MUSKOKA AUTUMN STUDIO TOUR TURNS FORTY
It was an inspired idea: encourage people to enjoy the fall colours of Muskoka while touring the studios of some of the artists who call this area home.
Forty years ago, sculptor Richard Green broached the concept to some artist friends. Why not invite people into local studios where they could see artists at work and ask them questions about their process and their tools and their inspiration?
Potters Jon Partridge and Rick Vail, metal sculptors Wayne Church and Hilary Clark Cole, stained glass artist Charles Knapp, photographer Lyle McIntyre, and painters Michael Cleary, Richard Karon and Paul Rainey were all on board and the Muskoka Autumn Studio Tour (MAST) was born. But none of them could have had any inkling at the time just how good an idea it would turn out to be.
Almost 100 artists have participated in the tour since 1979 and many tens of thousands of people have visited their studios.
“To think back to 40 years ago, there was an art community but nothing like it is today,” says glass painter Bonnie Bews, who has been part of the tour since 2006. “It’s amazing that it’s still going strong. More and more artists are coming to the area. I guess it’s because of the rustic beauty and peacefulness that perhaps artists need.”
Like all of the artists on the tour, Bews enjoys opening up her studio to share what’s so often done in solitude
“At first I didn’t think I could do it, having someone over my shoulder watching me work. But I like to see when people come in and don’t know what to expect. Sometimes people get emotional. It’s nice when they make a connection with your art pieces.”
That personal connection has contributed to both the tour’s success and its longevity. Like all good things, it’s been copied many times over. Although the Muskoka Autumn Studio Tour was the first of its kind in Canada, imitators have sprung up across the country over the years, not all of them opening up studios and not all committed to the same goal of providing education in the artistic process.
“(Richard) wanted the artists to be in their studios working and explaining their process, and we have held true to that idea all these years,” says painter Catherine O’Mara. This will be her 19th year on the tour. “He was wanting to make a successful way for artists to be able to live in Muskoka, sell their work, and not have to take it to Toronto and pay a gallery to sell it for them.
“It was absolutely a great concept and it has worked beautifully in Muskoka, this marrying of people coming to see the beautiful colours of fall on a driving tour where they’re also stopping and being invited into artists’ studios.” Although some of each artists’ works are usually available for sale at their individual studios, sales are discrete so that the educational focus of the tour isn’t undermined.
“Having people come to your studio is a very personal way to show your work,” says O’Mara. “You work all year, usually in isolation, so it’s a nice time to meet the public and for them to see what you do.”
There have been a few changes over the years. Some artists have come and gone, and the work of those who participate for consecutive tours has evolved or expanded, so even visitors who return, again and again, see something different each time. And there is much to see. So much that the Muskoka Autumn Studio Tour expanded to encompass two weekends instead of its original one to give people more opportunity to get to the studios in all corners of Muskoka.
This 40th year is doubly special. Not only is it an accomplishment on its own – to have remained popular despite rising gas prices and the advent of readily accessible digital entertainment – it’s also the year earmarked for the opening of a time capsule created for the tour’s 20th anniversary.
The MAST time capsule – a wooden box built by furniture maker Stephen Sprague and carved by Bill Hunnisett – contains a book about the tour that was created for the occasion along with small works by each of the artists who were on the tour that year. The capsule will be opened at the Chapel Gallery n Bracebridge where it was locked shut 20 years ago and its contents will be displayed in a special show at the gallery with works from the 21 artists participating in the 40th anniversary tour. It runs until September 8, 2018.
An earlier three-month exhibit was hosted at the Canada Summit Centre in Huntsville, this summer, to showcase both current and past artists, and there was a weekend show at the Muskoka Discovery Centre in Gravenhurst in August.
A show is an unusual undertaking for the MAST artists as a whole. Usually, they are in their studios to welcome visitors throughout the tour and spend much of the rest of the year focused on their own work.
“It’s a great tour, it’s lots of fun and everybody works hard towards it,” says O’Mara. “We don’t get to see each other because we are all so spread out. (This year’s shows) are a nice time for us to get together and see each other’s work.”
Jon Partridge, a potter, is the only artist who has been on the tour for its entire 40 years. He feels that part of its success is due to the glimpse it offers into the lifestyle of an artist.
“People sometimes romanticize it,” he says. “They are always intrigued.” And sometimes they find it’s not quite what they expected. Yes, it can seem like an idyllic life – and in many ways it is – to be an artist with a studio tucked away down a rural road, inspired by the scenery and guided by whim. But in reality, artists put in long hours working to perfect their craft.
“Most artists work 12 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Partridge. “If I have work on the go, it’s kind of like having an infant and it starts crying in the middle of the night. You can’t just say ‘it can wait until the morning.’ I have to address it at the time and could lose the work if don’t get to it.”
As someone who works in a multi-stage medium, Partridge has found that videos and displays help to illustrate the long process involved in getting to a finished piece for visitors on the tour.
“Because there are so many steps to get to the finished product, we produced a 45-minute video,” he says. The video is supplemented with a display that includes a piece fresh off the potter’s wheel, one that has been fired once in a kiln, one with glaze applied, and finally the finished product. It’s a conversation starter, both for those who are interested in the art and those who can find a way to relate it to their own life.
“Sometimes people may not understand the process but they get interested in the materials,” explains Partridge. He might talk with someone who has an interest in science about the chemistry of the glazes or the expansion and contraction of the clay, or with someone who can see the similarities in Partridge’s process to another interest like baking.
“It’s engaging the public when they come through in a broad range of things. I enable the conversation which gives them a better appreciation for what I do, or even for when they are just looking at pottery in a store.”
There are no stupid questions, he adds. “It’s all innocent. They want to understand and the more I talk the more questions I’ll get. Ask me any question, it doesn’t matter.”
The Muskoka Autumn Studio tour runs on September 22 to 23 and September 29 to 30 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day. Learn more at muskokaautumnstudiotour.com.