Artists create a bigger Gift for Newcastle

A work of art usually starts out as an idea, gradually taking shape as the artist forms something concrete out of something less tangible. In the case of Newcastle’s not-for-profit gallery A Gift of Art, the idea of founder Ann Harley actually called for concrete.

Using lumber, drywall, paint and concrete as their material – and 187 King Avenue East as their canvas – the artists of A Gift of Art have been hard at work, taking Harley’s idea of a bigger Newcastle home for the arts from the world of thought to the material world.

For the past few months, the old house across from the Newcastle Library has been undergoing extensive renovation work in order to become the gallery’s new location. The house was built in 1855, with two additions put on sometime later. The building’s current owner, Syvan Development, recently improved the outside of the house, with new windows, new siding, and a new roof. But the inside renovations have been left up to A Gift of Art.

“These renovations have been done almost entirely by volunteers, by artists,” says Harley, flitting back and forth between the gallery’s old location and its new digs as she works to complete the move. It has been necessary to hire a number of tradespeople, such as an electrician and a plumber, to fulfill the requirements of the building code of Clarington’s Planning Department, she says. But almost all the rest of the work has been done by volunteers: mostly artists, and community supporters.

Harley marvels at the community support that has materialized with this project. She notes that the Hendrikx family, as well as Jack Vanderstarre and Hans Collmorgen, have made exceptional contributions to the renovation work. She also relates how a couple of volunteers – “Angela” and “Connie,” both of whom had no previous affiliation with the gallery – came out to lend a hand with painting and cleaning.

“Other than that, the rest of the volunteers are all artists,” says Harley.

The renovations took longer to complete than expected. Much of the delay has involved satisfying the requirements of the Planning Department, and ensuring that the building meets the local fire code. This has pushed the gallery’s opening date from February into May.

In fact, the Planning Department had still not assured the building’s opening for the gallery’s planned participation in the Oshawa Art Association’s tour on May 7-8. But Harley is determined to do whatever is necessary to get the gallery’s doors open in time.

The first three rooms on the ground floor will be gallery rooms and a gift shop, she says. The very back room on the ground floor will be a kids’ room, where afterschool classes will be held. The room will also be available during the day, to be used by townspeople for cards, and other social activities. Adult classes will be held in the former garage turned workshop, which will also host a guest speaker one afternoon a week.

On the second floor, there will be space for one-person art shows. This will be a new feature for A Gift of Art, which has always displayed the work of all of its artists at once, in an effort to promote as many local artists as possible. Also on the second floor will be a new textile art room, with a blanket loom and spinning wheel. The new location also marks the first time the gallery will be able to use outside space to create an outdoor theatre area for drama classes, plays and poetry readings.

The finishing touches will include a sign to stand in front of the new location. “One of the artists will be doing the sign,” says Harley. “They have been asked to submit designs, and we have received two designs so far.”

“We find we’re getting a tremendous amount of support from the community,” she says, noting that a variety of donations from local individuals and local businesses has been instrumental in funding the renovations. “We raised $6,000 from our Mardi Gras fundraiser, and we also held a garage sale fundraiser. We’ve received incredible support from RONA, and also from Veridian. Local businesses such as Newcastle Funeral Home have also made donations.”

The new, larger space will serve as a gallery, art shop and school. “It’s three times the size of what we currently have,” says Harley, comparing it to the organization’s original location at 20 Robert Street. Harley, a Newcastle resident, founded A Gift of Art in 2008, starting with a 48-artist show at Newcastle’s lakefront, called the Artists and Artisans Show.

In September of that year, the 19-artist gallery and gift shop opened its doors on Robert Street, where it has operated up until now.  By 2009, A Gift of Art was offering art lessons and summer camps, and currently shows the work of 58 artists. This summer will mark the group’s 4th year of holding the show at the Lake, which will run July 9-10.

Operating under the directorship of a three-person board that included Harley and the late Mark Hendrikx, the gallery expanded to a five-person board of directors following Hendrikx’s death in 2010. The current board includes Harley (a retired corporate controller), Sharon Lawrence (a glass artist), Gary Blake (a wildlife photographer and retired police officer), Sam Lusty (a retired General Motors executive), and John Albi (owner of the Newcastle RONA).

With A Gift of Art open 12 months of the year, often seven days a week, 68-year-old Harley says she would like to back off a little from her work at the gallery. She wants to devote more time to her other passion, travelling.

“It’s roughly seven days a week,” she explains, “but I’m not the only one. Both Sharon and her husband Barry Lawrence give an enormous amount of time.” Sharon Lawrence has a full-time job as well as her work as a board member. “We do it for the love of the arts,” says Lawrence.

“One of the nicest things about it has been meeting our fellow artists,” she says. “We’ve made some really good friends in the arts and shared some really good ideas.” Harley agrees, adding, “With these ideas, the artists seem to feed off of each other rather than being in isolation out on the Third Line somewhere.”

“We are trying to be a destination that brings people to the town,” says Harley. Participating in events from Clarington’s Family Adventure Tour in June, to CAMfest’s August 20th event at the Orono Fairgrounds, to the country-wide Culture Days Canada event at the end of September, A Gift of Art is working hard to promote local artists.

“It has grown from an idea into a viable centre for the arts,” says Harley. “It’s actually started to take on a life of its own.”

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