Monday, April 15, 2024
April 15, 2024

ON TOUR, ON ISLAND

The Salt Spring Studio Tour’s 2023 season featured 18 stops, from glassworks and photography to wine and farm goods

The signs are scattered across the island: the word STUDIO, simple silhouettes of sheep, a number and an arrow.  

For 33 years now, the Salt Spring Island Studio Tour has welcomed visitors with a self-guided journey of discovery — a chance to interact with a curated selection of people and spaces, an opportunity to visit with the intentional artists that make our island their home — from fresh faces to long-time community creatives. Sitting down with Mudpuppy Studios’ Francine Hampson-Reid, we mused about the significance of celebrating milestones — even oddball numbers like ‘33’. 

“Well, 30 happened during COVID,” she laughs. “So it sort of slipped by; we all get pretty busy from Easter to Thanksgiving.” 

Michael Papp of the Salt Spring Shine distillery.

The Studio Tour’s 2023 season featured 18 stops, from glassworks and photography to wine and farm goods — one of the busiest years on record, according to Hampson-Reid, a participating artist and also the tour’s coordinator, and certainly the most action since COVID shuttered so many studios to visitors.  

Those visitors returned, cautiously — first from the island, then from B.C., then from the rest of Canada, and eventually the world. Indeed, for three decades, through winter storms or smoky summers, they come — and come back — for the Studio Tour’s unique year-round proposition: participants choose what interests them, then stop by to visit with the artists and artisans who have made it their passion. 

“It’s great that the public get to choose what they’re going to see each day — because you can’t do it all, it’s just too much,” says Hampson-Reid. “Some will take an afternoon and do what I call the ‘Liquid Tour’ — the wineries, cideries, and the distillery. And if you have an interest in clay, maybe you’ll go see all the pottery studios. Or maybe it’s woodworking, or printmaking, you can visit those. Maybe you just want to take an afternoon and visit the sheep!” 

The Studio Tour requires 80 per cent of the artisan’s work to be done on Salt Spring Island

All the studios are juried; Hampson-Reid says a team from the board of directors chooses the best of the applications each year, within a narrow set of rules. The Studio Tour requires 80 per cent of the artisan’s work to be done on Salt Spring Island, for example, and mandates a certain number of “open hours” be set in advance. The requirements are intentional, meant to keep the offerings local, and protect the integrity of the tour. 

“Right from the beginning, the core organizers sat down and established the ground rules,” says Hampson-Reid. “And they haven’t really changed much in 30 years, because it works very well. It works for artists and studios, and it works for visitors.” 

A miniature pygmy goat greets visitors at Sunset Farm.

When they began in 1990, there were 10 participating studios on the self-guided tour; there have been as many as 34, Hampson-Reid says — although it crowded the printed map a little. 

“We have one member on the tour that’s been on it since day one,” says Hampson-Reid. “She said in the beginning, there were just a few bed and breakfasts, five or 10.” 

Those were operating like a hotel at the time, she told her, with checkout in the morning. But many of the people who “came from away” didn’t want to end their visits so soon — there were evening ferries, after all, and they wanted to squeeze every minute out of their vacation. 

“And at the time all you could do on Salt Spring on Sunday was drive around in the woods!” laughs Hampson-Reid. “So the bed and breakfast people asked if she could be open on Sunday, so the people could come visit her little shop?” 

The answer? “She said ‘absolutely not!’” laughs Hampson-Reid. “’I’m a farmer and it’s the only day off I ever get!’” 

Lavender in bloom at Sacred Mountain Lavender Farm.

But she ultimately relented, and the rest, as they say, is history — and a trend began. “She said it’s the best decision she ever made,” smiles Hampson-Reid. “Her studio was pretty far from Ganges — and Ganges was the centre of the universe, everything was in Ganges. All of a sudden, her studio became a location people would drive up north to.” 

There aren’t any other tours like Salt Spring’s, Hampson-Reid says; for 12 months of the year, the studios are open for visitors — sometimes by appointment, sometimes with regular hours. Even if you’re here for a weekend in the middle of November, there’s something to see, she says. 

“All the studio tours I’ve run into elsewhere are maybe a two-week period, or maybe a long weekend,” says Hampson-Reid. “Having the whole year gives visitors the opportunity to come in the winter — maybe they’re a musician, coming to play at ArtSpring, and they can do a studio tour on their day off.” 

Stop No. 10 on the Salt Spring Studio Tour.

From October until the end of December, organizers for the Salt Spring Studio Tour are busy, as hopeful tour members send in their applications; in January, the map production begins. Ultimately there are 50,000 maps printed — Hampson-Reid says they try to have them on all the ferries before Easter — and as soon as the maps are ready, the new signs go up. 

“So when you see those sheep signs with a number on them, it will correspond to numbers on the new map that year,” says Hampson-Reid. “We have a team that goes out in the community and changes all the signs every spring.” 

The tour is something of a transition for many newer artists — a stage in their careers after they’ve decided they want to run their own business, but before they’re ready to rent a storefront in Ganges or Fulford. It’s a chance to see if they can keep up with the business end of being an artist — collecting and submitting tax, having proper insurance.  

“You show up when it’s business hours, you open the door, you take credit cards,” says Hampson-Red. “Some this year even have electric car plug-ins! You have to be prepared to operate as a business, so if you’re not prepared to go there, well this isn’t for you.” 

For her part, Hampson-Reid says the discovery of the Studio Tour transformed her journey as a working artist.  

Studio Tour board members Francine Hampson-Reid, Carol Miller and Sandy Robley.

“Part of the business of craft is marketing your work,” she says. “Before Salt Spring, I’d never lived in a place that had the marketing so established. I remember I’d thought that it would be great because I could live on Salt Spring and market in Vancouver and Victoria. But I sell everything I make right here! I don’t have to go and find customers and buyers and collectors. They come to me.” 

Functional pottery, jewellery, garden art and more are found at Quail Run Pottery and Fused Glass.

And the art scene on Salt Spring, she says, is no longer a secret, if it ever was; it’s possibly the largest artist colony in Canada, and ranks high on every world-wide list of such things. Add to that being on all sorts of “10 best” lists, and it’s little wonder being on the Studio Tour can take a bite out of an artist’s “creating time,” particular in the summer. Hampson-Reid works with salt-fired pottery, a technique of firing clay developed in the Germany in the 1600s, she says, now being done worldwide but still relatively rare. There’s fewer than 10 kilns like hers on Vancouver Island, she believes, and she has the only one on Salt Spring. 

“But it’s more interactive than turning on a button and coming back tomorrow,” she laughs. “When we’re loading and firing, it’s a three-day process where we live outside with the kilns. You can’t be interrupted halfway because it might dry too fast!” 

Her solution — and one she’s seen repeated among others on the tour — has been to make her complicated work in the winter, and simpler things in the summer, so she can take the time to really get to know visitors. After a long winter of solitary work, she says she finds herself looking forward to the interaction; most people haven’t seen a kiln like hers, she says, so she’ll try to teach them about how it’s done.  

Products made by Ciderworks, No. 4 on the Salt Spring Studio Tour.

“It excites people, to know why something turns out the way it does, like they’ve discovered something,” says Hampson-Reid. “And it’s exciting for me to have the opportunity to teach people about it. But you’ve got to make yourself available, because the people are coming to Salt Spring looking for you.” 

Imagining the Studio Tour’s future — say, another 33 years from now — Hampson-Reid says she doesn’t think there will be too many changes. They recently added a QR code to the map, and despite some discussion about switching to an online or phone-based version, the realities of cell phone coverage on the farther-flung parts of Salt Spring Island are such that the paper map is likely here to stay.  

And, she says, something to hold in your hands is part of the experience of connection, getting in touch with one another through the creation of art. 

“There’s so much art occurring on this island we don’t even know about,” says Hampson-Reid. “They’re just in their studio doing their work, doing their thing. Thanks to the tour, I get to meet and talk to all these people from all over the world.” 

Francine Hampson-Reid and John Reid and the kiln at Mudpuppy Studios.
  • For artists’ profiles and tour info, visit saltspringstudiotour.com.
  • The website also includes an application form and contact information for artisans wanting to become a tour stop. 

This story first appeared in Gulf Islands Aqua magazine in November-December 2023.

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