By Alison Strachan
After several weeks of on again, off again lunch dates made and then cancelled due to life events and circumstances, I finally met up with Allyson Simmie at her restaurant choice, Biscuit Eater Cafe in Mahone Bay.
As the name suggests, the restaurant offers a variety of meals served on or with their homemade biscuits. It is housed in a meticulously restored, bright yellow Cape Cod home (with ample parking) at 16 Orchard Street.
As you enter, you are greeted with the wonderful smells of freshly baked biscuits. On this day, we were also greeted with the amazing aroma of a traditional marmalade being made on the kitchen stovetop.
Simmie chose a ham and swiss biscuit sandwich with a mixed green salad. I selected a grilled cheese biscuit sandwich with a lovely carrot, orange and fennel soup. Our cleaned up plates proved to me, at least, that Simmie’s restaurant choice lived up to our expectations and lunch needs.
Who is Allyson Simmie?
A simple Google search of her name brings up her webpage Allyson Simmie Metal Arts and, literally, page after page of press release information about her work and exhibitions over the course of her fine arts career. It also reveals that she is a 1985 graduate of Halifax Grammar School and a 1989 graduate of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. It indicates that Simmie has spent time in Canada’s North and seems quite influenced by her time there. Click on ‘images’ and hundreds of beautiful gold and silver samples of her work pop up.
Google also tells us that her work has been acquired by the Prime Minister’s Office as a gift to President George W. Bush, the Governor-General of Canada’s Office to supply limited edition and one-of-a-kind presentation gifts, the permanent collection of the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum, and at the Maritime Life Assurance Company’s Head Office Collection in Halifax. We are also informed that she was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 2016.
Simmie was born in Toronto. By grade 1, she was travelling alone by bus from home to an open concept school in Kensington Market. In grade 2, she moved to Halifax and attended LeMarchant St. Thomas Elementary. The school just wasn’t the right fit after the open concept school experience. Her mother soon moved her to the now demolished Alexandra School at Brunswick and Cornwallis streets.
This was the early ‘70s, approximately 10 years after the Africville ‘relocation’. Uniacke Square was brand new. It was also a time when the hit mini-series Roots was broadcast weekly. This experience opened up Simmie’s eyes to the diversity and culture around her at a very young age.
In reflection now, she says her experience at Alexandra School may have laid the foundation to get along as well as she did in the North.
By grade 5, Simmie was attending Grammar School and, when she graduated in 1985, was all set to study graphic design at NSCAD. Her choice when she actually registered, was to enter the Fine Arts curriculum. That curriculum introduces students to everything and soon she recognized that she had an obvious connection to working in a medium with both hands in control — ceramics and jewellery.
Simmie came up with an interesting theory back then: “The top 10 per cent of every field always do well,” but she didn’t know if she was talented enough to be in that top 10 per cent so she reasoned with herself that “if you are good at marketing you don’t have to be in the top 10 per cent.” In other words, the connection between marketing and art was a natural way of thinking to face her freshman insecurities and move forward.
Simmie talked about her time at NSCAD and two instructors she feels were responsible for her continuing along on her arts path in the way that she did.
Associate professor Homer Lord was a student of Alice Hagen and emphasized craftsmanship over decorative detail. Simmie was in the last ceramics class Lord taught at NSCAD. A reception was planned for his retirement with a graduate student who was going to Korea tasked with purchasing a piece for Lord from a Korean ceramics master. The moment the piece was unveiled was an eye-opening moment for Simmie who said the piece was “unbelievable…just beautiful.”
“Just looking at that piece gave me the understanding of what patience is required for fine arts. Decades and decades of work took place to create that level of work.”
The penny dropped on what craftsmanship is about. She says, “You would hear about master craftsmen…but this was real.”
It took her almost 10 years before she began to feel that sense of confidence in her own work.
In her graduation semester, she had what she describes as a consciousness crisis. Was she just making “things” — maybe artistic and thoughtful, but “just things?”
In stepped professor Pamela Ritchie, who retires this year, who read her the riot act, saying that crafts traditionally were made in the home, mostly by women, and these crafts are all the things that add warmth to the homes and meaning to our environment.
The message Ritchie conveyed to Simmie was “get a grip”, and that pushed her to the next level.
Simmie says Ritchie was also really good at expecting the best from students. “She would not accept ‘good enough’ but the best.”
After graduation, Simmie ended up in Ottawa where she worked in a small jewellery studio for $7 an hour (negotiated up from $6). She rationalized this small rate of pay away by considering herself as still learning. Considering this as an apprenticeship, she focused exclusively on making her designs and perfecting her work.
It was during this time that Simmie began to think that life was a parade that was always going by. She felt her job was to watch that parade and decide when to jump in, but she was stuck inside the jewellery shop.
She quit her job and took work at Ottawa’s first coffee shop: The Vienna Cafe. From there, she decided she wanted to work with people and traveled to UBC to do a preliminary year of the Masters degree in Set and Lighting Design (she had previously done some of that coursework at NSCAD and at University of Ottawa). She soon realized that it was going to be another 10 years of time investment and she returned to Ottawa to her old job, but at $10 an hour.
The parade continued. Simmie noticed an airline ad campaign saying “Ottawa to Iqaluit — five times a week, whether you want to go or not”. Her employer had a friend up North who was looking for a jewellery teacher in Iqaluit and two weeks after he mentioned this to her, she had “jumped into the parade” and was on a Canadian North flight to Nunavut Arctic College where she taught from 1994 to 1997.
She loved it!
She was working with people doing what she had learned at NSCAD. Over time though, she felt that teaching was taking a lot away from her capacity to do her own work and she decided she wanted to start her own business and work with advanced students. So, she did this and her first exhibition: Arctic Landscape happened using stone exclusively from Baffin Island.
Someone suggested to her that the stone looked like the landscape and she realized it did. She believes that her work sends her message of appreciation back to the Iqaluit community. Out of this work, some pieces remain in her Classic jewellery line today.
Twenty years ago, in 1998, she was living in Ottawa, Her business was registered that spring. This year is its 20th anniversary.
Simmie returned to Nova Scotia 18 years ago where she is still doing landscape work because her goal is to capture in every piece she makes some part of the landscape. To do that, she says, means you “really have to look hard to see. For example, how do leaves unfurl?”
I asked who buys her work and she said she has noticed that “only the nicest and most awesome people are her customers.” She believes that this is because that what she is talking about with her work is a connection to nature and to places and this is a set of values that draws her customers.
Simmie lives in Bridgewater. Her most popular pieces are the Shoreline series based on an East River beach she travelled past daily on her commute from Bridgewater to her studio in Blandford. One day, she says, she just stopped the car and did a sketch and now it is one of her more popular lines.
Simmie shared with me that she is now working on a series called Origins with rock texture from Atlantic slate. All these pieces in this series are round. The concept is based on life beginning in the ocean. The texture comes from beach rocks.
Real enthusiasm and excitement start to shine through as Simmie attempts to communicate a concept she wants to fulfill on this 20th anniversary of Allyson Simmie Metal Arts. A delicate snowflake globe or orb that signals the preciousness or precariousness of life in our environment.
Keep your eyes open for this one. It sounds like an exquisite collaboration with a former student from Iqaluit.