Dennis J.A. Brown displays one of his abstract works. (Photo by Don Bodger)

Art studios make an impression on the community

New life for former St. Joseph’s School in Chemainus featured during grand opening

The transformation from St. Joseph’s Elementary Catholic School to St. Joseph’s Art Studios has been remarkable.

No one was certain what would happen to the site after the Chemainus school closed in June of last year. But nine artists now occupy eight of the building’s classrooms full-time (one is a shared space), showcasing their work environments and variety of art during a grand opening last Wednesday.

One of the artists, Barry Strasbourg-Thompson, took on the financial obligation of getting the studios established going back seven and a half months ago to last September. Each of the artists pays a fee for their respective spaces to Island Catholic Schools, the building’s continued owner.

“It was my vision to see it up and running,” said Strasbourg-Thompson, who’s thrilled with the reception the concept has received.

“The big thing is the community itself showed up. The comments were they were so happy the building was being put to good use.

“I’m pleased with the quality of the people that have rented there.”

Strasbourg-Thompson spent many years of his life in the Ottawa region before coming to Chemainus in 2007. “Since that time I’ve made a full-time living at this,” he pointed out.

“I’ve been well-supported. This is a chance for me to give back.”

An original idea to house an arts centre in the building was dismissed simply because of the time commitment for administration that would be necessary.

“But we do have the time to set up a working studio building,” countered Strasbourg-Thompson.

So that’s what happened and he sees the health and well-being elements of the art environment as being significant, too.

Dennis J.A. Brown of Ladysmith has been in the location for about two months.

“I think this is a heckuva idea,” he said. “It’s nice to come into the community and explore our art with people around here and put a presence in the building. It’s also nice to be in a village of artists.”

Brown is among the resident artists who also offers various classes, workshops, displays and demos to the public.

“I find teaching classes I learn more about myself,” he observed. “I have to be able to draw that out succinctly to them and make sense of it. I have fun at it.”

Art has been a lifetime passion for Brown.

“I never quit,” he said.

Brown has considered himself a full-time artist for 25 years and works on perfecting his techniques constantly.

“Every day I haven’t got an appointment, it’s ritual,” he conceded. “You have momentum, you don’t want to lose that.”

Brown started out doing frequent landscapes and realistic paintings before changing direction.

“About 20 years ago, I switched to abstract and never looked back,” he indicated.

“This is more a personal statement than landscapes.”

Brown has found influences from his travels over the years to places like Japan, Italy, Scotland, Holland, Mexico and more.

Debra Fairweather, who previously lived in Mexico and on Gabriola Island, joined the artists’ haven in January.

“The ferry became a bit of an issue,” she said of her time on Gabriola.

Fairweather just made the move last October and is enjoying the transition.

“It’s a great little town,” she said. “I hope it picks up a bit more.”

The studio space has proven to be a godsend for Fairweather.

“We moved to a very small house – a low basement and I couldn’t swing my canvas around,” she explained.

“There’s sort of a community here of other artists. We just have a nice space to explore whatever I want – express whatever I want.”

Others who’ve become part of the artist community in the building include: Sara Robichaud, Kim Oakes, Monica Maya, Lorraine Taylor, Katherine Boudreau and Skye Skagfeld.

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Debra Fairweather works on some art in her studio that’s part of the St. Joseph’s complex. (Photo by Don Bodger)

Keefer Pollard, left, of Island Catholic Schools with artist Barry Strasbourg-Thompson for the ceremonial cake-cutting. (Photo submitted)

Barry Strasbourg-Thompson with some of his art displayed outside his studio at St. Joseph’s. (Photo by Don Bodger)

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