I never expected to be a gallery owner. The love of a special man, enhanced by my love of nature, drew me to Muskoka from the city. Once here my plan was to paint and write. Within weeks I enrolled in a painting class and signed up for a writing group. I joined Arts at the Albion, an artists’ co-op in Gravenhurst, where I remained for nearly two years.
Then, in 2017, my spouse and I purchased a century home high on a hill overlooking Bracebridge, one with a traditional living room we would never use. We’re not formal people; the house boasted an airy family room that suited us. The decision was made to turn the home’s living room and sun porch into a gallery to exhibit my work. Excited by this prospect and wanting to focus my energy at home, I left the Albion co-op in June 2018.
Setting up the gallery, we took into consideration ways to make visitors feel comfortable when entering a private home. With walls of windows framed in white, the bright open area of the porch creates a welcoming entrance. The gallery walls are a pale, icy blue, the windows dressed in elegant floor-to-ceiling draperies of olive green, yellow, blue, and deep red.
Next, we needed a way to hang paintings and a method of closing off the dining room from the gallery area (the formal living room). My spouse, who constantly surprises me with his ability to take on any challenge, found solutions in short order. He created a unique hanging system using PVC lattice caps, s-hooks, and chains. He built a display area and refurbished louvered doors to offer privacy for our dining space. Those doors also serve as a hanging area for art pieces. Inside the house, we roped off the gallery space to separate our private living areas from the public gallery.
The name came easily. Throughout my life, Great Blue Herons have played a significant role as message bearers and encouragers by appearing at significant times. They represent patience, self-determination and self-reliance, all traits I felt important in running a business. I could easily have gone with The Blue Heron Gallery, but I also wanted visitors to feel comfortable and at ease to browse at their leisure. The name Heron’s Nest incorporated all the right elements. Settled on the name, my partner tackled making the gallery sign. He designed, carved, and painted the one visitors see today at street level.
During my early days in Muskoka I worked for Jody Good at Silver Bridge Gallery in Bracebridge, where I learned the value of providing customers with a variety of products. And from my experience at the Albion, I knew how difficult it could be for artists to sell their work and find representation. I reached out to a few hoping they might want their work included at Heron’s Nest. Today, the gallery carries the creations of seven artists including my own.
However, Heron’s Nest is an intimate space, which limits how much inventory I can carry at any one time. I had to learn to say no, even to work I love. My concern for the welfare of our planet drives my own work. To carry on that theme, all the art in the gallery is nature inspired. Most of my acrylic, oil and water-medium based paintings focus on the beauty and fragility of our planet using either realistic or impressionistic styles. Other Heron’s Nest artists interpret nature themes in stained glass, encaustic paintings, clay sculpture, and ironwork. And our artisan furniture maker uses deadfall from his property to build his unique pieces.
Being an artist and a small business owner brings many challenges. How do I divide my time between the gallery and the studio? What hours will I be open? Is it better to have people make appointments? How and where can I promote the business? How will people find Heron’s Nest?
Here in Muskoka, most visitors appear on weekends with the highest volume from late spring through to Thanksgiving, so being open Saturdays and Sundays throughout the season makes sense. Other days, I am open by chance or appointment. This arrangement allows me time to paint, write, and take care of the administrative side of the gallery. I have focused my promotional efforts on social media and my website. This year is the first time I invested in advertising through four local hotels. Location is important for any business and although Heron’s Nest is close to downtown Bracebridge, it isn’t visible to walkers and vehicular traffic. When we are open, to help attract visitors, we place sandwich board signs strategically on the major intersections near us.
The past two years through the pandemic, artists have struggled to keep their heads above water. This has been especially hard on those who have brick-and-mortar storefronts. It’s been a blessing to have my gallery in my home where overhead is low. For many of us, the time has also been a creative challenge. Those pandemic months were my least inspired and productive. Happily, I have returned to the easel, and I’m thrilled to be painting again.
There are days I wonder what I was thinking when we considered opening a gallery. However, the payoff is worth the effort. Every day, when I come downstairs into a space filled with beauty and creative energy, a smile spreads across my face and my heart beats a little faster. Even when customers only come to browse and not to buy, I have the chance to share with them the artists’ processes and inspiration. Meeting people who love art and are interested in learning about it enriches my life.
So, would I do it all again? Yes, definitely! I would welcome the lonely days of no visitors as well as the ones when a customer leaves Heron’s Nest with art they have connected with and will treasure always.
Photos courtesy of Wendie Donabie.
About the Author: Muskoka writer and visual artist Wendie Donabie paints pictures with words and flavours her creations with alliteration, similes and metaphors. When words won’t do the job, she turns to her easel and paints what stirs her heart and soul – most often her love of the natural world. Wendie has published work in magazines and in poetry and literary collections. At this time, she is working on a murder mystery set in a forested resort area somewhere in North America. Wendie is co-founder of Muskoka Authors Association, operates Heron’s Nest Studio Gallery and is one of the organizers of ARTrail Muskoka. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram and www.WendieDonabie.com.