Wonder’neath Art Society reimagines community in north end Halifax

But organizers fear their home may not last forever

It’s just before 2 p.m. on a Saturday, and energy is building on the top floor of an unassuming industrial building on Isleville Street in Halifax’s north end.

Bowls of snacks are laid out on a coffee table, wedged between two plush couches. The afternoon sun casts light on paintings and drawings plastered on the walls. Art supplies spill out of boxes stationed around the room: wool for felting, paper, markers, paint and plasticine.

Coffee brews as Heather Wilkinson and Melissa Marr, co-executives and artistic directors of Wonder’neath Art Society, get ready to open the doors.

Soon, the room fills with artists and creators of all ages. Some have visited Wonder’neath before; others will be experiencing it for the first time. Either way, Wilkinson, Marr and the day’s facilitators are keen to help them express their creative selves.

“We recognize people, we know their names, we know the mediums they work with. We have something to offer and share with them on a personal level,” says Marr.

Today, Wonder’neath is hosting one of its core programs: Open Studio. The program, which takes place on both Friday and Saturday, invites around 100 people through the doors. Open Studio has been running for almost five years.

Wilkinson and Marr say the event provides an opportunity for people to meet, hang out and create. There’s no pressure to achieve perfection in their artwork; it’s all about exploration, expressing oneself and building community.

In fact, people turn to Open Studio for reasons beyond art. Teachers meet their students to discuss projects, parents plan supervised visits with their children and some people just chat and have a snack.

Marr and Wilkinson say people of all ages come to the program, from toddlers to seniors, which accurately represents the rich diversity of the north end.

Students and community members making art in a Wonder'neath session
Over nearly five years, Wonder’neath’s Open Studio program has recorded over 15,000 sign-ins.   Amy Brierley

“It does seem to bring together a really broad section of our community in a way that happens in very few other spaces,” says Marr.

She says, however, that greater inclusivity isn’t something to “arrive at.” Wonder’neath continues to work to build relationships with the different communities of people living in the area.

Wilkinson and Marr say Wonder’neath is “really critically important” in a time of big changes in this community, like increased development, loss of affordable housing and a lack of spaces for people to gather together, without having to spend a lot of money.

It’s important, Wilkinson says, to have a place “where people are coming together rather than being separated from each other.”

Space may not last

Wilkinson and Marr are aware, however, that this space may not last forever. Wonder’neath, which has been operating for 10 years, has called this building home for six years. They say they have a good relationship with the landlord and their current rent falls below market rate, within the range of what the organization can afford, but their lease is year-to-year.

As the area grows and changes, any number of factors could put this building or their presence there at risk.

Bloomfield Centre's building, showing a bent fence and 'no trespassing' signs.
Bloomfield Centre.   Amy Brierley

“In order to be accountable to the folks in the neighbourhood that we serve, including the artists, we always have to be forward-thinking,” says Marr. “You can’t just hope for the best.”

Wilkinson and Marr are artists themselves. They started Wonder’neath amid their search for a stable, affordable and feasible studio in Halifax. As they searched, they realized they weren’t the only ones longing for this kind of space.

“For as many people who were passionate about the arts, there would be people that were alienated by the arts,” says Wilkinson. “We just wanted to be able to have a dialogue and create a bridge.

“Eventually, we started thinking about, ‘What does artist leadership look like in our community? How can we be a resource beyond our studio?’”

To be that resource, they rent affordable studio space to professional artists, hosts workshops, runs programs to connect young people to creativity and more. They also play a key role in building relationships between artists and other organizations, connecting them with opportunities and helping to advocate for fair compensation.

Halifax’s north end is no stranger to public spaces that serve the community’s critical needs.

Resident Susanna Fuller remembers a time when a place like this existed — and thrived — just a few streets over from Wonder’neath’s current location.

Big city roots

After moving back to Halifax in 1998 from New York City, Fuller was looking for a creative space, similar to the ones she was used to in New York.

She found these qualities in the Bloomfield Centre.

“On some days, there were five different churches that used the space; there were four or five food banks, there was a whole bunch, a mish mash of not-for-profits,” Fuller says.

The Bloomfield Centre was also home to a program for people finishing their high school diploma, a group advocating for incarcerated women, a seniors’ social club, the Indo-Canadian men’s basketball league, community sports teams, and 17 artists’ studios, among others.

“It was the kind of place that other cities were trying to create intentionally, and it was so magical because Halifax had it by mistake,” says Fuller.

Fuller and Wilkinson are members of Imagine Bloomfield, a community organization working since 2004 to reclaim the Bloomfield Centre as a vibrant, community-run place. When they started, the centre was still operating as a Halifax Regional Municipality recreation centre.

For Wonder’neath, a place like the Bloomfield Centre could provide the kind of stability it needs.

Imagine Bloomfield has worked closely with the municipality and other partners over the years to move forward with plans for the centre. They have hosted countless public engagements and community conversations about the facility. In 2012, they undertook a request for proposal process to redevelop the site.

Since then, various plans have been proposed for the centre, including bids from Housing Nova Scotia, Conseil Scolaire Acadien Provincial and private developers.

At times, these plans have seemed promising, but none have come to fruition. As a result, the Bloomfield Centre has sat empty for five years.

In 2018, Imagine Bloomfield and Wonder’neath submitted a business plan to transform part of the Bloomfield site into a “community and creative hub.”

Coun. Lindell Smith, who represents District 8 where Bloomfield Centre is located, says one barrier to moving forward with the 2018 submission was waiting for Package A of the Centre Plan to pass at council.

According to the municipality’s website, the Centre Plan, including the approved Package A and Package B, which has not yet been passed at regional council, will “guide growth and development in the Regional Centre” of the municipality. It clarifies how and where development should happen in order to provide necessary services to communities.

In September 2019, Halifax regional council unanimously approved Package A.

It’s just a matter of time before council reconnects with groups, like Imagine Bloomfield and Wonder’neath, and puts out another request for proposal to develop the Bloomfield Centre site, says Smith.

“If it was up to staff, it would have happened last year,” he says, adding there’s no hesitancy from staff to move forward. “The caution is doing it right.”

If the same partners continue to be involved, Smith’s confident that eventually the project will move forward.

But for those working to reimagine the Bloomfield Centre, time is key.

“I walk by and am sad and increasingly I’m angry that I have to watch buildings that were once full of love and full of life sit there and basically become derelict,” Fuller says.

Wilkinson and Marr say, for them, it’s crucial to secure a long-term site in the north end.

“We see what happens, people get pushed away from the places that are walkable and accessible,” Marr says. “It’s just so critical and it sends a really different message if there are spaces to come to that really reflect the wealth of individuals that we have in any given place.”

As people start to stream into the Open Studio for the afternoon, Wilkinson and Marr look back at the work that’s made this possible. Marr says creating a space like Wonder’neath is “easier said than done, but we are doing it.”

“This proves that the city doesn’t need to be hesitant about what might go on or what it might look like,” Marr says.

Amy Brierley

Amy Brierley

Amy is a journalism student at the University of King's College. She calls Antigonish N.S.--and more recently, Halifax-- home. She cares a lot about communities and the things that make them fair, just and thriving for everyone.

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