The Art of the Island
It had been the hub of island life, the setting for countless weddings, Christmas pageants and fish fries. So when talk began of demolishing the old community center on the grounds of St. Mary’s Anglican Church, residents were naturally upset.
But for one island resident, the controversy sparked an idea — an arts center. Mary Lou Atkinson, a drama therapist, asked the church if she could rent the building and use it to create her vision.
“I’ve always been involved in the arts, so I felt I could give back to the island what I love the most,” says Atkinson. “But I didn’t think the church would agree to the idea. I thought they might think it was unsacred. Instead, they thought I was an angel that descended from the sky.”
With a team of volunteers from the community, and a whole lot of sweat equity, Atkinson and her husband, Roger Poisson, began the difficult task of renovating the building in just three months. In June 1995, Pelee Art Works opened its doors. The nonprofit provides a place for visitors to browse and buy works by resident and visiting artists, including photographers, potters, weavers, painters and crafters. It also offers classes and workshops for all ages.
“We sold $1,500 on the first day,” says Atkinson, “and we were on our way. Now, it’s really a hub of activity.”
With encouragement from the staff at Pelee Art Works, Jean Ann Ames has developed her painting skills over the past 10 years to the point where her work is in high demand on the island. Her acrylic paintings on slate and canvas depict some of her favorite scenes around Pelee Island, including the stone lighthouse at the northernmost tip of the island.
“I don’t want to paint to be famous,” says Ames. “I just want people to see my work and enjoy it.”
Then there’s Ricky Oltean-Lepp, whose exquisite jewelry pieces and abstract oil paintings can be found not only on Pelee, but also in some of the top galleries in Toronto.
Guy Hooper is another familiar face around the island and an important cog in the wheel at Pelee Art Works since its founding. An entire wing of the arts center is dedicated to his late wife, May, an oil painter. The retired teacher — who creates magnificent functional art out of cedar and walnut, such as facial tissue boxes and Lazy Susans — donates every penny from the sale of his pieces to support the organization.
“I always donated everything because I didn’t need the money,” he says. “By its very nature, [Pelee Art Works] enriches the island and helps it become a place for tourists to visit. You see things there that you can’t see anywhere else on the island, and I want to support it.”
While the facility still relies heavily on art sales and plenty of volunteers, Pelee Art Works recently received a $46,000 capital grant from the Canadian government that went toward making the building wheelchair accessible and adding more storage space and — most importantly — bathroom facilities.
“Up until this year, we had no plumbing and no heat other than from the wood-burning stove,” says Gina Lepp, who served as manager for six years until she stepped down recently to run a bed-and-breakfast on the island.
“That was a huge piece of progress for us,” says Lepp. “It was pretty rough when we had children’s programs, because the kids didn’t want to use the outhouse. There have been giant spiders in there, and a snake showed its slithery face once.”
Change has finally come to Pelee Art Works, but the organization has remained true to its mission to tap the creative gene that is deeply embedded in the DNA of Lake Erie’s largest island.
“A community without an arts center or a cultural hub is missing something,” says Lepp.
As Atkinson says, “Art is where our spirit lives. And if there’s anything we should support, it’s that.”