Circle Arts in Tobermory Celebrates 50 Years

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Allen Smutylo spoke of the founding of the artists’ co-op and gallery at the 50th Anniversary celebration.
By John Francis

Information supplied by Simon White
On Saturday, May 18, Circle Arts held a 50th Anniversary celebration. Some of the founding artists came out, as did many of the gallery’s artists and longtime patrons. Allen Smutylo, who was also launching his latest book, The Mongolian Chronicles, spoke of the founding of the artists’ co-op and the gallery and the early years. He told of their shoestring-budget studio lighting, which involved tomato-paste cans, their growing pains as artists, their gradual acceptance in the village.

“The Circle Arts story encompasses elements of its times and locales. It is the story of youthful enthusiasm and artistic maturity, local involvement and global markets, sound business sense and high creativity. More than anything else, it is the story of a commitment to Canadian art, and to those who produce and support it.” (Circle Arts website)
The Circle Arts story began in 1969 when Gale Jensen — a professor of Social Sciences at the University of Michigan — persuaded six students of the Ontario College of Art (OCA) to open a cooperative art gallery and studio in a storefront he owned in Tobermory, Ontario. The six students, Peter Oliver, Martin Kimble, Wayne Brown, Mary Henry, Allen Smutylo, and Susan Sparks stayed in Tobermory for the summer, producing oil paintings, watercolours, wood block prints, sculptures, silk screens, textiles, jewelry and pottery. They returned to Toronto to finish their studies at the end of the summer, then moved to Tobermory permanently the following spring.
The cooperative phase endured for a few years but eventually all but two of the group left to pursue careers elsewhere. Allen Smutylo and Susan Sparks stayed in Tobermory and turned Circle Arts into an important regional gallery featuring the work of many other Ontario artists in addition to their own.
Smutylo and Sparks left Tobermory in 1982 although Allen’s work continued to be the gallery’s mainstay for many years. They hired Ben Goedhart to run the gallery, eventually selling the business to him. In January 2006, Glenda Burrell and Simon White joined Arlene Kennedy as the new owners of Circle Arts. Together they share a passion for the unique nature of the Bruce Peninsula and the artists that are also inspired by its diverse and dynamic character.
Season 51 is now underway.