Two well-established visual artists who have studied, taught and exhibited their work in many countries around the world, are delighted to find themselves in the quiet little village of Queenston, in the former Laura Secord school building, that allows them plenty of space to paint, and is steeped in history and education, both essential components of their art.
Sharon Okun and Adam Markovic met in Florence Italy, in 2008, while studying painting.
Adam brought with him a skill he had learned while living in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he was co-owner of a store that sold fine art supplies. While there, he learned to produce traditional painting materials, grinding paint, and using the techniques of the Old Masters, which he continued to perfect in Florence, while also painting for European galleries.
Sharon, who has roots in Niagara, began studying art history and restoration in Florence, and then producing oil paintings for gallery exhibits, and commissions for private clients and collectors.
In 2012, they made the decision to return to Canada, and chose Montreal for their next studio, thinking that of anywhere in this country, it would have the most European feel.
Their next stop was Paris, Ont., but recently, were encouraged by their friend, Brett Sherlock, to come and have a look at his hometown of NOTL.
When they discovered Queenston, the Willowbank Estate, and the Willowbank Lower campus in the former Laura Secord building, it was love at first sight — they knew they had found their next studio space, “a romantic, magical place,” says Adam. It was a difficult time between presenting their proposal to the Willowbank board, and receiving a positive response, Adam says, but worth the wait. For the first time in their careers, they have a home in one place — at Irvine Road and Scott Street — and their studios in a location that is not also where they live.
Adam says they’re enjoying the beautiful 15-minute drive to Queenston, along tranquil rural roads that delineate between their home and work space, now named the Willowbank Studio, and find most days they’re accomplishing more than they might have otherwise.
The connection to the Willowbank Estate and School of Restoration Arts just up the hill, and having a couple of downstairs classrooms in the Walnut Road building used by Willowbank students, is a great fit for them. And they have the entire upstairs to themselves, for each to have large studios themselves, with enough room for the classes that are so important to them, and also space for Adam’s paint grinding.
“It feels like there is something in the air, something special that keeps us feeling attached to our roots,” says Sharon.
There is still some work to be done to complete the conversion from an old elementary school with history, to a cultural centre that respects that history. As Willowbank renovations are finished up the hill, that is expected to free up some classroom space in the lower campus that can be used by other artisans, “through a slow, organic process,” says Adam. “We have high hopes for this building We’re hoping for a makery space, and it’s already happening.”
When they’ve had time to build up enough of their own works, Adam and Sharon see using their studios to host their own exhibitions, but they have no plans for a public gallery.
Sharon is already offering classes in oil painting, teaching experienced artists a 16th century “sight-size” technique —
she demonstrates a group of items, arranged close at hand beside an artist’s canvas, allowing the subjects to be painted at their actual size.
Adam is using his top floor workshop, which he has converted from a former staff room, using materials found in the school, for stretching canvas and grinding paint, a skill he plans to teach. His large studio, one of two former upstairs classrooms, gives space for his large, bold, more abstract paintings using the oil paint he mixes. He also has a large woodworking space downstairs, where he designs and makes custom furniture.
The couple say they occasionally have locals drop by, who know the building is occupied, and are anxious to share their memories of when it was the village school, and curious to see how it’s being used now.
They expect more of that during an upcoming Open Doors event on Saturday, Oct. 16, planned on an Explore Queenston day, when they will welcome visitors to their private studios to see their work in progress. Adam will also demonstrate the art of making oil paint, which they both use for their art.
The Princess Street door to the upper floor will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information about the artists visit www.sharon
okun.com and www.adam
RiverBrink Art Museum, Willowbank Estate and The School of Restoration Arts, as well as Brock’s Monument at Queenston Heights, are all participating in the day, intended to showcase all that Queenston has to offer in arts, culture, heritage, history, and community.
RiverBrink, at the corner of the Niagara River Parkway and Queenston Street, features exhibitions of historical and contemporary art, with supporting exhibitions from its permanent collection. During Explore Queenston, RiverBrink will hold a fundraising sale of donated treasures to support exhibitions and programming, will offer scheduled gallery tours, and an en plein air painting workshop. It will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and light refreshments will be available for purchase. For more information visit http://www.riverbrink.org/
Willowbank Estate (1834), at the Niagara River Parkway and Dee Road, is a National Historic Site and home to the School of Restoration Arts, with a unique three-year diploma program in heritage conservation — the only program of its kind in Canada. The house, grounds and woodshop will be open to visitors, who can also chat with students and staff. Some of the students will be working on projects, demonstrating different techniques, or selling their work. It will be open to visitors 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information visit www.willowbank.ca.
Brock’s Monument National Historic Site, at Queenston Heights, will have the Friends of Fort George offering featured talks at noon and 2 p.m. on the Battle of Queenston Heights. For more information visit http://friendsoffort
St. Saviours Anglican Church, at 12 Princess St., was built from 1877 to 1879, constructed of local limestone. The Brock memorial window on the west side, above the altar, commemorates Brock’s death. Due to COVID, the church will be closed, but visitors are invited to walk the grounds.
Also partnering for the event is the Queenston Residents Association, with nine families holding yard sales around the village, beginning at 8 a.m.
There is no charge for entrance to Queenston landmarks, but donations will be accepted.
Participants are asked to follow provincial COVID-19 public health guidelines. For more information, please visit https://covid-19.ontario.ca/