DIY in the Farm­land

Prince Ed­ward County is known as a bu­colic wine-lover's par­adise — but it's also a haven for a grow­ing crew of fear­less in­die art mak­ers

Broken Pencil - - Table Of Contents - by Is­abel Slone

EVERY TIME I TELL SOME­ONE that I grew up in Prince Ed­ward County, their eyes glaze over and they qui­etly mur­mur: “That must have been nice.” Maybe they're imag­in­ing a bu­colic ru­ral child­hood run­ning through grassy fields, un­en­cum­bered by the ur­ban dan­gers of traf­fic, noise, and child preda­tors. Or per­haps they're en­vi­sion­ing end­less rows of lus­cious grapes to be crushed into wine, folksy bed-and-break­fasts run by crinkly-eyed ma­trons and sandy beaches over­look­ing cool, clear Lake On­tario. But what I re­mem­ber as an iso­lated place full of bore­dom and teenage preg­nancy has trans­formed into a thriv­ing arts com­mu­nity where the low cost of liv­ing and abun­dance of space al­lows the DIY spirit to roam free. The scenic wine-soaked pas­tures of the County are in­creas­ingly be­com­ing home to a ram­shackle com­mu­nity of print­mak­ers, zinesters, punk rock­ers and in­de­pen­dent artists.

In the past decade, the County has gone through a com­plete im­age trans­for­ma­tion: from eco­nom­i­cally-de­pressed farm­ing area to world-class tourist des­ti­na­tion. When the wine in­dus­try cropped up in the mid 2000s, it was orig­i­nally poised as the per­fect get­away for gour­mands and ad­her­ents of the Hun­dred Mile Diet. But Prince Ed­ward County is not just a pas­toral place where yup­pies and lo­ca­vores can frolic in un­en­cum­bered glory. Its rep­u­ta­tion has since ex­panded into an artist's par­adise; where just about any­one can buy an old barn and con­vert it into a gallery, or spend a month work­ing on their novel in the A-frame cot­tage that used to be­long to poet Al Purdy.

“You can di­vide the his­tory of the County into pre-wine and post-wine,” says An­drew Mcluhan, a long­time County res­i­dent and lo­cal cre­ative. “The County has a his­tory of be­ing in the spot­light and go­ing back into ob­scu­rity. Back in the 1920s and ‘30s it was re­ally rip­ping and roar­ing. Then dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion it qui­eted down for sev­eral years.”

Prince Ed­ward County is not where you'd ex­pect Cana­dian in­tel­lec­tual roy­alty to be hid­ing out, but An­drew Mcluhan — grand­son of me­dia the­o­rist Mar­shall Mcluhan — has lived in the County since 1996, when his par­ents up­rooted him from their home in the Beach in Toronto to Welling­ton, ON af­ter see­ing an ad for a church for sale in the Toronto Star (they bought it). Mcluhan's day job is run­ning the one-man fur­ni­ture up­hol­stery busi­ness, The Cover-up. In his spare time, he's the def­i­ni­tion of cre­ative multi-hy­phen­ate, writ­ing vi­o­lent spec­u­la­tive fic­tion (The Mu­tant Beavers of Delhi is about “beavers that are ge­net­i­cally mu­tated and be­come ad­dicted to drugs and junk food and at­tack peo­ple”), work­ing as a pro­jec­tion­ist at the County's Re­gent The­atre, and dab­bling around in mu­sic. His cur­rent project is a reg­gae-in­spired band with a few friends ten­ta­tively ti­tled the FADS — the Freakin' Awe­some Dads.

Like a lot of peo­ple with fa­mous rel­a­tives, the young Mcluhan found his grand­fa­ther's rep­u­ta­tion to be more of an ir­ri­ta­tion than a brag­ging point. “As a nor­mal re­bel­lious teenager, I started to re­sent peo­ple ask­ing about my grand­fa­ther,” he says. “I'd tell them, ‘What do I know about that stuff? Go read a book.'” Then he dis­cov­ered punk. He started writ­ing a zine to dis­sem­i­nate his thoughts — “I conned the prin­ci­pal into let­ting me use the pho­to­copiers to do it” — and helped found the now-de­funct punk band The Po­lidicks, whose songs in­clude “Money Grub­bing Mother­fucker” and “Kill Dr. Phil.”

It may seem like Mcluhan's de­ci­sion to work with his hands is a re­bel­lion against the fam­ily trade of academia, but the truth is much more prag­matic. As a teenager, he needed a job and his neigh­bour, an up­hol­sterer, hap­pened to be look­ing for an as­sis­tant. He learned the trade, taught him­self to sew and the rest is his­tory.

Af­ford­able hous­ing prices — Mcluhan owns a house in nearby Pic­ton — and a com­fort­able work­shop setup on his par­ent's prop­erty means that he can af­ford to pur­sue his pas­sions while also own­ing a home and rais­ing a young fam­ily — some­thing that would likely not be pos­si­ble for an artist liv­ing in a big­ger city. When il­lus­tra­tor Carl Wiens moved to the County from Toronto in 1998, it was a “back­wa­ter.” “The econ­omy had ba­si­cally stalled out and there wasn't much go­ing on,” he says. But around 2010, he no­ticed a dra­matic shift as the County zoomed from sleepy ru­ral re­gion to bustling, vi­brant com­mu­nity. “It felt sud­den, not grad­ual at all.” Since then, the County has been dubbed one of the 50 best places in the world by TIME Mag­a­zine, Paris Vogue named the Drake Devon­shire — an out­post of Toronto's hip Drake ho­tel that set up shop in Welling­ton in 2014 — a ho­tel hotspot and it's been fea­tured as a top des­ti­na­tion to visit in Harper’s Bazaar, The In­de­pen­dent and Condé Nast Trav­eller. “To an ex­tent, you can think of Prince Ed­ward County as the lat­est gen­tri­fied neigh­bour­hood of Toronto,” says Mcluhan.

Tess Gi­rard, a film­maker, moved to the County in 2012. “The Drake fol­lowed us,” she laughs. Her and part­ner Ryan Noth moved to the County be­cause it has “all the lovely lit­tle things that ru­ral On­tario can of­fer but all com­pacted into one area.” They liked the idea that there were art gal­leries they could visit reg­u­larly, and the twohour drive to Toronto wasn't too de­mand­ing. But the real draw was the hous­ing prices — the av­er­age home in the County sells for around $250,000 com­pared to the as­tro­nom­i­cal $1 mil­lion in Toronto. Since their move four years ago, peo­ple have gone from ask­ing them, “Why are you mov­ing there?” to “How do I move there?” On the last Wed­nes­day of every month, a crowd of zinesters cram into the Acous­tic Grill in Pic­ton to drink, talk, and draw at the monthly Prince Ed­ward County Comix Jam. Any and all skill lev­els are wel­come and ev­ery­one is there to ex­press them­selves on pen and pa­per. “We pro­duce any­thing from this fan­tas­tic draw­ing to a poop joke,” says reg­u­lar at­tendee Tim Sny­der.

The Comix Jam was cre­ated by County na­tive Niall Ec­cles based on sim­i­lar ones he at­tended dur­ing his time liv­ing in Mon­treal. Ec­cles has been in­stru­men­tal in cre­at­ing the vi­brant com­mu­nity that the County is now renowned for. In ad­di­tion to the Comix Jam, he also runs zine mak­ing work­shops at the County Au­thor's Fes­ti­val, founded a DIY comics zine called Mar­malade, and do­nated most of his graphic novel col­lec­tion to get a comic book li­brary up and run­ning at the Pic­ton Li­brary. He's gen­uinely ex­cited about what is hap­pen­ing in his home­town, and an­i­mat­edly gives me a plethora of ex­am­ples: an arts-fo­cused ra­dio show hosted by stained glass artist Vanessa Pan­dos, the Bax­ter Cen­tre, a build­ing in Bloom­field that hosts silent movie nights and other cre­ative en­deav­ors, and a new al­ter­na­tive movie night at Pic­ton's Re­gent The­atre.

“To an ex­tent, you can think of Prince Ed­ward County as the lat­est gen­tri­fied neigh­bour­hood of Toronto”

To Ec­cles, in­clu­siv­ity is cor­ner­stone of the new arts com­mu­nity he's help­ing to foster. He says the sup­pos­edly im­mi­nent class war be­tween the County's stal­wart farm­ers and in­com­ing city slick­ers is com­pletely fab­ri­cated. “It's more in­te­grated than the ar­ti­cles will have you be­lieve,” he says. “I can't en­cour­age what I con­sider to be false di­vi­sions. County vs. city doesn't ex­ist.”

Mile Mur­tanovski, a painter who runs the artist's res­i­dency Small Pond Arts with his wife Krista, echoes the sen­ti­ment: “A place like the Drake will come in and im­pose their ur­ban sen­si­bil­i­ties, whereas we wanted to weave into the ta­pes­try of Prince Ed­ward County,” he says. Since mov­ing to the County in 2006, Mur­tanovski has made a strong ef­fort to in­te­grate with the com­mu­nity, or­ga­niz­ing free events dur­ing the tourist off-sea­son such as the Fire­light Lan­tern Fes­ti­val, a mag­i­cal pa­rade of mam­malian lanterns that helps ban­ish the en­croach­ing win­ter dark­ness.

But for all this talk of in­clu­siv­ity, it's enor­mously trou­bling that the ma­jor­ity of in­com­ing mi­grants to the area are a) white and b) have enough money in the bank to pur­chase prop­erty. While re­port­ing for this ar­ti­cle, I was able to lo­cate only one artist of colour: Johnny Lam, a pho­tog­ra­pher who was born in Hong Kong and moved to the County in 2011. Al­to­gether, the de­mo­graph­ics of the County haven't shifted much since I at­tended el­e­men­tary school; at Kente Pub­lic School in Amelias­burgh from 1996 to 2003, I didn't en­counter a sin­gle non-white class­mate.

This begs the ques­tion: how vi­brant can a com­mu­nity re­ally be if it's only at­tract­ing one type of per­son? Ev­ery­one I spoke with seemed hope­ful that the lack of diver­sity is a chal­lenge they could tackle, but re­mained woe­fully de­void of ideas on how to do it. En­croach­ing on the park­ing lot of Sobeys in down­town Pic­ton is a di­lap­i­dated struc­ture that has been aban­doned for the bet­ter part of a decade. Once a grand old house, the ex­te­rior paint is peel­ing and the shin­gles are be­gin­ning to crum­ble with age. But its seem­ingly ad­vanced state of de­cay be­lies the prop­erty's sta­tus as a brand-new com­mu­nity hub. The House of Fal­coner, as it is now called, was qui­etly pur­chased by County restau­ra­teur Alex Fida in 2015, who has ren­o­vated the space into a bo­hemian artist's hang­out that bears traces of its for­mer glory, like fil­i­gree wall­pa­per and or­na­men­tal ceil­ings.

One morn­ing in late April, the doors are open to the pub­lic for the Marm Art Fair, where a selec­tion of County creatives have come to hawk their wares. There's Mcluhan, sit­ting be­hind a ta­ble stacked high with copies of The Mu­tant Beavers of Delhi; Ec­cles flits around from room to room, greet­ing the guests while sell­ing copies of Mar­malade. Up­stairs, the artist Zac Kenny is giv­ing tours of his paint­ing stu­dio. Kenny is rent­ing the space from Fida all sum­mer in ex­change for a few of his paint­ings. Af­ter Kenny's res­i­dency is over, his stu­dio will be re­placed by a flash tat­too shop. In con­trast to the man­u­fac­tured chic of places like the Drake Devon­shire, the Marm Art Fair pro­vides a win­dow into the world of these ru­ral creatives, who band to­gether while prac­tic­ing their craft to build an authen­tic sense of com­mu­nity and col­lab­o­ra­tion.

Sur­pris­ingly, most of the peo­ple who live and prac­tice their art in Prince Ed­ward County are fairly in­dif­fer­ent to the sheen of new money and leisure in­fil­trat­ing their home­town. Since mov­ing away pre-hype in 2008, I find the sud­den spot­light on my child­hood home more ir­ri­tat­ing than flat­ter­ing. Af­ter spend­ing the first two decades of my life there, I feel an in­di­rect sense of own­er­ship over the place and my hack­les raise when­ever I read about it in a light that con­flicts with my own ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing there. “It's bor­ing! You don't want to go there!” my in­sides scream when­ever the lat­est puff piece hits the news­stands. And yet for the folks who are ac­tu­ally build­ing the com­mu­nity, it doesn't seem to bother them one bit. They're not wor­ried about en­croach­ing gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and aren't even par­tic­u­larly jaded by the cot­tagers who in­vade the County on week­ends, flood­ing the beach and cre­at­ing traf­fic on the usu­ally free-flow­ing high­ways. “The more peo­ple who know about [Prince Ed­ward County] the bet­ter,” says Ec­cles. “It doesn't mat­ter if they're vis­it­ing for the week or they've lived there for 30 years.”

The House of Fal­coner. Photo courtesy of Niall Ec­cles

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