By Alison Strachan
January is typically downtime on the South Shore with events planners and organizations taking something of a break before warmer and busier days of Spring rapidly morph into busy events and festivals during July and August. So, I scheduled my lunch and learn with Sue LeBlanc, executive director (“ED”) at the Chester Art Centre, thinking it might break the winter monotony (and pandemic exhaustion) for both of us.
The pandemic has changed many things but probably most noticeable to me is that sleepy South Shore towns are now bustling with new faces year-round.
I parked my car, noting that parking was at a premium for a mid-winter day, donned my latest N95 accessory mask, picked up two vegan wraps and a couple of coffees from Chester’s Cafe and then navigated the frozen snow on the sidewalks further up Queen Street to drop in on Sue at the Centre.
At this point, I found out that there is no winter monotony happening at the Centre.
I got there just as board member Trudi Curley and Sue were just finishing up from hanging a show scheduled to open that night: Omnipresent: Paintings by Jacqui Potvin-Boucher. I was struck by the work quickly telling Trudi that I was touched by the sophisticated colours in Potvin-Boucher’s work. Oils on gallery-wrapped canvas, the paintings are moody and sombre (night skies come to mind), but at the same time includes hints of encouragement (think of shooting stars).
Potvin-Boucher’s work will be up until February 6, Wednesday to Sunday, 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.
I barely delivered our wraps to the table where we would eat, yes, a socially distanced 6′ apart for those of you who are curious, before Sue began to fill me in on the “Diversity Series” that starts with Potvin-Boucher’s show, filling the gallery until April 3.
Sue came into the ED role in July 2020 but she tells me that her involvement pre-dated her current role because she was formerly a Board member. Sue, a Dal grad and passionate nutritionist, had earlier been busy running a health food store and is known locally as the ‘Cafeteria Lady’ at Chester Area Middle School. An endearing story about how she got that name is here.
July 2020, you may recall, we were in the throes of CV19 as it evolved that year. Masks were a new thing. Obviously, a new ED (and the board) had to all be thinking strategically in order to make the Centre work at a time when rules and guidelines changed rapidly.
Sue suggests that it was less strategic than it was simply a series of adaptations caused by CV19 disruptors. She says, in a way, this had a positive impact as the Centre did things differently and learned new things about how to do things that could not have happened but for CV19. By way of example, she tells me that normally social gallery openings had refreshments available inside alongside the show itself. The Centre had connected with local brewers to provide refreshments. But with evolving restrictions, one scheduled opening ended up having its refreshments outside with brewery tasting stations. Because this worked well, the Centre continued having refreshments outdoors for every summer opening.
One of the things that caught my attention during the early days of CV19 was the Centre’s “Art Kits”. Essentially, because programming could not occur inside the Centre during the March 2020 lockdown, paper bags filled with a variety of items that children could be picked up from the front porch of the Centre and transformed into something original by the children.
The bags contained anything from a few bits of yarn, a small picture frame, string, beads, corks, a crayon. That lockdown, Sue tells me, was the only time that programming was cancelled at the Centre but despite cancellation, the Art Kits were made available.
Sue tells me the kits continued to Christmas 2021 when 100 art kits were delivered to the Food Bank for distribution.
Collaboration seems to have been a solid game plan for Centre events during CV19. Along with the Art Kit x Food Bank collaboration, the Centre also collaborated with the QEII Foundation and artist Colin Chen. More about that here.
Sue tells me that she loves her role and is most happy when she is working with artists and meeting visitors. I asked her what was her favourite experience since assuming the ED role and she happily responded that the “Chester Creates – Free Art Festival” this past year was a highlight. The event was hosted by the Centre on September 11 and 12 and saw the Centre engaging with over 500 people.
As many events were cancelled throughout the South Shore or held virtually, the Centre is able to look back at approximately 60 in-person workshops this past year.
The pride in Sue’s eyes appears when she recalls the most successful in-person art auction event in the Centre’s history that took place this past summer in the midst of a pandemic. Sue feels the difference between other auctions and this one was that the items included “experiences”.
For example, she says, Chester resident Christopher Ondaatje offered a tour of his Meisner’s Island off of Chester as well as a dinner at his home.
Canadian artist Chippie Kennedy, who works out of her Lunenburg Studio, donated a yet-to-be-cast bust sculpture with the successful bidder’s choice of subject.
The event was a nail-biter for Sue right up to the last minute. Because of social distancing requirements, a larger tent than before had to be ordered to facilitate “bubble” seating”. The weather was lacklustre – drizzling and overcast to the last minute. But the event was a resounding success by all accounts as is apparent from the photos below:
Once over and done, Sue heard feedback from patrons such as “great value for the money” and “best event yet”. This, at the end of a very busy season, would serve to carry her enthusiasm forward.
She enthusiastically tells me that so far there has been a flurry of international applications for the Centre’s Artist in Residence program. The deadline for applications is February 15 and the residency commences April 15 running to June 15. The residency includes accommodation and a studio along with a monthly stipend. More information can be found here .
Soon it was time to move along so that Sue could finish up her day preparing for the gallery opening preparation I had interrupted on my arrival. But not before she gave me a schedule of 2022 Winter Workshops to choose from. I’m hoping to make it to The Journeys of Love writing workshop scheduled for Saturday, February 12.
The veggie wraps and coffee had long disappeared but were so good!
Editor’s Note: For more Lunch With Alison Strachan columns, click here.
Editor’s Note: For more Chester Note news features, click here.