would play and eventually, it evolved into making drums and using different welds together. I could weld a piece of metal to this plate and hit it and it vibrates and so I started getting into micro sounds — all sorts of different things. 

Then it became that my instruments were too weird and big and impractical to really sell, and they were so big, I was putting them on wheels. And then it was, let's do choreography with the drums. I met this percussion troupe Jellyeye in Chicago, and they were doing drum theatre. They were just starting to move from drum to drum — these little paper mache crappy drums — and they had this great storyline. We teamed up and then we made these huge drums and we developed all this whole style of moving and drumming and umping around choreography. Instead of one drummer, it was multiple people drumming at the same time and moving around, like a swarm, which became my band's name — SWARM.

So mixing your art and your music, let's get back to the Sound Mill Society and what you want to do here. Tell me more about your plans. 

I really want it to be an art and music venue. A main focus is on community outreach. It is something I will leave as a legacy when I am gone.

It's for art openings and performances and music events, and all kinds of stuff. In this open area, we can accommodate a wide range of musical acts. 

And then there's levels of stairs and living spaces up here that could act as an amphitheatre. And there's an area for fabrication. Artists might have their own studio, but they can come here if they have a big piece they need to fabricate. It is collaborative and so that's what it's geared towards. People can become members of the collective and they would put on workshops. The public would come in and there'd be kids' workshops, dance workshops, martial arts workshops, yoga — the whole deal. And then we have some bigger events and parties that we'd charge for and that will hopefully pay for the whole thing.

To find out more, get involved or get in touch, check out The Sound Mill on Facebook and Instagram or on The Sound Mill website. 

About a local is a regular column featuring interesting Squamish residents. If you have an idea of someone we should feature, email (with that person's permission) [email protected].

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