From the outside, it’s pretty nondescript. Just a glass door on the side of the Russell Food Equipment building in the north end. But when you open that door to 2891 Isleville, Wonder’neath starts to reveal itself: a papier-mâché cat in a window, a rainbow flag, a poster titled “Community Space to Gather and Make Art” with photos of young and old doing just that.
Up on the second floor is where the magic happens. Artists Heather Wilkinson and Melissa Marr, who founded this non-profit, meet me up there with the sunshine streaming into an open project room. Those poster photos were taken here, and all around are workbenches, a couch, a cabinet packed with art supplies, a painting of a forest, dangling triangular flags.
Through the back glass door are the permanent artist spaces, where it’s as messy and full of light and full of works-in-progress as you’d hope. Artists that include painter and educator Renée Forrestall, designer Lorrie Rand, and illustrator Sophie Pilipczuk have separate studios here. But it’s more of an open door policy.
Out of one comes Therese Bombardier, who makes ceramic jewellery and functional housewares. She shows Heather a tiny blue file and asks if she has one like it. “Yeah, but it’s probably not as good as that one,” says Heather with a chuckle, before turning to do some scrounging.
A few minutes later the two founders and I are back in the project room around a table with a blue owl looking down on us. This is where Wonder’neath’s free drop-in Open Studio program happens on Fridays and Saturdays. Over the past year-and-a-half, over 2,500 people, usually young people, have come here of all skill levels to make whatever they want with what’s available—textiles, paint, hand tools, a sewing machine, typewriters, you name it. If you need help, volunteers and resident artists are here. Otherwise, have at it.
“From the start we didn’t want it to feel precious,” says Melissa. “We’ve seen that in other spaces, it progresses from being an artist space to something so high end that you can’t quite feel yourself fitting in. So our goal was to provide secure, safe, affordable art space for artists, and to have a space within it that would allow conversations in the community.”
They weren’t sure what types of conversations would be had, but they’re from the north end and realized that not everyone sees themselves reflected in the changes going on in this area of the city. They wondered what was possible when artists and anyone from the community, but particularly young people, worked together.
“We still don’t even know the answer necessarily,” says Heather before getting up to answer a ringing phone. “But we do know that right from the beginning, people were surprising themselves by how much they wanted the time and space we were giving them.”
Kumi Henden has been coming to Open Studio since October, usually with friends to make sculptures, drawings for comic books and collages. I caught up with the sixteen-year-old and daughter of the editor-in-chief of this magazine, Alex Henden, before visiting Wonder’neath. “The atmosphere is great, you get to connect with the people there, and you also have the chance to learn from them as well,” she says. “The studio is condensed with art, and it helps spark my creativity, and has the ability to inspire the ones inside.”
It also inspires the ones outside. Since 2010, when Melissa and Heather launched Wonder’neath from a smaller space not far from here, they’ve formed relationships with over 30 different groups in the city, including the Ecology Action Centre and the IWK Health Centre. Collaborations have ranged from school-based art workshops to programs for adolescents in addiction treatment.
Unfortunately, though, the need for that outreach is bigger than Wonder’neath can handle at the moment. That phone call Heather just picked up was from a community centre around the corner asking if they could collaborate on programming. She had to say no, for now, because their funding, which comes from a 4Cs Foundation grant and rent money from artists, is limited.
“So that’s our big challenge right now—long-term financial sustainability,” says Heather. “Provincial arts funding often supports professional artists, but it won’t necessarily work in the community. And much of the community development funding doesn’t necessarily recognize the arts as a tool.”
Physical space is another challenge, adds Melissa. As the word gets out about this place and more people visit, the walls are feeling tighter. Plus, Wonder’neath is on the second floor, without an elevator, so it’s not accessible to everyone.
For now, though, they’re proud of what this place has done for artists and the community in general. “It’s shown us all that there is a community of artists out there, that we are a part of it in a genuine way, and that we all benefit by supporting one another,” says Melissa.
It’s also shown them the power of creating a welcoming environment. “The studio experience is about just trying something, just taking small steps,” says Heather. “At whatever level of experience you come in with, you’re welcome.”