Where It’s Art

“But Wayne, how did you get into this?” Perhaps this question came from my wonderment at a quiet man going into retail in the first place – and not just any sort of shop, but one selling original paintings, sculptures, stained glass, woodworking and pottery. I’ve been in the Ethel Curry Art Gallery many times over the past couple of decades, as family ties have drawn me regularly to the small northern Ontario town that is its unlikely host.

The Gallery from outside, reflecting a northern summer sky.

I’m a small town boy, and I love these places, but they’re not noted for their devotion to and support of the arts, if I may risk a generalization. Haliburton, about three hours northwest of Toronto, is a pretty little place, perched by a lake and surrounded by wooded hills. The surrounding county of the same name, bordered on the north by Algonquin Park, contains an absurd number of lakes and a surprisingly large roster of artists among its 16,000 citizens.1 One of them was Ethel Curry, whose nephew Pete owns a woodsplitter and a small retail building in Haliburton village. Wayne is a woodworker, and as he tells the story, it wasn’t long before conversations about wood led to others about art and display space which led, 18 years later, to him explaining the genesis of the gallery to me. Again: the whole thing thrills and bemuses me, and I can’t believe it’s around the corner from Jug City convenience and the “Aprons and Soaps” shop. And how does a veteran of African development work, a confirmed loner, dog-lover and crafter of meticulously detailed model ships and other wooden delights, become the owner of an art emporium about an hour south of Nowhere?

Though it’s a gorgeous getaway for stressed-out city folk, Haliburton is an economically fragile and philosophically conservative area. In the village, the long-delayed opening of its first Tim Horton’s doughnut shop is a hot topic. It’s a place where hockey holds tremendous sway, where the loss of this past season while the rink received overdue renovations must’ve been a major trial. (Wikipedia lists five notable citizens of Haliburton, all NHL hockey players, two current.) Unemployment is high, and many locals are of very modest means. However, locally owned homes are tripled by the number of cottages and pied a pierres owned by people from the south, mainly Toronto, so it’s an interesting mix of people in the summer when the cottagers go about boating, decompressing, swatting deer flies, rescuing the economy and pissing off the locals with their “city notions”. (A recent letter to the editor of the weekly newser actually used this phrase.)

The Curry Gallery is bright, airy and filled with things that people made with all their life and love and might. It has grown from a space exhibiting mainly Haliburton painters and crafts people to one that, while still 100% Canadian, has artists from all over Ontario and a few from farther afield. I’m no visual arts sophisticate, though there are pieces in the Gallery that strike me as amateurish, but if I had a more fixed address and a fatter wallet, I’d be haulin’ me home some art. Eduard Gurevich is the painter that most attracted me this time with his vibrant colouring of work that looks like a mash-up between wilderness realism and high-class comic books. (That’s a compliment, by the way.) Tom Green – no, not that one – makes complex and attractive work in glass. Rose Pearson and AJ Vandrie are painters I appreciate, for only a few examples. So far, I own and have given as gifts only tiny things from Wayne Hooks – yes, that Wayne the woodworker and gallery proprietor: hardwood snowflakes, and business card holders in delectably buffed walnut. The things I lust over, imagining a different life for myself, are things like his cabinets and nesting tables, whose drawers open and close with gorgeous smoothness.

Wayne told me the history of the gallery, but it doesn’t explain much. Financial ends often don’t meet, though every edge of his handiwork is perfect. Sure, the Curry provides an attractive display place for his creations (including one astoundingly detailed miniature ship, given pride of display space in the streetside window), but I’m betting that he ships more than he sells in person.

This explains a few things: Fleming College has an entire new campus, about 2 clicks from the Gallery, where fine arts and crafts are taught and lived.

It’s another love story, one more tale of the strange leaps that ordinary people will make to satisfy a hunger they can’t explain. Eighteen years of steadily increasing quality and reputation suggest that the Ethel Curry Gallery is not as quixotic as some of the wild-eyed enterprises I’ve seen attempted in small, inward-looking Canadian towns (including/especially my own!). I love these towns for all the usual reasons – friendliness, mature trees, spaces open enough to shag fly balls in, front porch sunsets, siblings, and indelible memories. My goodness, though: when there’s ART there, well, I can wonder openly – at least before thoughts of car dependency, insularity and intellectual stagnation set in – why you and I would want to live anywhere else.


1 There are 600 named lakes in the country, so about one for every 25 people or so. 16,000 people aren’t much more than the population of our not-atypical housing complex in Dalian. (It only feels like the number of people I share the number 406 bus with on a normal day.) Pardon me: numbers like these cause reflexive China comparisons. I can’t help it.

2 Full disclosure, if ‘twere needed, would compel me to say that Margery Cartwright, a potter and among the best sellers at the ECG, is my mother-in-law. She makes beautifully practical mugs, plates, bowls and serving trays. I like the blue ones.

Comment (1)

  1. Hi James. I love this piece!
    Can we use it for promotion?
    Great to see you and the family….
    So, is this a “blog”?? You know, stuck here in the woods, it’s hard to keep up with the connected world…
    Off to the gallery. Gotta try to make something out of this summer …

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