A group of Annapolis Royal artists put their faith in a brick and mortar marketplace
By Suzanne Robicheau
Things haven’t been easy for the little yellow house at 15 Church Street in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. Constructed in 1888 as a high-end restaurant, assailed for the next 100 years by bankruptcy, fires, and business failures, the cheery little structure is now bucking the trend of many Canadian retailers to abandon the brick-and-mortar shopping experience.
“There’s no substitute for feeling the buttery leather of a handbag, or the soft weave of a shawl, and watching an artist use old-world skills to create something new and beautiful right before your eyes,” says ceramics artist Deb Kuzyk, the driving force behind an effort that reimagined the house as an artists’ collective. “The Internet increases our exposure, but e-commerce accounts for only a small amount of our sales.”
Kuzyk and her husband, Ray Mackie, bought the Church Street house in 1999, living upstairs with their family and devoting the ground floor to their business, Lucky Rabbit Pottery. The sculptural clay pieces they created there reside in public and private collections around the world.
A town of artists
“Artists have owned the house since 1980 when Christina Ross and Roman Bartkiw started Market House Gallery,” says Kuzyk. “During their tenure, the arts were emerging as a real force in Annapolis Royal and the house was a venue for poetry readings, workshops, book launches, performances, and art exhibitions. Gatherings held here inspired King’s Theatre and the Annapolis Region Community Arts Council (ARCAC).”
The run of artist-owners made an important contribution to Annapolis Royal’s reputation as a go-to destination for arts and cultural events, but that seemed destined to change in 2016 when Mackie decided to retire and wanted to move to the country. Kuzyk wasn’t ready to slow down, but they couldn’t afford to maintain two houses.
At that point, Kuzyk did what 90 other Annapolis Royal area business people have done since 2016. She turned to Jane Nicholson, an angel investor described by others as a philanthropreneur, and by herself as a person motivated by enlightened self-interest. After reading the Ivany report, Nicholson cashed in a bond and invested in her community by establishing a private economic development firm called Annapolis Investments in Rural Opportunity (AIRO). Part incubator, part community development hub, AIRO is headquartered in a refurbished Arts & Crafts train station that Nicholson bought to save from the wrecking ball.
AIRO gave Deb Kuzyk a grant of $5,000 to develop a business plan that would make use of the house on Church Street, capitalize on her talents, and contribute to the community. “It was a huge vote of confidence in my potential as an artist,” recalls Kuzyk. “Not only did it give me peace of mind, but it also afforded me the time to think about my future.”
A vision emerged of an artists’ house: a centre that would anchor a collective of artists by providing them with individual space for work and retail. With that as her end goal, Kuzyk put the AIRO money to good use by hiring a local builder to create working studios and sales space on each of the house’s three storeys. Floor plans were still tenuous when two area artists, Janel Warmington and Kimberly Gunn, contacted Kuzyk independently – both on the very same day.
“I was also at a crossroads,” says Warmington, who worked for 28 years making footwear for operas and Broadway musicals with Fred Longtin, Granville Ferry’s renowned theatrical shoemaker. “I called Deb to tell her that I had decided to open my own shop and she told me that Kimberly had just called her with similar news.”
“There’s an uncanny quality to the timing. We joke that the Force was with us,” says Gunn, a bagpiper and graphic artist who designed and formally registered the Annapolis Royal 2017 Celebration Tartan in time to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. “I hadn’t considered opening a store, but people had begun asking where to buy the tartan, so I decided to take a chance.”
With plans for a joint venture percolating, Warmington and Gunn followed Kuzyk’s suggestion to meet with Jane Nicholson and her executive director, Adele MacDonald. After completing an application form, and presenting their business concepts—Warmington’s for Atelier 1605 and Gunn’s for Tartan Wave—both artists received loans to kickstart the next iteration of the house at 15 Church Street.
“One of the nice things about getting funds from AIRO is that you also receive constructive feedback and business coaching,” says Warmington. “We are all immensely grateful for Jane Nicholson’s generosity and the guidance provided by Jane and Adele.”
Photographer and designer Dan Froese was next on the scene, followed by Scott Williams, a musician who lives off the grid and needed a space for his electric instruments. Froese has a studio/store on the second floor, while Williams has his music studio on the third floor, adjacent to a small apartment. A more recent addition to the house is Laura Boyko, a young artist and photographer who works in the Lucky Rabbit tile shop.
Creative energy and solutions
Each of the artists is quick to promote the others as well as to make regular plugs for other artists and businesses in Annapolis Royal and surrounds. The house provides sales space for a dozen other artists, including Ray Mackie, Wayne Boucher, Brad Hall, Toni Losey, Jay Le Blanc, Beth Oberholtzer, and Rachel Ryan.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the opening date for Lucky Rabbit & Co. because a soft opening went on for months. “We’d open the doors for every Saturday market and say ‘ta da… we’re ready’,” recalls Kuzyk. “Then, after the market finished, we’d shut back down and scurry around making changes.”
The closest thing to a major opening was a thank-you party at Thanksgiving in 2017. “There are fewer than 500 full-time residents in Annapolis Royal, but it feels like we have the support of a large city,” says Warmington. “Throwing a big bash with fabulous food and great music was our way to celebrate this community’s incredible generosity and thank our friends and neighbours for everything they do to sustain us.”
Support within the Lucky Rabbit collective is also cause for celebration. As well as sharing success, the artists share the burden of running a physical retail outlet in an increasingly digital economy. Naturally, business is best in the summer, but the residents of the house have commited to being open year-round on Saturdays, a steady presence that connects them to the community and to each other.
“It’s a wonderful example of synergy,” says Kuzyk. “Kimberly is more entrepreneurial than the rest of us and she understands marketing, packaging and social media. We all benefit from her expertise in these areas.”
One of Gunn’s entrepreneurial ideas is currently making a splash in Annapolis Royal’s downtown core. With funding from Awesome Annapolis Royal, a group that provides micro-grants of $1,000, she purchased 80 pink and black umbrellas, had them printed with “Welcome to Annapolis Royal” in English, French, and Mi’kmaq, and distributed them to 20 locations along George Street.
“It’s important to find simple solutions to keep people in town,” says Gunn. “Rather than run to their cars and drive away on a rainy day, people can borrow an umbrella at one location and return it to another. Even if they stay only 10 more minutes and visit only one more place, it’s a way to engage visitors and expand their connection with Annapolis Royal.”
Awesome Annapolis also sponsored Lucky Rabbit & Co.’s artist in residence competition, which offered an emerging Canadian artist a one-month residency, in a month of the winner’s choosing, and free accommodation in the third floor apartment. Applications came in from all over Canada. Lucky Rabbit & Co. advises competition hopefuls that introverts will likely prefer a winter residency, while extroverts will thrive from May to October when hundreds of people flock to the adjacent Annapolis Royal Farmers and Traders Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
“By the time we open our doors on market days, there are vendors to the left and right and across the street, which creates an even larger collective—a sort of market within a market,” says Gunn.
“Yup,” agrees Kuzyk. “This little yellow house is a going concern on Saturdays. The floorboards are crooked, the stairs are steep, and the glass in
the windows is wavy, but on market day it’s a lot li