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Artful Explorations: On the Trail of the Northumberland Hills Studio Tour

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I’m standing in what used to be a subway car, listening to the sounds of crickets and dripping water echo through the ruins of Spadina station. I can see the dusty steps leading to the surface; just enough eerie twilight filters down to see by.

This isn’t what I expected when I left the house this morning to embark on the Northumberland Hills Studio Tour.

Brynley Longman helps me remove the VR headset that transported me into his immersive virtual experience, “Hand.” Longman, who works under the artistic alias Bryn Oh, shares a studio space in downtown Port Hope with his wife Kelly Kirkham. A colourful array of Kirkham’s puppets line the wall behind the VR rig, and the eclecticism of their home workshop strikes me as a microcosm of the Studio Tour in general. The Tour website lists a grand total of forty-three artists, including painters, photographers, ceramic artists, jewellers, glass crafters, and more. The official self-guided tour is an annual event each September, though many of the studios remain open by appointment year round.

Kirkham tells me the arts culture was one of the driving forces that brought her and Longman here in 2013. “That’s one of the reasons we came to this area,” she says. “It’s fairly well-known for the arts, and that was important coming from Toronto.” The chance to speak to the artist about their process and inspirations is certainly a big advantage of the Tour. Kirkham says her puppets are an evolution from her two-dimensional work in collage and pen and ink drawing, incorporating animal iconography filtered through a childhood steeped in fantastical eighties fiction. “And recently I’m really liking fabric work and pattern so that’s part of it now as well,” she adds. Her work is playful, but retains a mysterious edge that keeps it from feeling twee. While the puppets are mainly art objects for now, she hopes to see them in motion in short films eventually.

Longman describes a similar trajectory. “I’m more of a narrative artist, so I began as an oil painter and over time I had these different ideas that I thought were not really working so well with painting,” he says. “So then I got into virtual reality and it gives you duration where you can tell stories for a longer period of time.” His work has been exhibited internationally, from Berlin to Shanghai. Grants from the Ontario Arts Council have allowed him to continue his experiments in new media. He says the Northumberland Hills Studio Tour impressed him because it brought in a wide demographic, from kids to seniors, receptive to his work. He looks forward to the day when “immersionist” art takes its place alongside other movements like surrealism and impressionism.

Back out in the sunlight, I get in the car and head to my next destination. The country roads are a treat in themselves this time of year, so it’s unsurprising the next artist I’m visiting considers nature a major source of inspiration. Heather Cooper is perhaps the most well-known artist on my itinerary, and the Heather Cooper Studio Gallery is a showcase for a career spanning decades. Her oil paintings have a romantic, almost fairytale quality to them. On commission she has painted portraits of celebrities as diverse as Pope John Paul II, Faye Dunaway, and Alex Trebek. Even if the name is unfamiliar you’ve probably seen her work: Cooper designed the iconic Roots logo.

The gallery’s treelined driveway and footpaths through the woods set the tone immediately. Inside, Cooper and I sit on a pair of overstuffed leather armchairs to talk about her art. Many of the paintings around us feature mysterious, ethereal figures against sublime natural backdrops. I grew up with a prime example on the wall of my home, a print of a 1977 commission by Cooper for the Canadian Opera. As a child I was always vaguely in awe of the purple-robed, white-faced spirit in the foreground. I ask her where the inspiration for the fantastical elements of her work came from. “I have no idea, no idea at all,” she says, laughing.

Cooper resists interpreting her own work on the basis that doing so stifles the imagination. She quotes a favourite saying, “Interpretation is the intellect’s revenge on art,” and prefers to focus on the power of art to inspire open-ended conversation. She gives credit to the studio tours for helping foster a culture of creativity. ”the thing that I find interesting about this area is there are so many people who are involved in arts or crafts. It’s absolutely incredible. I jokingly say if everybody who was in arts or crafts painted their mailbox purple I think you’d be shocked to see how many there are around here.”

Few of those artists can boast a career as prolific as Cooper’s, though, so I ask how she keeps her medium feeling fresh when the earliest works in her archive date to 1955. “Right now I’m probably about ten paintings behind, I always am. It’s never even a question of well, what am I going to paint? It’s which one is going to be first, and do you think I’m going to get at least five of them done this year? Usually by that time there’s another five added to the list.”

I’m tempted to linger in the presence of Cooper’s immaculately crafted oil paintings, but I have another stop to make – Frantic Farms in Warkworth. Although Frantic Farms isn’t on the official roster of the Northumberland Hills Studio Tour, their studio is right on the route and keeps regular hours year round. I have it on good authority that the husband and wife duo of Monica Johnston and Paulus Tjiang, a pottery and glassblower respectively, are exceptionally passionate and well-spoken craftspeople.

The storefront at 2 Mill St. is stocked with an array of glass and ceramic objects both artistic and practical. There’s an inviting and lighthearted humour to much of the work, and a lovely play of sunlight through the glasswork in the window. In the back of the studio is Monica’s pottery workshop, while Paulus works on a separate property just outside of town. “We’re not into fleeting experiences,” Paulus tells me when I compliment the aesthetic. “We want a timeless experience. We want people to think about the quality of things.”

Frantic Farms has been in Warkworth since 2005, but Paulus and Monica have been in the area since 1988, having left Toronto in search of larger and more affordable studio space. While they will offer feedback on the other’s work, they tend to produce separate projects. I ask Monica about her process first. “I just love the tactile quality of it,” she says, gesturing to the blocks of clay that line the rear wall. “I just love being able to transform it into something useful.”

I don’t have the benefit of seeing Paulus’ working space, so I ask him to tell me a little about how glassblowing works. ”It’s a very dynamic process, very temporal,” he says. “It’s more like learning to play music than actually dealing with material. There’s this fixed beginning and end in glassblowing, and so there’s a lot of choreography that goes into it. It’s very dynamic and I find that very exciting.” He’s also quick to praise the Northumberland County landscape as a source of inspiration. “From here we see all kinds of topography and geology and landscape.”

“And that’s big for us, because we work with the earth,” Monica adds. 

They seem to have found a very positive cultural niche as well. “People tend to seek us out because they know that we’re around, and they like the idea of the connection. Seeing the people that actually make the work,” Paulus says. Speaking for myself, that rings true. I’ve spent the day driving through beautiful scenery en route to diverse galleries and thought-provoking conversations. I can’t think of a way I’d rather spend a fall afternoon.

The Northumberland Hills Studio Tour is an annual September event. Click here for more information on dates and participating studios.

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