The name’s a pun but the absolute dedication to local artisans is no jest
by Jodi DeLong
Ambling down Queen Street in beautiful downtown Fredericton, NB, your attention may be caught by a colourful storefront with four large windows, and a sign emblazoned with the name “Botinicals” (the pun referring to the metal flower art displayed inside).
This is the home of John Welling’s studio, gallery and gift shop, and the name is completely intentional. Although Botinicals carries the work of more than 50 Atlantic Canadian artisans—potters, jewellers, fibre artists, woodworkers and more—it’s also home to Welling’s own passionate art, realistic-looking flowers sculptured in tin. Most of the sculptures are painted and are wildflowers from around the region, including provincial flowers—purple violets for New Brunswick, ladyslippers for PEI, mayflowers for Nova Scotia and purple pitcher-plant for Newfoundland and Labrador—but there are also many other designs, some of them unpainted and stunning in their silvery simplicity. And while Welling is justifiably proud of his own work, he is equally an enthusiastic and knowledgeable advocate for every artisan whose work he carries.
Modest beginnings and an inspiration
A native of Shediac Cape, NB, Welling grew up in the coastal farming and fishing community until his family moved to the US in the 1970s, first to New York, then later to Atlanta, GA. Welling says, “That’s where my metalwork began, in Georgia. I was working as a chef and one of my clients, William C. Wood, was a metalsmith who crafted botanically realistic metal flowers.” Wood knew that John had some artistic talent and asked if he would help prepare for an upcoming trade show in a few weeks. “I ended up mentoring for five-plus years,” John says, “and I got so I could do his flowers as well as he could.”
In 1988 John moved back to Canada, first to Halifax, then to Fredericton where he worked as a chef while also pursuing his newfound love for metalworking and creating botanical sculptures. He needed a bigger place to live, and a friend told him about a house on Shore Street in the city, which featured a storefront attached to the side of the house instead of a garage, a place that would work perfectly for a studio and shop to sell his creations. That was the formal beginning of Botinicals the shop, “and I haven’t worked in a kitchen since, but I do give a mean dinner party.”
From the shop’s modest beginnings, John wanted to offer the work of other local artisans for sale, and so he talked to a few friends and began selling the works of nine other artists—all friends of his—in the shop. He operated out of Shore Street for 17 years and says wistfully that in hindsight he should have stayed there.
In 2007, the city of Fredericton announced that they were building a new convention centre, hotel and more, with a huge parking garage, and John thought that it might be time to move his business downtown. Initially, he opened a second store, and for two years ran both of them, but it became too much to handle. “I bought a house in 2007, and the construction in the downtown started a few months later—and has never stopped,” he says. Within a few years he had to sell the house to keep the shop afloat—he closed the Shore Street location two years after opening on Queen Street as he couldn’t manage both—and instead decided to double the size of his downtown location. It seemed serendipitous that the same day Welling sold his house, his retail neighbours decided to move out of their space beside him, and he was able to add their space to his current shop, with a studio in the back and the spacious and welcoming gallery in front. Now in his 11th year in this location, Welling says it’s been a struggle but worth it for the good he’s been able to do in promoting so many East Coast artisans.
For those who are acquainted with John Welling’s own work, his botanical sculptures are beautiful and very collectible. He has about 18 designs in each of the two divisions he makes—painted and unpainted sculptures. The unpainted models were a more recent addition to his line, something he decided to try when celebrating 10 years in business. “For wedding anniversaries and such, the 10th is known as the tin anniversary, so I developed a complete line and left them as naked Botinicals,” he says. Rather than mount them in pottery containers as he does with his painted designs, he made tin platforms for the naked ones, which made them lightweight and easy to ship. “This gave me a whole new product line without having to change my work too much,” he adds. Those with black-and-white and stainless-steel décor in their homes are especially drawn to the clean lines and appearances of the so-called naked sculptures.
“I have standards and I stick by them by selecting whose work I carry. I don’t scrimp on products and I want to keep a balance in my store: so much pottery, textiles, glass...”
John’s been creating his flowers for 37 years now, and while he has ebbs and flows in his creative periods, he still loves what he does as his own artistic expressions. “Some are my bread-and-butter designs like purple violets, the provincial flower for New Brunswick and my best seller,” he says. Not all are wildflowers—he does clematis, strawberries, narcissus and daffodils, water lilies, plus moth orchids, among others—plus the provincial flowers and popular wildflowers like bluets, trout lilies, trillium and iris.
While he isn’t doing trade shows at this time and doesn’t supply his work to as many shops as he once did, he has his work throughout the shop plus at local-focused galleries like Made in the Maritimes. Shipping can be a problem, especially if there are multiple pieces in an order, so he likes to deliver his orders to shops as much as possible. He’s not making quite as many as he was—it was nothing to create a thousand or more sculptures in the run of a year when he was doing trade shows plus supplying so many shops—but he enjoys every piece he makes.
Made right here artwork
On average, John carries the work of about 50 artists from around Atlantic Canada, although currently he has no representation from Newfoundland and Labrador. “I’ve had as many as 80 artisans in the shop but it’s a lot of paperwork, so I prefer to stay around 50 now,” he says. The shop focuses primarily on wholesale—he purchases at wholesale prices from artists and then resells—but he does have some work on consignment, “because the artists want it this way.”
He says part of the reason his shop has been so successful over the years despite the hurdles from downtown construction and the 2009 downturn in the economy is because, “I have standards and I stick by them in selecting whose work I carry. I don’t scrimp on products, and I want to keep a balance in my store—so much pottery, so much textiles, glass, jewellery etc—so that people don’t walk by, look in the window and think it’s an all-pottery or all-jewellery shop.”
“I want passersby to be enchanted and captivated and consider Botinicals a must-stop.”
Among the artists whose work is found at the shop are silk artist Marilyn Cook of Sackville, NB (Smooth as Silk); New Brunswick potters Flo Greig, Kaeli Cook and Ginette Arsenault; art photographer Ernest Cadegan of Canning, NS; fibre work from Legacy Lane, Sussex, NB; woodworking by Brent Rourke of Hampton, NB, and jewellery maker Marcia Poirier’s Wildabout Wampum of Cocagne, NB.
Having operated Botinicals for 26 years, John Welling has seen many changes in the local art world. He observes that there are fewer quality, juried craft shows, partly due to costs, partly to the rise of social media. “It’s easy to have your own Facebook or Etsy or Instagram page, and that affects the marketplace as a whole, especially as the cost of these pages is nothing compared to the time and cost investments of doing trade shows,” he says. “People have realized they can stay home, do their work and sell it through their own social media channels.”
At the same time, this has brought many otherwise unknown artists to the attention of a wider and appreciative audience. Some have approached him, but most he has searched out himself and he’s always pleased to find young or established artists with a professional attitude to what they’re doing. Welling visits as many of the artists whose work he carries as he possibly can. “I love to pick up the artist’s work, and I pick their brains or sometimes I inspire them to create something new that customers have asked about.”
After a health issue slowed him down a bit for a few years, Welling is now looking forward to keeping Botinicals going for at least another decade. “I’m healthy, and active and able to do it, and I love promoting other artists. I like everything I’m selling so I am able to be excited and knowledgeable
about the artists’ works and hopefully customers catch that passion, too.”