Special to The Lake Report/Niagara Now
Two visual artists are bringing their experience as art teachers in Florence, Italy, to Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Sharon Okun and her husband Adam Markovic will be opening a cultural hub, part gallery, part studio and classroom, where artists and creators in different disciplines will produce and display their work while offering classes and/or workshops in their own separate studios (former classrooms) at the newly named Willowbank Studio in Queenston.
The Willowbank Studio will be operating out of the former Laura Secord Elementary School at 5 Walnut St.
The couple is hoping their new workshop will offer a bit of relief from what the world has gone through since the pandemic began in March 2020.
Okun appreciates the positive enthusiasm their work provides and feels it is a small window into something other than the darkness of all that has been going on in the world.
She and Markovic met in 2008 while studying painting in Florence and have been living and working together ever since. They have been represented by galleries in Canada, Belgium, Italy, the United States and the U.K.
Together, they've been able to sustain a life as working artists and a large part of that has been as teachers.
They began in 2009 by establishing “Studio Santo Spirito,” an atelier in the heart of Florence.
There they taught the painting techniques of 16th- to 19th-century masters. Students were guided through beginning portraiture, still life and figure drawing, with an emphasis on the importance of observing directly from life.
Also included in the curriculum were discussions on the history of art and workshops on the proper use of traditional art materials. Students were given extensive training in colour theory and were shown how to grind their own paint from raw pigment, how to prepare traditional substrates and various painting mediums, varnishes, inks and stains.
In 2012, they brought their knowledge and appreciation of art and history back to Canada. Here, they have continued their careers as artists, painting for exhibitions and teaching workshops. First they lived in Montreal, and for the last year have been in Paris, Ont.
Markovic also has extensive experience as a designer and woodworker. His bespoke furniture is included in private collections across Canada, the United States and Italy. He has also been involved in many renovation projects, including restaurant interiors, high-end residential lofts and the conversion of industrial spaces into residential/work space.
Okun's family has deep roots in the Niagara area. In 1918, her great-grandfather established what would become Rosberg’s Department Store in Niagara Falls.
Her grandfather, Harold Rosberg, transformed the menswear store into a three-storey complex that included numerous departments and businesses serving the communities of the region. The store was the main anchor of the downtown area and was operated by three generations of Rosbergs until it closed in 1988.
Moving to Niagara allows Okun and Markovic to be closer to their collectors who are either in the area or Toronto. In addition, they will be inviting visiting lecturers from Toronto.
Brett Sherlock, a NOTL native and part-time Willowbank teacher, encouraged Okun and Markovic to look at Queenston as a place to set up shop.
He had seen them in Montreal in their studio, an old school that had been converted into lofts. He posed for a portrait with Okun and put the thought of a school, Markovic's ability to build things and their desire to return to the Niagara area together, resulting in their discovering the perfect location for their studio in Queenston.
The Willowbank Studio space has been empty for 12 years except for a stained glass shop and some downstairs classrooms that are being used while the main Willowbank campus is renovated.
On Sherlock's advice, they drove down to Queenston and immediately fell in love. They found it to be very peaceful, quiet and less touristy than other areas of NOTL.
“We’re definitely drawn to the magic of the building, the fact that it does have such a rich history and that the town is so connected to it is something we are very aware of,” says Markovic.
On first seeing the school, both Okun and Markovic thought it was too good to be true. It was the perfect place and exactly what their vision was for a studio. Their desire and dream studio was to each have a separate, but connected, personal space. Add on some workshop areas and spaces for other creatives and the Queenston building offered up all they wanted.
Their first experience driving through Queenston was in November and each time they drove past the school, as Markovic said, he would “feel a little sick in the stomach” because they wanted it so bad.
Both appreciate that there is no commercial aspect to Queenston, just a quiet, little village with a huge historical influence — perfect for the work they produce.
Six months after Markovic submitted his written proposal, the Willowbank board approved the plan and the couple took over the school in June.
The main goal is to create a culturally rich centre that is versatile enough to let Okun and Markovic have their own studios to produce their work, a gallery for exhibitions, and space for workshops and classes.
Markovic explains that the rooms have “ample hanging walls and as soon as they get the lighting figured out, it will make a nice gallery.”
Walking into this space fills one with nostalgia. They have kept the essence of the space intact. The main room is a paint apothecary, where all the materials will be made, from paint to stretchers to panels, and workshops conducted on paint-making.
Inspired by an apothecary in Florence that sells all raw materials from pigments, Markovic wanted to replicate that feel. He repurposed all the material from the building, including wainscotting, shelving, chalkboards and tried to keep things as authentic as possible. There are still pencil sharpeners and the old intercom system on the wall.
Okun's room is a large classroom, steps from the main room. It displays some completed art pieces as well as some in progress and still on the easel.
A small collection of what looks like vintage photographs, which are actually paintings, are scattered around the room and you could spend hours just taking in the talent displayed in her artwork. An impressive collection of brushes and oil paints sit atop a large, wheeled cabinet that can be moved about.
There will be ample space to display Okun's art, with plans to offer evening painting classes, art materials workshops and life drawing sessions for the community.
Next door is Markovic's room, another large classroom with his art displayed on the walls. During COVID, Markovic changed everything about his approach to painting. Okun remained figurative in her work, meaning she represents forms that are recognizably derived from life, but Markovic took a leap and started doing more abstract work.
They both experimented more with textures and tend to feed off of each other’s creativity.
They have come to appreciate having a separation of home and studio. They spend hours each day now at the studio, returning home in the evening. They feel they are more productive and less procrastinating when their studio is not part of their home.
“Now that we don’t live in our studio, it’s really nice to leave and come back fresh,” says Markovic.
“I think we will work longer days to get things done,” adds Okun.
They are searching for the right people to come and take on the other rooms in the building. Makers who have studied the past and are bringing it into the present would be their preference; those of who work hands on with carpentry, ceramics, instruments to name a few.
Depending on provincial restrictions, they hope to host an open door event in the fall to welcome and thank the community for their support.
They look to offer adult classes, maybe an outdoor seating area for a community gathering space and perhaps a small exhibition of their work.
“We feel like Queenston gave us this beautiful building and we want to give something back,” says Markovic.
“We feel very honoured to be in this beautiful historical site at the hub of what feels to us like the prettiest town in Canada,” says Okun.
“We know how important that building is for the community and it is our mandate to infuse it with art and beauty. We are very excited about this new opportunity that Willowbank has given us and we look forward to opening our doors to visitors when COVID is under control.”