Nexus Gallery: new art at the old mill

It catches the eye of most visitors. With its imposing size and striking roof-line, the old flax mill has long been a landmark of Orono, nestled between the creek and Main Street, right where the road takes a dip at the north end of town. And so, in September 2006, it caught the eye of Richard Hodges, a master furniture maker from Toronto.

Hodges was looking for a new place to make his workshop, and it was the distinctive character and space of the old mill that brought him, and his partner Julia Strutt, to Orono. The couple bought the building and now, after renovating it, setting up shop and moving in, they are ready to show the place off with the grand opening of their Nexus Gallery and Custom Furniture Studio. The first show at the gallery opens this Saturday, November 8th, from 1 to 5 p.m., with an exhibition of four Ontario artists.

It is only fitting that such a unique building would house an interesting couple. And when you talk to Hodges and Strutt, you find two people very much engaged in their work – and their play. The building – which is also the couple’s personal residence – seemed to suggest the idea for the art gallery itself, leaving its owners feeling almost obliged to fill some of its spaces. “We have so much space here,” said Hodges as he sat with Strutt in the gallery last week. “We turned this space into a gallery because we could. What else are we going to do with it?”

“We’re just doing this for fun, really,” added Strutt. “It’s going to be great if we can sell some work for these artists. That would be awesome. But this space just speaks to having something in it.”

“It’s Julia’s thing,” said Hodges. “She’s the one who put it together. She’s the one who’s been marketing it. She’s designed the interior, done the painting, and she did our website. She’s good. She’s done a fantastic job.”

Strutt is used to taking on big projects, especially in the field of interior design. She studied fine art and art history at the University of Toronto, and then started working as a designer for Cineplex Odeon during the company’s expansion years. She worked on cinemas across North America, and even designed some in Europe, while also raising the couple’s two sons.

When Cineplex Odeon took over the Pantages Theatre (now called the Canon Theatre) in 1988, Strutt was the project’s interior designer, working on the historical restoration and reconstruction of the theatre. The project won a heritage award not just once, but twice, after a second renovation on which Strutt was also a member of the design team. She currently works part-time on a condominium-hotel project in Toronto, but it has been her work on the new Nexus building and gallery that has given her a joie-de-vivre.

“It’s kind of about – for once – having some fun. I feel that for years I’ve just been working, working, working, and working, for not much fun. This has been fun. It’s been a lot of work, but I feel good about it,” she said. “It’s just a process right now. We’ll see how it evolves, and what it ends up as.”

“It’s basically a work in progress,” added Hodges. “Our lives are a work in progress. We’re just kind of tying it together, and playing.”

That playfulness extends from the gallery out into the yard, where a surplus piece from one of Hodges’ projects is being exposed to the elements to gauge the effects. The woodworker said he expects that the snow will transform the look of the piece, and he said he might then spray it down with water to get a coating of ice on it, to make it look even more interesting.

“I call it a sculpture,” said Hodges, of the wavy wooden structure visible in their south yard. “It’s two-by-two’s basically. I call it Symphony No. 4 because it’s symphony two squared, which is two by two’s. And it looks like music to me, the way the two-by-two’s go up and down like that. I like it. And a lot of people are coming by to look at it too.

“We’re really open to people having ideas for doing stuff like that, or somebody coming up with an idea for how they could use the attic space here, or something. We have a friend who is a film teacher, and he’s talked about showing films on the side of the building in the summer. So that’s one idea. We’re open to ideas because we have so much space here.”

Hodges studied art at the University of Manitoba, before moving to Vancouver to apprentice as a cabinetmaker. When he moved to Toronto, he went back to working as an artist for a few years, before returning to cabinet making.

“I started this business, Nexus, about 20 years ago,” he said. Before making the move to Orono, Hodges had a studio at Dufferin and Eglinton, in the design district. Most of his work comes from repeat clientele that he has built up over the years. And the demand for his work continues to be steady.

“I have all the work I need, basically. I very rarely take on new clients,” he said. “Most of the work comes from Toronto, but some of the stuff I build gets shipped to places like the Caribbean or the States. I recently shipped some pieces to Halifax.” And his pieces do not stay in the shop for long, he said. “I just like to make it, and then take it away.”

While there are a few tables made by Hodges on display in the gallery, Strutt said she would have liked to feature more of his designs. “He’s been too busy to make anything for this show. But I’ve forgiven him because he is what’s carrying this whole building. So I can’t really be too mad at him,” she said, laughing. “The first thing we had to do was to get the business up and running.”

When the couple first took possession of the building, it consisted of two apartments (of which only one was legal), two empty stores, and an unfinished basement on about an acre of property, about a quarter of which they donated to the Municipality to continue the Orono Walkway Path system.

“The first thing we did was fix up the shop,” agreed Hodges. “It took us nine months to get Planning Department approval, three months to get a building permit, and then we did the basement, or ground floor, where the workshop is, first.”

Hodges spends time at the workshop, as well as in his office, doing sales, design, and bookkeeping. He often spends two days a week in Toronto, installing the furniture he makes. He makes custom library units, kitchen tables, dining-room tables, dining-room sideboards, and wall units, many with fireplaces and TVs built into them.

“My favourite thing is doing the entertainment centres, with the new TVs and the new sound systems,” he said. “I know that stuff really well because I work with it all the time. If someone comes to me, I know the stuff that they’re using and what they’re doing with it, and how to fit it in and make it work really well.”

While the new workshop is slightly smaller than his old one, Hodges said that the size suits his needs and, just as importantly it seems, the building suits his tastes. “It is the perfect size. 4000 square feet for my shop is perfect. The whole thing is just a cool building. It’s just a fantastic building. I just love the spaces, the apartment, and the gallery. I just got a vibe from it that I really liked. The spaces just speak to you, so you’ve got to do something with them.”

And so the idea for the gallery was born, and soon an exhibition was in the works, and a search was on for some artists to feature. “I just put a couple of feelers out,” said Strutt, “and it’s like the baseball field, you know, if you build it, they come. I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed meeting these artists and getting to know them a little. I really enjoyed the process of this whole thing. I’ll be really nervous on Saturday because that’s almost, to me, like the end of it. But I’ve enjoyed getting to that point.”

The opening exhibition will feature the works of Eric Cator, Beverley Hawksely, Jiri Ladocha, and Will Munro, all of who will be in attendance on Saturday. For more information, see the gallery website at www.nexusdesign.ca

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