Written by Janet Davies
Chrissy Poitras and Kyle Topping are visual artists celebrating their eighth year in business in Prince Edward County. That’s right, a thriving artist-run business that to date has worked with more than 350 professional and aspiring artists
Their original concept for Spark Box Studio was to provide support and resources to help artists make it in the real world. “In university, we didn’t learn much about marketing, finances or generally how to make a living,” says Chrissy. “We saw a need there, and it was our inspiration for a business.” The concept has changed over time, and, yes, they subsidized their income with a couple of years teaching at Loyalist College, but today they focus full time on Spark Box and their art. “Being self employed and running an arts business takes a lot of energy,” says Chrissy. “We don’t have government funding, we live on what we make, we’re a for-profit business that gives a lot back through awards and bursaries. Really we are more aligned with a not-for-profit model, but we do like being in control! Having no board or anybody to answer to makes it quicker and easier to take decisions and actions.”
Chrissy graduated from Queen’s University in 2008 and was thrilled to land a gallery assistant job at Oeno Gallery right from university. “It was amazing for a BFA grad to get employed in their field, at a competitive rate in what is a difficult industry,” she says. “I had fought for half a year just to get an unpaid internship in Toronto. I’d gone through a grueling interview process and I thought, wow, if it’s that hard to get an unpaid position what will it be like finding a real job?” She was delighted to work so close to Kingston where Kyle was still finishing his undergrad studies, and to return to Prince Edward County where she was raised.
“Carlyn Moulton, the owner of Oeno, was fantastic. She is interested in mentorship, she really cares, and she’d take time out of her day to talk to me about marketing and promotion, the back end of running an arts business,” says Chrissy. “It’s like the most difficult part, and in fine art studies you focus on creating things, not getting them out there and making a living. Maybe Carlyn kicks herself now,” she laughs. “Because she encouraged me so much, then I left. But she is very much a businesswoman. Not only is she passionate about her artists, she will support and encourage someone she believes in, and she is invested in propelling them.”
WHAT IS SPARK BOX
Spark Box Studio is a print studio but also an artist residency. “We have three rooms we rent to artists short term, from a weekend to two months. People who come internationally generally stay one or two months, people from Toronto or around Ontario average two or three weeks,” explains Kyle. “They get a bedroom, 150 square feet of studio space and access to our print shop and equipment. We take every kind of artist: musicians, writers, drawers, painters, printers – we are flexible. Our mandate is to provide live and work space – and it’s cheaper than camping at Sandbanks!”
A residency gives artists time to focus on their practice. “A lot of artists work full time jobs, or several part time jobs that might not even be in their field. Time to practice their art is precious. At Spark Box they have no responsibilities, other than to cook for themselves, so they can wake up, make coffee and work uninterrupted for as long as they want. Our resident artist from Spain this summer worked seven weeks straight, putting in 14 hours a day drawing. Near the end he told us, I’m so tired, guys! But he was able to do hundreds of hours of work with nothing else to worry about.” Residents also have access to printmaking equipment they may not have seen outside of university, that they couldn’t afford to buy or even access.
As well as space and time, Chrissy and Kyle deal in information and advice. “We lecture at universities about entrepreneurship, getting started, building your career path, how to use social media for marketing. It’s the un-exciting stuff,” says Kyle with a laugh, “like the accounting side.” Chrissy wants to make those lectures available online, making the information accessible to anyone anywhere for free. “We already have a lot of resources on our website about marketing, funding, networking, framing – mundane stuff but it’s important for artists.”
Spark Box Studio is located just north of Picton in a farmhouse on one and a half acres, bordered by farmers’ fields. “It’s close enough to walk to town if you’re feeling energetic and it’s a cheap taxi ride,” says Chrissy. “But it is isolated enough to have a clear head and focus without distractions, and that’s what people who come here are looking for. People looking for city life and museums will go elsewhere.” They leave their artists alone. “We don’t impose,” she says. “But we’ll visit with them, and we’re here if they need us. We offer to drive them if we’re going into town, and we invite them to come with us to events and activities, so they can get involved and engaged if they wish.” Chrissy always does an exit interview with residents, basing her questions on what she has seen of their work and their methods during their stay. “It’s like a studio critique,” she says.
WHY PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY
“There are different levels of art activity here,” says Kyle. “Lots of recreational artists, second career people, and also professional artists, like Robert Wiens and Otto Rogers, who long careers.” He notes the influx, over the past decade, of younger people determined to make a living from their art, like documentary filmmakers Tess Girard and Ryan Noth. “As an arts community it’s a lot of fun, there’s always something going on. It might not always be your cup of tea,” he says, “but it’s great to have the mix of traditional art shows and watercolour painters and then someone like Pam Patterson who’s a performance artist.” Chrissy agrees. “Vibrant cultural communities attract investment, and they definitely encourage gentrification, which I know can be a polarizing topic,” she says. “Arts are often underrated for the power they have in a place. They can engage and bring communities together. When you provide spaces and events where people come together and share experiences and have conversations, you create something lasting – and art has the power to do that.”
Chrissy was raised here in Prince Edward County, her dad is an artist, and she remembers it as always being an active arts community. “Peta Hall did so much work to encourage the arts,” she says, citing the founder of the PEC Studio Tour who is now program coordinator at the Baxter Arts Centre. “And artists have always come here because it was cheap! Not so much now, but that’s definitely part of why we came back.” Chrissy and Kyle rented a house in Picton before buying a property. “I think we worked with every real estate agent here,” she laughs, “And we are NOT a real estate agent’s dream. But eventually we found this great place we could afford with all the space we need.” Her advice is keep looking, keep an eye on the market because things do come up. They both credit Dan Taylor, who was then the economic development officer, with fostering an arts-friendly environment. “He emphasized the idea of a creative rural economy and believed arts can boost the economy, and we were lucky to work with PELA CFDC in starting a small business, too.”
Printmaking has a small, niche market, particularly their kind, which is totally analogue and labour intensive. “Hand printing is out of date commercially,” says Chrissy. “But it’s always had a place in the fine art industry, particularly letterpress and screen printing.” Kyle says proudly his most modern printing press is Vandercook SP-15 – the proofing press used for newspaper printing two generations ago. “Letterpress is having a big resurgence in graphic design,” he says. “New materials are available that easily transition something designed on a computer into plates you can mount onto presses for hand printing. Letterpress is very popular for high end wedding invitations, and that’s a strong market. It’s high end branding, the complete opposite of 200 cheap business cards from a quickie shop.”
Chrissy believes consumers are jaded with tech based industries and mass production and many seek out the handmade, the unusual – and the rare. “Our processes are rare because they need someone trained in an almost obsolete art,” she says. “There aren’t many who can do it, so it’s costly and not available to everybody. But we like to share, so we have a reduced rate for schools, we want students to experience the rare old methods. And people are curious,” she says. “They will ask to just come by and see our shop. They don’t want to take a workshop or book studio space, they are just curious, and it’s great to show them the old ways, show them a press from the 1800s – because most of them got melted down to make tanks.”
Kyle sees a parallel in the attraction to hands-on in the persistent interest in vinyl records versus CDs or playlists. “The people who are just in love with vinyl like handling the records. They like the feel and the look as well as the sound, which isn’t the greatest, but it’s distinctive and warm. Maybe vinyl engages more of your senses and you feel more connected to an actual record.”
Chrissy laughs to recall “In my early twenties I tried to paint in our dank horrible basement in our freezing limestone house in Kingston. It was a super cute house, but so cold. Needless to say I painted nothing much. When you leave university you no longer have daily support, people working with you who are in line with you, on the same page, working all night, pouring your energy into art. Suddenly you’re alone with no equipment, working a job, paying bills, running around, yet still trying to build your art.” It was much more difficult than she had imagined, and she saw in this a need for artists. For his part, Kyle was very invested in printmaking, but the cost of buying equipment for just one of his beloved print processes was astronomically out of reach. “So it was our own needs that inspired Spark Box, too,” he says.
They are constantly reviewing and changing what they do. They offered ongoing monthly group workshops early on, which didn’t work out quite as hoped. “It turned into a big marketing trial,” says Kyle, so now they concentrate on private workshops. They are in demand for specialized workshops for organizations like Baxter Arts Centre. “A few years ago we produced an arts magazine called Square2. People always ask when are we bringing it back. Well, we loved it, but we didn’t love selling ads, it’s not our thing, and without enough ads we couldn’t pay our editors,” says Chrissie. “Thank God for our volunteers Becky and Betsy, but you can’t have people work for free forever!” Some of what they liked best about the magazine is featured on their website. “But again it was more about producing a physical object,” says Kyle.
Among the awards and bursaries Spark Box funds and gives are an Emerging Artist award, which is actually six awards given to young artists, a National Award, now in its third year and the new Dawson Award, a $1,000 bursary in honour of their friend the late Donald Dawson of Prince Edward County. “We work to give back to the larger arts community, and we are talking about creating a Writers Award. It’s in its concept days, but it is very much what we are aiming for,” says Chrissy. “I dream of there being some kind of foundation that wanted to seriously invest in Spark Box, we could give things away to artists, and we would do that all the time!”
PROJECTS PAST AND FUTURE
In September 2016, Spark Box took on a small retail space in House of Falconer in Picton. They call it The Curio Shop. Owner Alex Fida and Chrissie have been friends for a long time, and have partnered on some wild and wonderful art space ideas including art in a trailer in 2015. “There were logistical problems,” laughs Chrissy. “No heat, no light, no security.” Then Alex turned a chicken coop into the delightful Tuck Shop at Angeline’s Inn in Bloomfield for the summer of 2016. “It was only like 10 feet by 12 feet, but we had about 20 artists represented over the summer, and it was featured in Toronto Life because it was so adorable,” she says. “Alex has such a great eye.”
The Curio Shop took over the space The General store vacated when they expanded into bigger premises in Wellington. “Alex asked us if we were interested one day in September, we set up together the next day and opened for business the day after that,” says Kyle. “That’s how things happen around here.”
Kyle dreams of one day having an artist-run public art gallery. “Nothing big, just somewhere to exhibit and talk about art, not necessarily sell it,” he says, and he sees their Curio Shop as a stepping stone. Chrissy says, “I’ve always wanted a store, because we see so much good work run through here, I want to feature it somehow.” They sell their own work at craft sales and market sales, too. Kyle says candidly, “When we started Spark Box I was a little depressed because I wasn’t making my own art. But then I realized Spark Box Studio is actually part of my art practice and that changed my mind set, made me happy.” He’s even happier now they have finished their commitment to Loyalist College and have time to devote to their art. “When you become an entrepreneur you are so scared, you wonder if you can survive, can you make it? Now we have a history, we can look at our finances and say Hey, we’re okay, we can survive through December!”
Chrissy will be exhibiting at a printmaking show at the Southern Gallery in Charleston. “They reached out to me via Instagram,” she says. “I think I’m the only non-American.” She gets great satisfaction from Spark Box, both from residencies and from feedback on their resource-sharing website. “I got a beautiful email from a woman in Ireland who used our online resources to figure out how to create a CV for an application about her print work. She was an older woman in her late 60s, and that kind of paperwork wasn’t part of the system when she was breaking into the art scene. With help from our website she got herself several successful shows and wrote to me saying Thank you for just GIVING this information to people. It’s hard to access stuff like this and it is so important.”
WORKING WITH OTHERS
Recently they have worked with The Crazy Dames, Jennie Suddick and Sarah Udow, who talk about the intersection of art and urban planning, how to animate a public space to engage communities. “We did a blanket fort building project at the Drake Devonshire, and a storytelling campfire series and a Jane’s Walk in Picton. We’ve also done the Shangri-La Project with Julie Gibb and Christian Morrison of Pantry Press, who were recipients of our National Award and our first annual $1,000 Dawson Bursary. Shangri-La was a four-projection art piece on our house and our trailer. They created a Camper Van Paradise Utopia that included public engagement projects and story telling and screen prints they created with us. We invited the whole community to this three-day exhibition at Spark Box and more than 70 people came, all locals. A couple of their friends came from Toronto but the rest were all from The County. It was really immersive, people could tell their own stories and some of it was hilarious. Apparently a lot of people hate camping!
“We’ve done projects with the Baxter, like a recent writing workshop with a great writer from Washington DC, and only about 10 people RSVP’d but 20 people turned up. It was amazing. We did the Ex Libris show with Peter and Alice Mennacher at Blizzmax Gallery. It was a group show of printed book plates, and we invited artists the four of us felt are highly regarded in the letter press book arts community in Canada and the U.S.”
So Spark Box Studio is two artists who work with dozens of artists, in their community and around the world, sharing ideas and resources and using their own money to give awards and bursaries. They are clearly not in it for the money.
“Spark Box is about giving and sharing and helping others succeed,” says Chrissy.
“I want to live to work, not work to live. I was raised in a modest home where we were focused on experience and engagement not on material things. That influenced my adult life, and Kyle and I get so much reward out of being part of other people’s success.”
“We’ve had more than 350 artists come through our doors since we started, and that’s experience you can’t buy. Sure we could make more money some other way, but we can pay our bills, we have a roof over our head, we have enough. It would be nice to think one day there would be more. Maybe enough for a helicopter?” Kyle laughs. “The thing I loved about university was being part of a community where you exchange knowledge and you share and you help each other achieve different goals. If we can live that way out here in the big world, and help others do it, too, I think that’s great.”
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